Raising an Introvert / An inside look at the world of an introverted child
Selah Butler is huddled in a corner sobbing. Tragedy, it seems, has struck her inner world, and the 7-year-old is generating real tears while playing “Princess” – much to the amazement of her older brother. “My father has perished,” Selah pronounces between sobs, “and I must return to my home country.”
Josiah, 9, looks at her incredulously. “Did you make yourself cry?” he asks.
“Yes,” Selah replies. “I think God lets girls do that.”
It is another tantalizing glimpse into the psyche of Selah, whose internal life is so much more interesting to her than playgrounds or playdates. Selah, a blond second-grader with intense blue eyes, is far from shy – adults, in fact, are captivated by her conversational skills – but she is an introvert. She doesn’t merely prefer time alone, she requires it. And after a full day at school in Richardson, she happily retreats to her room, where she draws, sings, engages in imaginary play or simply collapses in sleep, shutting out stimuli. It is her way to recharge and regroup, to regain control.
Some 25 percent of Americans are introverts, or innies, and their tendencies emerge early in life. Often confused with shyness – a learned fear of social situations – introversion is a built-in temperament with physiological hard-wiring and a strong genetic component, and its basic bent will not change over the course of life.
Introverts’ source of inspiration comes from within themselves, not from others; they use that energy to excel in concentration, creativity and empathy. While some innies can don extroverted behavior like a mask if the social situation calls for it, they are happiest alone or among a few trusted faces. Large groups of human beings tax them, sucking out their inner life force, as do noises, bright colors and commotion. The swirl and bustle of the extroverted world – including elementary-school classrooms and overly active little brothers – can incite meltdowns. Just ask Selah.
“The way that you’re treating me is not nice,” she recently told 5-year-old brother Malachi, whose constant movement had pushed her to the edge. “It’s not gonna go well for you.”
Mom Brandy Butler chimed in. “I’d listen to her if I were you.”
Thanks to the prejudices of Sigmund Freud (an extrovert), introversion has gotten a bad rap since the early 20th century – at least in the largely extroverted Western milieu. Freud deemed it neurotic behavior, partly to dig at his rival, psychotherapist Carl Jung (an introvert). But a handful of experts and savvy parents are reclaiming its many benefits, including the fact that there is a strong correlation between giftedness and introversion. “Introverted children really are small wonders,” writes Marti Olsen Laney, Psy.D., an author and family therapist who’s an expert on the subject. “Accept them as they are.”
Brandy and her husband Wes do. And while their daughter has provided more than her share of parenting challenges, they appreciate her keen intelligence, her exceptional creativity, her unique way of viewing the world and, not least of all, that she’s “so stinkin’ funny,” as Brandy puts it. Which helps.
This is the daughter who, in one retreat to her bedroom, took crayons and proceeded to sketch all over the walls. Confronted, she said, “I’m so sorry, Mommy, I know I’m not supposed to do this. My hands just need to color.”
Different on the inside
Albert Einstein, Sir Isaac Newton and Mahatma Gandhi were introverts. Steven Spielberg, Warren Buffett and President Obama are among today’s renowned innies. (Obama’s stiff performance in the presidential debates wasn’t from lack of preparation, Dallas blogger Sophia Dembling noted; he displayed the introvert’s typical inclination to think and rehearse before he speaks.) Introverts are disproportionally represented among artists, writers, inventors and scientists. Far from being a handicap, introversion should be viewed as a gift, Laney says.
That doesn’t stop parents from contacting her to unload their worries about an introverted child, especially if he happens to be a boy. “I get more calls from parents of boys of 11, 12, 13 – when it’s really begun to be noticeable that they prefer to read rather than do sports,” says Laney, author of The Hidden Gifts of the Introverted Child. Parents often fear this will pose a great social disadvantage later in life. “I tell them they’re lucky,” Laney says. “Introverted boys don’t get in as much trouble and tend to stay closer to their families.”
There is a lot of “stigma and confusion” about introversion, Laney adds. Generally speaking, introverts are inwardly focused; extroverts are outwardly focused. While introversion and extroversion are two ends of a continuum, with most people exhibiting some traits of both temperaments, the tendency toward introversion can be detected early on. Does your child feel drained after social outings and multiple playdates? Does he tend to stand away from groups of kids and observe, or go off to amuse himself? Is she reluctant to enter new situations or engage with new people? Does he hesitate before answering questions and go silent when interrupted? Does your child have a couple of close friends instead of a posse of acquaintances? Is she content to play alone or in her room for long periods of time, concentrating intensely on a favorite pursuit? Does he find it difficult to adjust to change?
All of these are early signs of introversion, Laney says. She mentions her 4-year-old granddaughter’s visit to the Magic Kingdom as a classic innie response. “I don’t really like the Disneyland stuff,” the girl announced. “I’d rather stay at home.”
“Introverts prefer quiet activities and solitary situations where there is less stimulation in the environment,” says Sarah Feuerbacher, Ph.D., who serves on the graduate faculty of counseling at Southern Methodist University. This inward focus produces many advantages: Introverts are typically independent, thoughtful, sensitive, calm, intelligent, inquisitive, creative, reflective, purposeful, driven, talented and “confident in their known skill sets,” Feuerbacher says.
