Sunday, July 12, 2009

Living with the Introverted Child

The subject of this post may seem a bit off-topic, but it really isn't for two reasons.

First of all, many creative people (possibly you, probably somebody you know) are introverts. Second of all, though (for reasons I will shortly explain) this post is aimed at parents, most of the advice will apply to anyone who lives with an introvert, child or adult, and may even be helpful if you yourself are in introvert.

The inspiration for this post came from a newspaper advice column that caught my eye a few days ago. Now, I don't normally read such columns, and I'm not sure what is was about this one that got my attention, but somewhere on the way to the comic pages I was stopped by a letter about a flower girl.

Yeah, at a wedding. Apparently the bride-to-be was concerned that the girl her husband's family had pushed into the job was going to screw up her wedding. By her accounts, the child was shy, fearful, and didn't want the job. My overall impression was that yes, just possibly the little girl was being pressured into something she didn't want to do, and that the letter-writer was a self-centered bridezilla who should get over herself.

The details of this really aren't important. What really drew me in was the writer's description of the little girl, and the writer's attitudes that could be read into it. If the description was accurate, it seemed likely to me that the girl was possibly more than shy. She was an introvert.

I was also shocked at the scorn and disapproval that was being directed at the girl by the writer. She seemed to see the little girl as some kind of freak or defective, when nothing could be further from the truth.

I will also admit that in my first pass I skimmed quickly through the letter and somehow got the impression that the flower girl was the bridezilla's step-daughter-to-be. As a fellow introvert, I immediately identified with the child, and reacted with horror thinking of the life she would have with her future step-mother. Fortunately, as I went back and reread, it became apparent that the girl was only the groom's niece. Her major interaction with bridezilla would likely be limited to the wedding.

But that horrific scenario was burned into my brain, and being a professional at making-stuff-up, I had to figure that this kind of parent-child relationship exists out there somewhere. Probably lots of somewheres.

Okay, if you're the "evil parent," at this point you might be getting your hackles up.

Relax. I didn't like bridezilla much, but she is she and you are you, and I fully understand how difficult it can be for a parent with an average, or even exceptional level of extroversion to understand and relate to an introverted child. Heck, it's hard enough for introverts to understand themselves.

Trust me, I'm here to help in ways that will make things better for you and your child.

Disclaimer here: I'm no child-care expert. I'm not an psychologist. I'm not an educator or a trained councilor. I am a hard-core creative introvert who has, though self-study and hard experience, learned to cope pretty well with my nature, as extreme as it is.

What is Introversion?
Okay, let's define our terms here. What is introversion? What isn't it?

Shyness and introversion are two different things. It's possible (especially for children) to be shy without being an introvert, and it's possible to be introverted without being shy. In many cases, shyness is something you can work past or grow out of. Introversion is a characteristic of personality and is likely set for life.

Introverts are people who, as a nature of their being, are directed inward. Introverts are contemplative, self-involved, and self-entertaining. They draw energy from within rather than from social interaction. They enjoy solitude, and can't thrive without a measure of it.

Extroverts are directed outwards. Extroverts are more likely to act rather than think. Extroverts are outgoing and constantly involved with others. They can become bored without external stimulation. They draw energy from their involvement and interaction with others. They enjoy socialization and will be lonely and unhappy without it.

Mind you, these characteristics are not absolutes. Most people sit somewhere along a line between these two extremes, often somewhere in the middle. But others (like me) sit closer to the ends of the scale. It's primarily those extremes that we're talking about today.

Also be aware that I use the term energy a lot, but you shouldn't take it too literally. In this context, it's an obsolete psychological term. But I do feel it works as an effective short-hand and metaphor for the the way introverts (and presumably extroverts) experience social interaction.

In introverts such interaction creates stress and anxiety that must be relieved, usually by solitary activities and reflection. It feels like you're expending energy, and it feels like you're getting it back when you're removed from the social stressors and left to your own devices.

That isn't literally what's happening and it's a gross over-simplification, but its an easy handle to put on the more complicated things that are going on in the introverts head.

Introversion is not a bad thing. It is not a defect. It's not something to be cured. It's simply a different personality type, a different way of interacting with the world that has its own set of advantages and disadvantages.

