Introversion can be natural and healthy. Here, we offer ways to connect with the quiet children in our lives.
Shy, timid, reserved. These terms are often used to describe quiet kids with the caveat that “they’ll grow out of it.” But recent research has found that favouring fast talkers over soft speakers may affect the mental health of young introverts.
Let’s talk introversion
Thanks in large part to the work of speaker and author Susan Cain, introversion has become a trendy topic. In Cain’s view, Western society celebrates bold speakers, daring risk takers, and outgoing leaders. Meanwhile, passive intellectuals may fly under our cultural radar. Cain calls this phenomenon the extrovert ideal.
Misconceptions about introversion abound. “Look up the word introvert and you will find a variety of not-so-pleasant synonyms,” says Christine Fonseca, author of Quiet Kids: Help Your Introverted Child Succeed in an Extroverted World (Prufrock Press, 2013). “Freud even went so far as to call introverted people narcissistic in nature.”
In fact, introversion can be natural and healthy. The Myers-Briggs Type Indicator classifies introversion simply as “a preference for spending your time and energy in the inner world,” explains Donna Dunning, PhD, a consultant who specializes in interpreting Myers-Briggs personality types. According to Dunning, introverts are often quiet, reserved, calm, and contemplative; they may prefer to think before speaking and need solitary time to recharge.
The kid connection
Many of us know children who prefer an empty reading nook over a packed playground, and these quiet thinkers are in good company. Famous introverts include visionaries such as Mahatma Gandhi and Rosa Parks.
Unfortunately, the Western extrovert ideal can affect kids’ schooling, recreational activities, and personal lives. Although budding wallflowers are often creative, sensitive, and thoughtful, studies show that they’re also at risk of being
- perceived as less intelligent by teachers
- anxious, depressed, and/or socially isolated
Let’s talk communication
Introversion isn’t something that needs to be cured or fixed. Instead, let’s focus on finding ways to connect with the quiet kids in our lives.
Our education systems may be designed to nip introversion in the bud. Often, schools put a premium on interactive learning, group work, and presentations—all of which can be challenging for children who aren’t social butterflies.
Heather Morrison, an elementary school teacher and the mother of two young boys—one introverted and the other extroverted—tries to balance the needs of all kids in her classroom. As a parent, she hopes that educators will try to “connect with [her soft-spoken son] and really be able to recognize his capabilities.”
As a teacher, Morrison acknowledges that “classrooms can be noisy and busy places.” She suggests incorporating quiet activities, such as independent reading, into the school day. Playing soft music and setting up a tent area for students who require secluded downtime may also promote an introvert-friendly classroom environment.
Family and friends can help make home a haven for introverted children. Engage with kids by employing the following communication strategies.
- Express empathy.
- Role-play challenging social situations.
- Avoid using negative labels such as “shy” or “timid.”
- Watch out for communication roadblocks such as blaming, judging, or shaming.
- Encourage them to tell you about their day, but refrain from forcing conversation.
- Set specific, attainable behavioural goals rather than putting pressure on kids to change.
Fonseca adds that parents should monitor—but not stress over—a child’s preference for silent solitude. “Watch your child closely,” she advises. “Does he or she appear happy, have one or two friends, and appear comfortable at home? If the answer is yes, there is probably nothing more than temperament at play.”
Let’s talk mindfulness
Mindful practices can help kids develop self-confidence and manage anxiety. As Fonseca notes, it’s important to “build downtime into the introvert’s day. Don’t wait until he or she melts down to provide periods of respite.”
Walk your (downward) dog
Given its goal of encouraging calmness and tranquility, yoga is an ideal intervention for anxious kids and young adults. Studies have shown that young yogis tend to be more confident, fidget less, and feel more capable of coping with stress.
Introverted or emotionally insecure children may also find this peaceful practice more appealing than competitive sports. To get your little ones started on their yoga ventures, look for a local studio that offers classes for kids and families.
Take a deep breath
Conscious breathing isn’t just for frazzled adults. Meditation and deep breathing techniques can also help to calm and centre children’s minds. A 2010 study found that adolescents who participated in a daily mindfulness program, including meditative breathing, enjoyed the following benefits:
- increased optimism
- better focus at school
- more willingness to socialize
Whether the kids in your life are introverted, extroverted, or somewhere in between, Morrison sums up the importance of celebrating their unique strengths. “It’s important to enjoy and appreciate children for who they are, and guide them along in the areas that require a little more work,” she says. “Children need to know that you believe in them and their capabilities.”
Shyness, introversion, or autism?
Although we may think of these as related terms, they have quite different meanings.
Shyness is a trait believed by some researchers to be universal. Shy people experience varying degrees of mental and physical discomfort—such as telltale blushing and stammering—in social situations. With age and experience, we can generally learn to be less shy.
Introversion is a personality type that refers to how we process energy. Although introverted individuals need some solitude to recharge their mental batteries, they may not be shy. In fact, many are capable of performing, networking, and socializing with aplomb.
Autism is a developmental disorder that may lead to problems communicating and socializing. Unlike shyness and introversion, autism is characterized by a lack of empathy, as well as an emphasis on repetitive language and behaviours. If you’re concerned that your child may have autism, consult a health care practitioner for guidance.