You don’t need to change who your kid is, but you do need to acclimate them to the world.
Say what you will about “The Good Old Days” (and do it while shaking a cane — it works better), but there was a time when the strong, silent type commanded respect. Lately, however, society has decided that the loudest voices belong to the kinds of people who have upper management written all over them. And if your kid is more of a wallflower, they might feel pressure to act like someone they’re not. But, is being an introvert really such a bad thing?
According to Heidi Kasevich, Ph.D., Director of Quiet Education (part of Susan Cain’s Quiet Revolution) — no, it’s not. Kasevich stresses there is a lot parents need to know about raising their introverted children, but it starts by not assuming introversion is some kind of handicap.
“It’s so easy for a parent of an introverted child to hear other people saying about their kid ‘He’s so shy, or so sensitive…or needs to speak up more,’” says Kasevich. “Or they feel guilty if their quiet kid’s preference is to spend time alone. And that can be really hard.”
Here’s why your “shy” kid might just be a pillar of quiet strength.
Extroversion vs Introversion
The karaoke test is always good for identifying an extrovert or an introvert. The guy reaching for the mic — that’s the extrovert. The one sitting down, praying for his rendition of “Hit Me Baby, One More Time,” to be over — that’s the introvert. But learning which category your child falls under can be more difficult to determine, because they haven’t fully formed their personality yet. And you can’t bring them to the karaoke bar yet.
“The fundamental difference [between introverts and extroverts] is sensitivity to stimulation,” says Kasevich. “Introverts feel more alive, happy, and at an equilibrium in a quiet, minimally stimulating environments. Whereas extroverts require more stimulation to reach their optimal zone, and can feel bored and listless if there’s not enough stimulation around.”
Also, extroverts seek out competitiveness, while introverts couldn’t care less about a participation trophy. “The dopamine system of introverts is not as active as that in extroverts when they see external rewards,” she says. “Introverts are less energized by the promise, or taking a chance on, winning.”
Being an Introvert Does Not Mean You’re Shy
“Shyness can be a very painful fear of social judgement — both introverts and extroverts can be shy,” says Kasevich. “Introverts are more often labeled as being shy, and when they are already having a fear of social interaction, that label can just make things worse.”
The takeaway here is that shy people are afraid of being judged, while a lot introverts don’t have self-confidence issues, they’re just quiet. For example, Bill Gates is a non-shy introvert. He doesn’t really care what you think of him, and he felt that way long before he had a billion dollars to back him up. Barbara Streisand is a shy extrovert: She’s a commanding presence in Funny Girl, but has terrible stage fright.
So, don’t assume that just because someone isn’t speaking, it means they’re uncomfortable around people. And, conversely, don’t assume just because they’re wearing a lampshade on their head, they don’t fear social judgment.
Get Your Kid a Bridge Friend
An introvert may also have a tendency to want to be in smaller groups, or keep a close friend, rather than maintain a big social network. This close friend can serve as almost a living security blanket for your child.
“We call them bridge friends,” says Kasevich. “If your introverted child is trying something new, you can bring that bridge friend along, knowing that they make your child feel more comfortable. It’s important to honor that tendency, and not force them in another direction. And not looking upon that as a deficient, but something to be celebrated.” Just maybe don’t call the other kid a “bridge friend” to their face.
What You Should Be Telling Your Quiet Child
If you’re at a loss on how to encourage an introvert, Kasevich points out that you can easily reengineer common phrases to turn their laconic frown upside down. “‘She’s so sensitive’ could be ‘She cares about how people feel,’ or ‘She doesn’t make friends easily’ could be, ‘She takes time to get to know people really well.’”
You can also tell them that people with their personality have been leaders like Gandhi, Warren Buffett, Abraham Lincoln…Courtney Cox! “Introverts tend to be cautious decision makers — more mild-mannered, more contemplative, thinking before they speak, great listeners,” she stresses. “These are all excellent leadership skills and serve as huge huge asset.”
Give Them a Long Runway
You don’t need to change who your kid is, but you do need to acclimate them to the world. Over time, parents can have a positive impact on how their kids handle over-stimulation. “Think of it literally as an airplane runway,” says Kasevich. “That feeling of flying into LGA and the brakes go on really fast and it sends you into a panic. A longer runway makes for a much calmer landing.”
Excellent advice for pilots, but how does it apply to your parenting style? Kasevich says you should try role-playing with your child in social-situation dress rehearsals.
“If your child is going to be called upon in class, rehearse with them what they are going to say over dinner,” she says. “Or for a birthday, arrive early and talk about what’s going to happen. Giving a preview of the event can help an introverted child deal with that fear of the new, or retreating to the sidelines.”
Give Them Time to Reboot
There’s only so much light, noise, and listening to teachers that your kid can take. Learn to recognize when they’ve had enough. “If it’s been a busy week, perhaps don’t see that movie, or go to brunch on the weekend,” Kasevich suggests. “It’s acknowledging the child literally needs time to recharge. Down the road, the children will figure out for themselves they need to manage their own energy. But if they want to go read a book by themselves for an hour, that’s okay.”