Rachel Goodchild offers strategies for helping your introverted child thrive in the outside world.
We were off to a party. My four year old was incredibly excited — she had been talking about this day for weeks. One of her friends was turning five and was having a real-live disco in a hall, with balloons and special lights. My daughter had spent the morning getting into her prettiest dress, wrapping the gift and fantasising about the party food.
We turned into the car park of the hall. My daughter balked at leaving the car when she heard the music blaring out. I coaxed her out and we made it to the door. She took one look inside, and then turned and started to walk back to the car.
“Where are you going?” I asked.
“Too many people, Mummy. We need to go home.”
Nothing would coax her to stay, not even me being there.
I worried for months about my daughter after this. Did she have social phobias? Was there something wrong with her?
It turns out she is an introvert — a socially confident child in small groups, especially with people she’s met before, but not keen on walking into a room of excited children. And she’s not the only one. Out of my three daughters, two of them are more introverted than me.
Are you an introvert or an extrovert?
We are all somewhere on a continuum between complete introversion and extroversion. A complete introvert would spend her days as a hermit, locked away in a room, and an extreme extrovert would probably be an exhibitionist party girl, running up and down the street naked.
Most of us are somewhere between the two. The key difference between introverts and extroverts is that an extrovert gets energised from spending time with others and an introvert may need time alone to recharge after social events.
It is important to consider whether you are more introverted than extroverted or vice versa, as this will affect your relationship with your child. An introverted parent can often pass on her social anxiety to her children, and an extroverted parent can sometimes push her child into social situations and experiences that make him feel unsettled and reduces his confidence.
The startled baby
Researchers used to believe that children who reacted more to noise and interaction were our extroverts. However recent research now indicates that the children who startle and perhaps struggle to sleep well are more likely to be our introverts — babies who find it hard to filter out noise and stimulation which prevents them from relaxing.
However, a happy and relaxed introverted baby will often enjoy extended time alone in her cot and on the floor, and continue to have afternoon naps long after other children stop.
The key to settling stressed, introverted babies is to slowly increase their ability to cope with external stimulation. Instead of trying to make everything as controlled and quiet as possible, focus on appearing relaxed yourself when the baby doesn’t settle, and make sure there is a simple lead-up routine to sleep which is easy to follow.
If settling in a new place, before you put her in bed, walk her around the room talking about where you are and what she might see once she is in the cot.
For a slightly older child you can expect her to have a close bond to a toy or blanket. So take this out with you if you want your child to settle away from home. Becca, mother of four-year-old Emily, followed this advice. “We gave Emily a rose quartz necklace she hid away under her T-shirt. She would put it on whenever going somewhere new and said it really helped.”
Introverted children and childcare
Anna, mother of three-year-old Sophia, recalls taking her daughter to a new childcare centre. As they went in, Sophia began to cling tightly to her mother, almost crawling up her body to try to escape. Anna felt embarrassed, frustrated and very guilty for having to leave. “I felt my anxiety rise. I just wanted her to appear confident and happy and not like I was sending her to Siberia!”
If you have enrolled your child in a childcare centre, you may need more time than most to help her get settled. Plan two or three visits with the child where you walk around and explore the area. Don’t expect her to make friends or engage. She will prefer your company.
Many introverted children thrive in a more structured style of childcare such as Montessori, but many centres cater for introverted children with quiet zones and places where toys are not put away during the day.
Try to be one of the first to get to the childcare centre every morning, when there is less noise and fewer people. It often helps to walk around with your child each morning to look at the activities and help her choose one to begin with.
If you want to stay and settle your child, then sit at the playdough table together, side by side on the seats. Playing with playdough will relax both of you.
Introverted children often play happily alone or with only one or two children. This is normal. Some adults are like this too.
Some parents feel a loss when their child happily moves away from them to start the day. It is important to check if you are perhaps cultivating the anxiety inadvertently.
Some parents fear that a complete passion in a topic indicates there is something wrong with their child. “I honestly thought my son had Aspergers, because he preferred to play alone and he was obsessed with dinosaurs,” says Ruby of three-year-old Tom.
“It turns out he was just a clever kid who was quite introverted. I think we’re sometimes too quick to look for a big diagnosis. I have relaxed about who he is a bit more now.”
Having an extended passion is common for introverted children as they enjoy giving something their full concentration and working solo. Give them time and space to enjoy the things they are passionate about, but trade off their passions with other new hobbies so they can be exposed to a wider range.
Make sure library visits are a regular part of home life and use the subject of their passion to engage them in conversation.
Many introverted children prefer extended play so having a spot out of the way that they can use to set up a play area and leave it there for more than an afternoon can be important.
It is healthy and normal for all children to show fear at some point in their childhood, particularly when placed in a new situation or with a large group of people they don’t know. The key is learning techniques to reduce that anxiety.
“I started to hate getting birthday invitations for Josh,” says his mum Angela.
“He’d spend weeks talking about it, planning what he was going to give, and even on the day would be raring to go. Then on the way to the party he would begin to get anxious, often ending with a complete meltdown by the time we had arrived outside the venue. We’d either turn back and go home or I’d have to stay with him the whole time.”
I often ask adults how they would feel if they had to walk into a room full of strangers by themselves and interact with confidence. Most say it would not be something they would find easy.
Yet we often expect more of our children than we do of ourselves. The first step to managing your child’s anxiety is to take a step back and ask yourself if what you’re expecting is fair and reasonable.
Some children (like adults) just don’t like parties. Arrange for your child to see the birthday girl or boy another time and explain to the mother the reasons behind it. Often there is still plenty of cake to share.
That said, introverted children don’t need to be anxious children. When going to a new place, go over the expected rules before you get there. Ask to take a tour and show your child the bathroom, and where she can play. Find and identify quiet places where she can sit by herself.
The key is to give the impression you are very calm about her being in a new place, even if you have to fake it. Often the sweetest, most kind-hearted parents have the most anxious children because they are hooked into the feelings of their child, instead of modelling the positive, confident feelings they should encourage their little one to have in new situations.
Dealing with difficulties
Bad things happen in life and we often don’t get to choose when, where and how. Introverted children thrive in routine and structure so upsets can throw them.
If life changes in a big way, it’s important to establish new routines within that change as soon as possible.
Introverts may often withdraw when they are struggling. Allow that, but also encourage your child to do activities quietly alongside you, so you can reach out every now and again to touch her back or hair gently. This is often enough.
Teach tools such as mindful breathing and positive self-talk to your children.
My home, my haven
Many introverted children see their home as their haven. They don’t want to have lots of friends over, they prefer to spend time alone or with their family.
If they go to childcare or school, they may need the recharge time of quiet activity at home, rather than socialising. If you are introverted yourself you will understand this. If you are more extroverted you may worry about your child having no friends. But trust that children will make friends in their own time.
We will always be who we are, but just like an extreme extrovert can learn skills to sit down and focus on tasks rather than party all day, introverts can learn skills to socialise confidently, talk in public and initiate challenging conversations. As parents, our job is to help our children learn the skills they need to thrive with the temperament they were born with.
Rachel Goodchild works with parents and teachers, teaching about behaviour and learning (including the introverted child). She has three daughters