Introversion is also not a choice. It's wired into the brain, and asking an introvert to change is like asking a wheel not to be round. It's possible to modify some behaviors related to introversion, but the underlying characteristics are there and can't be trained or wished away. Nor should they be.

Many parents may be concerned that introversion may limit the choices and opportunities their child will have in life. That certainly doesn't have to be the case.

As I said, introverts don't have to be shy. Many introverts manage to be socially active and have many friends. Many succeed in professions we might associate with extroverted people, including performing arts, sales, politics, and management. What is important is for the child to learn to be comfortable with themselves and to best apply the abilities and virtues they've been gifted with.

The first and most important thing the parent of an introverted child should know is that introversion does not come with an owner's manual. Introverted children aren't going to consciously know they're introverts, nor are they going to automatically know how best to deal with their personality.

They may eventually figure it out for themselves, but like many things with children, they can use all the help they can get. I went through a large part of my life not really understanding why I was the way I was. I described myself as shy (even though I have, since I was a child, rather enjoyed performing, speaking, and being the center of attention, at least when it happened on my terms). I let my anxiety control me in many social, school, and work situations. I didn't learn to manage my social stresses until quite late in life, after I'd started to succeed as a writer. Your child doesn't need to go through that, and you can make all the difference for them.

We're a conformist culture in many ways, and almost everything your child deals with, from eduction, to media examples, is going to be structured around being "normal," which in the greater scheme of things, just means having an "average" personality. They may recognizes that they are different without understanding how or why. They may have a desire to change and be "more like other kids," and may be frustrated when they can't make that happen.

I suspect that children on the far extrovert end of the personality scale have many similar issues (which, not being an extrovert, I'm poorly qualified to talk about), but they do have one advantage. Where our culture does celebrate nonconformity, it tends to celebrate the extrovert: the head cheerleader, the charismatic leader, the beautiful actor, the bold executive, the action hero, are perceived as extroverts.

It doesn't matter that in real life, these roles are filled by those with a variety of personality types from one extreme to another. Even where introverts succeed, their success often causes them to be perceived as extroverts. Introverted children don't have many role models.

It's important for the parent to understand their child so they can help their child understand themselves. This can be difficult for some parents, especially those toward the far end of the extrovert scale, as they have to understand that introverts simply experience the world in a different way.

At the most fundamental level this can primarily be defined by how introverts react to social interaction, and to solitude.

For introverts, social interaction is, at best of times a source of stress and negative energy. As I've said, that doesn't mean that introverts can't, and don't, enjoy social contact. But they may prefer different kinds and degrees of socialization than extroverts, and they find it difficult to deal with in large or continuous doses.

This is true even if the social contact is desired by the child or positive in nature. Their enjoyment doesn't eliminate the stress and energy drain caused by social contact, and sometimes makes it harder to recognize, or for the parent to accept.

My best analogy to help understand this is to imagine the introvert as being a dolphin, and social contact as being the ocean. Dolphins can dive quite deep, but they are air breathers, and must return to the surface on a regular basis to oxygenate, recharge, and refresh. Go too deep, stay down too long, and trouble will follow. The smart dolphin manages this automatically, "pre-breathing" in anticipation of a long or deep dive, and allowing for recovery time afterward.

Likewise, the introverted child (and their parent) need to allow for solitary or quite time before and/or after intense social activities such as school, parties, family gatherings, or play dates.

Too much uninterrupted social contact can eventually build up stress resulting in unhappiness or misbehavior in the child, such as irritability, stubbornness, crying, hyperactivity, social-withdrawal, vocal outbursts, or even rage.

On the other hand, introverts draw energy from solitude and quiet. As an extroverted child may become lonely if deprived of companionship or stimulation, the introvert will suffer when deprived of time with their own thoughts. Introverts tend to be self-sufficient and self-entertaining. They live vivid inner-lives that extroverts may find hard to understand (and this is part of why introverts are often found in creative arts).

When introverted children choose to spend a great deal of their time alone, it isn't because they're lonely or deprived. They're spending time with their best-friend: themselves.

