The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

How I learned to understand and support my introverted child

Placeholder while article actions load

I was making dinner the other night when I noticed that it was eerily quiet; the only noise was coming from the sizzle of the hamburger on the stove. My husband and daughter were sitting a mere 20 feet from me, yet no one was talking. They were both engaged in what I like to call their quiet time. My son, on the other hand, is a totally different story. He was outside talking to himself while he played with trucks on a dirt track. When he and I are in a room, it is nonstop chatter, and I am sure it’s annoying for the other half of the family.

What I have learned from being married to an introvert, and being a mother to one, is simple: Sometimes they just want to be left alone. It has nothing to do with being shy, depressed, anxious or arrogant. It has everything to do with what they are comfortable with, and their need to have an environment with less stimulation. When they talk, the words are meaningful, the questions are important, and the thoughts shared are invaluable. I have learned to read their body language to know if I am invading their space — to take a step back from what I need and respect what they need.

Your introverted child has secret strengths, says Susan Cain in her new book

Simply put, an introvert refuels by spending time alone, and an extrovert draws energy from interaction. Introverts have a preference for quiet, for less noise, for less action. Our world can be challenging for introverts. We tell kids that they need to be more outgoing and social; to share their feelings and express themselves verbally. We encourage cooperative learning, teams and communities. We worry about the lone kid who sits by himself every day.

The world is full of extroverts, and introverts are painfully aware of this. Introverted kids are often unfairly seen as lacking social skills. Instead of understanding and respecting their world, we try to make them change to fit in ours.

Most kids (and adults) have a little of both, and they reveal different aspects of themselves in various situations. Kids who tend to have more introverted qualities face many challenges in school because, more often than not, the qualities of an extroverted child are valued more than those of their introverted peers.

Through lots of trial and error, I have learned a few things that have allowed me to strengthen the relationship with my daughter rather than just bridge a gap between us. I find that if I give her time to answer a question, rather than expect a quick response, she feels respected. Introverts tend to mull things over and won’t speak until they know exactly what they want to say. I have also learned not to finish her sentences; this was and still is a hard one for me to do. In conversations when I am requiring her to reflect on something, I have found that telling a story or speaking about myself allows her to insert herself where it is safe and appropriate for her. Asking introverts too many questions makes them withdraw more.

My daughter has taught me a lot about the quiet and wonderful world of introverts: The power of mindfulness and thought; the beauty of space and less noise. I have found that I gain incredible insight into her world when I don’t ask for more than what she can give me.

Recently, I was talking with her second-grade teacher about how she interacts in class. Her teacher shared with me that about half of the time, my daughter chooses to work alone and that she seems absolutely okay with that. This choice of space and quiet time needs to be respected by parents and educators. My daughter is fortunate to have a teacher who knows her well and understands her need to work alone. The teacher gets that it is not about being shy or antisocial, it is just my daughter’s way of operating in the world. Introverts behave in the way they do because of their innate temperament. The more we embrace their nature, the happier they will be.

Here are nine ways I’ve learned to support an introverted child.

  1. Accept that it is not about you. Do not take a child’s quiet nature personally or as an indication that he or she is ignoring you.
  2. Introduce your child to new people and situations slowly.
  3. Teach introverted children that they can take breaks from social situations if they feel overwhelmed or tired.
  4. Help your child find the strengths that come from being introverted.
  5. Do not label introverts as shy, and encourage them to correct this label when others use it.
  6. Talk to your child’s teacher. The partnerships I have with my daughter’s teachers have made all the difference for her. Her early experiences in school have been positive because of the respect and understanding her teachers show her. Also, if the teacher knows about your child’s introversion, she may be able to gently help the child navigate things such as interactions with friends, participation in group work or presenting in class.
  7. Help them be heard. Introverts “live internally, and they need someone to draw them out,” writes Marti Olsen Laney in her book “The Hidden Gifts of the Introverted Child.” “Without a parent who listens and reflects back to them, like an echo, what they are thinking, they can get lost in their own minds,” Laney adds.
  8. Embrace the idea that they may have only a few friends at a time. Parents who are very social and have a lot of friends often struggle when their children don’t socialize in the same way. Often, introverted children enjoy their world the most with just a few close friends.
  9. Understand that they may not ask for help.

I think the most important thing I have learned is to embrace the quiet. Enjoy it with your child and recognize that a lot can be said without any noise. We can learn a lot from the hidden gifts and quiet nature of our introverted children.

Sara Lindberg is a school counselor and parenting blogger and mom of two. Find her on Twitter @FitMomWay.

Like On Parenting on Facebook for more essays, news and updates and sign up here for our weekly newsletter.

You may also be interested in:

My mother hovered. I did the opposite. Maybe too much?

I regret giving my children cellphones, but not for the reasons you think

Learning to parent my daughter, and myself, through anxiety