Introverts – even children – tend to be great problem-solvers who “think outside the box,” Laney adds. They are highly observant; have “rich inner lives”; enjoy learning; excel in the creative arts; are gifted at one-on-one conversation; enjoy their own company and have a high emotional IQ. “We need introverted skills – they’re in short supply,” says Laney, a self-professed introvert. “You can see it in the rate America is losing experts. We’re not developing them. We don’t value them or give credit to people who have more complex minds.”
And introverts do, in fact, have complex minds. Genetics determines whether a child will be more dominant on the side of the nervous system “that is more calm-down and relax or on the fight-or-flight side,” Laney explains. These sides of the nervous system, the parasympathetic and the sympathetic, activate different brain pathways. Extroverts – who draw energy from stimuli in the world around them – are more dominant on the pathways triggered by dopamine, producing “act-first, think-later” (read: impulsive) behavior. Introverts’ brain signals travel a much longer pathway dominated by the neurotransmitter acetylcholine. This pathway “goes longer, takes longer and goes to the front of the brain – the more evolved part of the brain needed to focus on something,” Laney says. Because of the longer pathway, introverts often have delayed emotional responses and aren’t as adept at quick replies (ask Obama). It’s just the way they are.
Problem is, those longer pathways don’t translate so well to the high-stimulation elementary classroom, where “we think the kid who puts up his hand first and answers fast is the smart one,” Laney says. Or the playground and playing field. Or our children’s overscheduled lives.
Introverted kids “can easily get lost in the shuffle,” says Anna Matheny, a revered first-grade teacher at Grace Academy of Dallas with 31 years of experience. A wise teacher and parent will do the best he can to prevent that from happening, she says.
The care and feeding of an introvert
Sophia Dembling grew up in an introverted home. Mom was an artist; Dad was a writer and editor. Sophia and her two brothers were introverted as well. As a little girl, Sophia, a Dallas writer and author of The Introvert’s Way: Living a Quiet Life in a Noisy World, would escape into her father’s tool closet, perch on a low stool with the door closed and plunge into the fantastic, macabre world of the Brothers Grimm fairy tales for hours on end.
She would walk to school with her head staring into a book, and, to her mother’s chagrin, was never a demonstrative kid. She wasn’t anything like the young relative “who ran into people’s arms with shrieks of delight.” She was, however, a great listener, to the point that her husband comments today that “It’s like you have a sign on your back that says ‘tell me about it.’” (Dembling frequently finds herself in conversations that “make me want to chew off one of my legs to escape it.”) She was “studious and eggheady,” a deep thinker with a wry wit. But in school, she started to see that she didn’t fit easily into this extroverted world, which presents itself as though “life is a Mountain Dew commercial.”
In high school in New York, “I started seeing introversion as a liability,” Dembling says. “I always had a feeling of walking into a room and disappearing.” Later she’d find that she made a much deeper impression on her classmates than she thought, but she had stumbled onto the introvert’s dilemma: negotiating a culture that elevates extroverted behavior.
Though she doesn’t have children herself, Dembling often fields questions from parents on her blog The Introvert’s Corner for Psychology Today. Many of these parents want to try to change their introverted kids or push them into therapy. “If a kid is introverted, it’s not a problem,” Dembling says firmly. “It’s only a problem in parenting.”
“Introverts,” she adds, “are not failed extroverts. Introversion has its own energy. It is not defined by the lack of extroversion.”
Linda Silverman, Ph.D., a psychologist and expert on giftedness and introversion, couldn’t agree more. Her research and practice suggest that as many as 75 percent of gifted kids are introverts. “What I have found is as the IQ increases, so does the degree of introversion,” Silverman says. “Those in the highest IQ realm are introverts.” Through years of work with introverted children and their (often clueless) parents, Silverman – an extrovert – has taken note of the joys and challenges of parenting an introverted child. Support them, she says.
--Know that they need extra time to respond and recharge. “When introverted kids are around other kids too long, they have to retreat,” Silverman says. “They have to get away from other people just to regroup. Sometimes they’ll invite kids to the house but will tire of them quickly.” Adds Laney: Don’t schedule back-to-back playdates or nonstop activities.
--Respect their need for privacy. Knock first on their bedroom door. And forcing an introverted kid to share a room with an extroverted sibling should be avoided at all costs. “That is such a preparation for disaster that they should turn the dining room into a bedroom if they need to,” Silverman says. “Introverted kids don’t like their stuff being touched, and extroverts think everything here is mine. That drives introverted kids crazy.”
--Respect their need for space. “Introverts’ sensory processing is more sensitive,” Dembling notes. They tend to dislike crowds, loud noises and strong smells – as well as bright, busy, fast-paced classrooms. “If I go in a kindergarten class, I almost die myself,” Laney says.