As I've said, it's possible and desirable for introverts to balance their need for solitude with more social activities and pursuits. But doing this requires effort on the part of parent and child to manage their need for solitude with the stress that can be caused by even positive social contacts.

Management starts with understanding what the sources of stress for introverts are. The primary ones are:

* Social contact or the possibility of unanticipated social contact.

* Strangers or known individuals the child isn't comfortable with.

* Unknown or unfamiliar situations.

* Crowds.

* Loud noise, especially voices.

* Confusion

* Confinement, either literal or figurative.

Let's deal with these one at a time.

* Social contact or the possibility of unanticipated social contact.
Introverts tend to do a lot of pre and post-processing of events. Before entering a social situation they're already anticipating and planning for what may happen, and this may cause them to become anxious, fearful, or to obsess about bad things that might happen.

If possible, the introverted child should be given some quiet, low-stress time before a social event where possible. Allow them to be alone if they wish, though they may also benefit from the ability to discuss their fears or concerns with an understanding adult or friend.

Introverts like to size up a situation before diving in. Being able to examine a social situation from a distance before entering it will greatly reduce stress and help put to rest any of the fears and concerns they've built up over the event. As such, an introvert may find it much easier to deal with a birthday party in an open park as opposed to one in a crowded basement. If the child has difficulty with gatherings, start with the ones which cause the least stress, then gradually work up to the more challenging ones.

In a related matter, introverts can suffer stress simply from the possibility of social contact. Introverts don't like surprises, and they don't like people sneaking up on them, especially when they're already in a stressed state and in need of solitude.

Of course, as a parent, letting the child spend time behind the comfort of a locked or even closed door may not be possible or desirable. But even being able to count on a few seconds of warning before someone appears in their space can be great comfort to an introvert. That warning can be something as simple as a squeaky step at the bottom of the stair, or perhaps knocking or calling ahead (in a normal, as opposed to shrill or angry tone) before appearing in the child's door. Just try to be sure the child has some slight warning before you appear. If they feel they can count on this, it will greatly reduce the stress it may cause.

This would be an appropriate time to mention siblings. Siblings, especially if they share a room with the introvert, and especially if they're extroverts, can be an issue. And extroverted sibling may not allow the introvert the space, alone time, or privacy they need.

This can be a matter of aggression, but more often, it's simply a matter of misunderstanding. If it's difficult for you, as an adult, to understand how the introverted child's mind works differently than your own, imagine how hard it is for the sibling, a child with very limited experience of world. The extroverted sibling doesn't have the same sense of personal-space or need for solitude, and they just don't perceive that they're doing anything wrong, unkind, or disruptive.

It may be desirable to give the introvert their own room, but that may not always be possible. An alternative is to set up ground-rules for privacy and personal-space, to stagger schedules so that the introvert is home at times when the extrovert is away, and to plan solitary activities (such as library study time) for the introvert that are away from home.

* Strangers or known individuals the child isn't comfortable with.
Introverts are more likely to form a small and close group of friends. Meeting and being in the company of new people can be stressful for them. Likewise, people with whom they are uncomfortable can cause stress simply by their presence. When entering situations with strangers, the introverted child may be more comfortable arriving in the company of a trusted friend, group of friends, or an adult, rather than alone.

Authority figures, such as teachers, school officials, babysitters or coaches can also be a source of discomfort and stress, even when the child deals with those individuals on a regular basis. The child should be encouraged to talk directly with the authority figure. It may help if they see a parent talking with the threatening individual, and then are gradually brought in as part of the conversation (rather than just as a subject of interrogation). This can "demythologize" the authority figure just enough to make the child more comfortable with them, without undermining their authority over the child.

* Unknown or unfamiliar situations.
For introverts, anxiety thrives in an information vacuum. If a new event or experience is causing distress for a child, take them to the location where the event will take place. Drive by the building or venue. Possibly even get out and walk around. If possible, introduce them to people they will encounter there, or take them to see other children participating in the same or similar activities.

Knowing the location and some of what to anticipate with make the child more comfortable and less prone to "pre-stressing" before the event.