--Don’t demand instant answers. Those longer brain pathways often require them to process events and emotions overnight. Give them time to think. “When introverts get all churned up inside, they can’t talk,” Silverman says. “If you try to talk about something before all their feelings are settled down, they will have a meltdown. Take a timeout. It might be 24 hours.”
--Don’t interrupt. “The toughest thing for an extrovert to see is that we don’t have a clue how much we interrupt,” Silverman says. “Introverts can’t stand being interrupted. An extrovert sees any pause in a conversation as an invitation to talk.”
--Introverts don’t like change, so plan more time for transitions. Give a 15-minute warning before dinner is ready, so your little introvert can extricate himself from her book, or her drawing, or her imaginary game of Princess. If an introverted kid is having trouble at school, the worst thing you can do is pull him out suddenly. Visit potential new schools together and give your child a lot of time to think about it, Silverman says. They want advance notice of any expected changes in their lives.
--Introverts are extremely sensitive to humiliation, so never embarrass, correct or even praise them in public. Do it privately. Matheny, the first-grade teacher, says introverted kids will often respond personally, even to the point of tears, when the entire class is rebuked. They are conscientious about pleasing their parents and teachers, so recognize and nurture their sensitive dispositions.
--Don’t freak out if they prefer a couple close friends to the larger group, and don’t force them into social situations: Let them ease their way in. Introverted kids are naturally hesitant about unfamiliar situations and people. Remember: That’s a good thing. Adds Dembling: “I am appalled by parents who insist that their children hug and kiss relatives.” Let them warm up at their own pace, she says. “And if that’s never, then so be it.”
--If your introverted kid says he’s fine playing alone, he’s fine playing alone. “Ask him or her,” Dembling says. “Believe your child when he says, ‘I’m OK.’”
A healthy balance
Wes and Brandy Butler needed time, wisdom and, yes, trial and error to understand and adapt to their daughter Selah, though both parents are introverts themselves. They realized that their daughter’s creativity could, in fact, be destructive. She drew a self-portrait in mascara and lipstick on a friend’s bedroom wall. “She said that she loved me,” Selah explained to her mom, “so I thought she’d want to see a picture of me every day.”
The Butlers required Selah to replace the lipstick and mascara, but they gave in on allowing her to draw on her own bedroom walls, which are now arrayed with pictures of Taylor Swift, complete with thought bubbles. (In one picture, Swift is watching Selah playing guitar and says “Wow.”) Though Selah requires much more “alone time” than her extroverted brothers, she is expected to signal her needs before dissolving into a fit. These days, she’ll tell her parents when she needs alone time – though it’s not allowed as an escape from chores.
Naomi Ekas, Ph.D., an assistant professor of psychology at Texas Christian University, says it’s important for parents as well as teachers to recognize a child’s temperament and help them avoid any extremes of introverted or extroverted behavior. It’s fine for an introverted child to avoid the gaggle of kids on the playground and go off to do his own thing, like digging in the dirt or working a puzzle, but adults should look out for the kid who lurks on the edges, stares at the other kids and begins to stew. Yes, introversion has its pitfalls.
“Research shows that it’s kids who go off and do their own thing who have better outcomes,” Ekas says. “As parents, you want your kids to have a lot of friends – especially if you didn’t. But with a lot of these kids, it’s not gonna work. If parents push them into it, these are kids who are at greater risk of developing social anxieties later.”
A couple of those potential hazards are shyness and isolation. Shyness isn’t a born trait, as many parents presume. Though it often coincides with introversion, it can actually be a result of introversion that isn’t handled appropriately. Ironically, introverted parents run a bigger risk of perpetuating shyness among their introverted children – by pushing them into uncomfortable situations that cause them to shut down or withdraw.
“There’s only one thing worse than an extroverted parent who doesn’t understand their introverted kid,” Silverman says bluntly. “An introverted parent who never accepted their own introversion and is so afraid that their child is going to turn out the way they did.”
Accept and nurture an introverted child’s gifts, Ekas says, but don’t swoop in and rescue them from every nervous situation. Let them figure things out.
Realize that introverted kids will benefit from acquiring some extroverted skills, Laney says. They will, after all, probably attend a few cocktail parties (though they’ll come late and leave early) and speak up in boardrooms (though they’re more inclined to be the silent observer who locates the brilliant way to solve a problem). Introverted kids with supportive parents will find ways to adapt to their extroverted world: At a kids’ party, they might help out the hostess instead of mingling with the crowd.
In her classroom, Anna Matheny searches for gentle ways to encourage introverted kids’ strengths and shore up their weaknesses – such as participating in class discussions. In daily lessons, she finds ways to involve every kid. She’ll pull from a jar of craft sticks inscribed with each child’s name, calling on the kid whose name pops up. That way the introverted child won’t feel singled out, and the extroverted kid isn’t allowed to dominate the classroom.
“I really try to provide a very warm, very loving and nurturing atmosphere,” she says. “I find ways to affirm them and realize that their introspection is a form of giftedness.”
Within those few introverted pupils is a flourishing inner life, and she knows the world will be a better place if she mines it and draws it out.