* Crowds.
Crowds and close physical proximity to others can cause stress in introverts. Introverted children will respond better to events in larger, open spaces, where they have room to move, circulate, and retreat when necessary. Introverts like to be able to stand back and observe conversations and games before stepping in to participate themselves.

* Loud noise, especially voices.
Loud parties, loud music, laughter, yelling and raised voices can be triggers for stress. Be aware that children may find activities such as pep-rallies, loud-games, or sports to be stressful for this reason alone. Depending on the child and the situation, mechanical noises may or may not be an issue. Some children actually can lose themselves in certain kinds of loud noise, and the freedom from casual socialization it can provide.

Introverts may not multitask as well as extroverts. They often have great powers of focus and concentration that make them great thinkers, planners, and problem-solvers, but they're easily overwhelmed by too much sensory input or too many things happening at once. The introvert will often be more comfortable in large groups when people take turns talking, rather than in a crowded situation where dozens of loud conversations or activities are going on at once.

* Confinement, either literal or figurative.
Just as the introvert can be stressed by the mere possibility of social contact, they can draw comfort from the mere possibility of withdrawal or escape. The simple knowledge that they can stand up and walk away from a situation can make it tolerable. Introverts don't like to feel trapped or restrained.

As such, when possible provide the introvert with a physical escape route from a tense situation. At a crowded or loud gathering, sit near the door, an open window, or a public area where the child can withdraw if overstimulated.

Introverts are also more comfortable knowing they have the freedom to leave. Highly structured events where they aren't allowed to leave or move when necessary will be much more stressful for them.

The Introvert Comfort Zone: Solitude
The parent has to understand that an introverted child who chooses to spend a great deal of their time alone isn't deprived or lonely. They're in their comfort zone, and probably have no need of "rescue" or intervention on your part.

It's important to realize that during these times the introvert is recharging their emotional batteries in a way that will allow them to more comfortably engage in social activities later on. Introverted children chronically deprived of such time find it difficult to ever socialize. Pushing them into social situations and interrupting their private time unnecessarily will not help the situation, and will almost certainly make it worse.

While solitary activities are important, you shouldn't let your child fall into counter-productive habits or activities, such as excessive TV viewing or electronic game play. Many introverts become readers, and this should be encouraged by providing them with ready access to a wide variety of books.

Homework, study and chores are also good uses of alone time, but not all of it. The introvert needs recreational alone time and unstructured time for their own chosen activities.

One other mention about homework and study. Introverts may be less likely to communicate when they have problems with school work. They should be encouraged to express any problems or difficulties they have with an assurance that you'll respond in a helpful and non-critical way.

They should also be encouraged to communicate with their teachers, something introverts may find especially stressful to do. Talk to teachers on their behalf, and try to foster effective communication between teacher and child. That may require all of you to sit down together at a parent-teacher conference and establish a dialog. Try to present teachers as professionals who are there to help the child learn, not frightening authority figures to be avoided.

Introverts may be especially drawn to computers and texting, and there are good aspects to this. They may find socializing by chatting, texting, and social-networking sites far less stressful than personal contact, and it may be a good way for them to make friends and socialize in a low-stress way.

But such activities shouldn't take up too much of their time or allow them to avoid face-to-face social contact completely. On-line activities also carry certain risks for children, and it's important to monitor their use and make sure they're using appropriate sites and services. As with many things, introverts, may be less likely to communicate if they encounter something that frightens or distresses them. It's important to maintain awareness and encourage open communication with the child.

It's good for introverts to have creative hobbies that they can enjoy working alone: arts, crafts, model-building, collecting, working with pets. Such hobbies should be encouraged and supported. They help build mental as well as real-world skills in areas that play well to the strengths of introversion. Hobbies can also provide common ground that may lead to more comfortable social interactions down the road. They can help develop social skills that don't come easily to the introverted child.

Introverted children can also fall into the trap of being sedate and not getting enough exercise. Be aware that introverts may not be comfortable in more common team sports, and may be more attracted to solo sports, small-group sports, or individual activities. The introvert may well prefer swimming, track, bicycling, tennis, martial arts, or skateboarding to football, basketball, or soccer. They may prefer less structured activities that allow them to practice and train on their own schedule, rather than being driving by rigid schedules and team practices.

The common tendency in our society to push children into traditional team sports can be especially destructive when dealing with the introverted child. Offer the child as many options as possible. Encourage them to find some physical activity or activities that they enjoy, are comfortable with, and are willing participate in regularly.

Strategies for the Introverted Child
When planning schedules and routines for the introverted child, keep the following steps in mind.

*Prepare and Plan - Set up mental prep-time before anticipated stressful events. Try to arrange things so that the child enters stressful activities as relaxed and stress-free as possible. For introverted children, the biggest and most universal stress is almost always school, so schedule accordingly. Don't insist the introvert participate in a "family breakfast" if they aren't so inclined, and allow some quiet time after school when possible, reading, study, or play.

More so than extroverts, who often exist in the moment, introverts are planners. They live in the future, and so often suffer stress from events and situations that haven't happened yet, and may not happen.

But the flip side of this is that they can also take comfort in things that haven't happened yet. A child stressed during the school day may take comfort anticipating a regular hour of reading or quiet play after school.

Introverts don't like externally imposed schedules, but they usually have an internal schedule or plan of their own, at least for their immediate future. As such, they may react poorly to unanticipated changes to that schedule.

Mentally, it's like driving a car. You think and plan far in advance of where you are at the moment. If someone steps off the curb in front of you, or a vehicle ahead slams on its brakes, its alarming and stressful even if nothing bad happens.

Try to give the child advance warning to changes in routine. Where this isn't possible, give them something positive to anticipate for later: a nature walk in the park, a trip to the library, an hour to play or work on a hobby; anything that is both enjoyable and will help them restore their mental balance.

*Maintain and Adjust - Help your child to be aware of and monitor their own fatigue, stress, and anxiety level, and to make their needs known to you.

Not every day at school or every regular activity is going to be as stressful as every other. Some days the child may come home from school energized and eager to socialize. But some may be worse than others, and the child may need more down-time to recover.

It's best not to discover the child is stressed to their breaking point only after they begin to act out or show behavior issues. Plan for the average day, but be prepared to see things adjusted according to the individual situation.

Your child will need to learn to take care of their own emotional and psychological needs over time, and fortunately introverts are especially good at reflection and self-examination. But they'll still need your cooperation and understanding as they learn to live in a world biased towards the extrovert.

*Challenge for Growth - As the child learns to better understand and cope with their own nature, encourage them to take on more challenging social activities. This can be as simple as attending larger and more crowded gatherings, or as advanced as public speaking, attending dances, performance arts, or intense team sports.

Don't force the child or shame them into activities, as this plays against the introverts need for an escape hatch. Simply encourage them to examine and try new things with the understanding they can stop or leave if they don't like it.

Our society rewards proactive, gregarious, and social individuals, and these are skills that will ultimately serve your child in life. But they don't come naturally to the introverted child. It's vital for them to see difficult social interactions and activities as challenges to be tested and conquered, not merely unpleasant things to be avoided.

Praise them when you see them pushing their own limits, even if these wouldn't seem exceptional for an "average" or extroverted child. Try to see things from their perspective, even when it doesn't come naturally.

Conclusion -
The worst trap that a parent can fall into is expecting the child to think and respond to things exactly as they do. Human beings exist across a broad range of personality types, each of which comprehend and respond to the world in their own way. We're all wired just a little bit differently.

Difficult though it may be, try to pause occasionally and see things from your child's point of view. Especially try to do this before you criticize or speak in anger. What may to you seem strange and irrational may to your child seem the most logical and rational thing in the world.

You can also help them to understand that not everyone thinks like them. In talking out your own differences of understanding and perception, you'll help your child understand the world and the people around them, and help equip them for greater self-sufficiency in the future.

Understand that an introverted child isn't "abnormal," they're exceptional, with special powers of thought, self-reliance and concentration. Help the child to understand those gifts, even as they learn to interact with, and even enjoy, a mainstream society that often exists just outside their comfort zone.

Copyright 2009, J. Steven York. No reuse or reprinting without permission of the author.

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