You never know quite when you are going to have a parenting epiphany. I had one recently, when I arrived home on a weekend afternoon after running an errand. My husband and six-year-old son were busy making LEGO creations, and we began talking about our plans for the rest of the day. I suggested some excursion, and my son replied, “I just want to stay at home.”
After sensing by my silence that I wasn’t a big fan of that idea, my husband said, “We were just talking about how you are an extrovert and we are both introverts. We like to stay home, and you like to go places.”
The tears after pickup on his first day of all-day summer camp should have been an indication. His pleas to come home after school instead of playing on the playground with friends could have tipped me off. When he added “Stay at home” to our summer bucket list, you could argue that it was obvious.
The problem is, I am an extrovert. I get cranky when I spend all day at home. My husband can tell when I have gotten off the phone with a friend because my spirits are lifted. Before I had my son, I was away most nights with various social engagements.
Now that I have realized what my husband and my son have known for some time, what do I do about it?
Step One: Consult Google
First, I did what any parent would do: turn to Google to learn more about introversion. The concepts of introversion and extroversion were originally explored by Carl Jung in the 1920s. As I expected, extroverts tend to enjoy spending time with people and get bored being alone, while introverts can get overwhelmed with too much stimulation and prefer quiet or solitary activities.
I especially liked this piece from The Atlantic about “caring” for your introvert. Although it’s not written for parents and is tongue in cheek, it confirms what I have learned about introverts: after being in a social setting, introverts need down time to recharge. In this blog post written by Kelly Bartlett, who is an introvert raising an introvert, I saw a message echoed elsewhere: introversion and shyness are not the same thing. Kelly suggests that introverted kids tend to be cautious when meeting new people, but that this is because they want to develop a connection to a person before being comfortable making small talk. This certainly sounds familiar!
Step Two: Ask The Experts
When I felt I had a better grasp of these character traits, I contacted Carl Pickhardt, who is a local psychologist, speaker and author of over a dozen parenting books, and Didi Rowland, a licensed clinical social worker who sees children, adolescents and parents in her private practice, to ask their advice about parenting an introvert, particularly if the parent happens to be an extrovert.
Didi pointed out that our social landscape has changed. “Twenty-five to fifty years ago we expected much less of our young children in terms of socialization,” she said. “Most young children were at home with a primary caregiver, usually Mom. Children entertained themselves, played outside or interacted with siblings with whom they had close bonds and were quite familiar. Today we have children in playgroups, preschools and daycare — some of whom are under the age of one”. In addition, as Didi suggested, our social media-influenced culture subliminally equates having a large number of friends with happiness. It’s no wonder that this drive to focus on friendships for our children has permeated our parenting.
What Not to Do
Perhaps it’s easiest to start out with what not to do as an extrovert raising an introvert. As Carl observed, “The trap for parents is when they favor similarity to themselves, and penalize differences by trying to change them.” Trying to make your introvert into an extrovert tells your child that they are not fine the way they are, which also jeopardizes the security of their attachment with you.
Try not to overschedule your child. Didi noted that many parents enroll their children in afterschool activities each day, when they could benefit from some time to decompress after a long day at school.
Separate the behavior from the characteristic. Carl suggests approaching a situation by saying, “I know you would like all your time alone today, but I would like you to spend some time with visiting family, so let’s talk about what we can work out.”
What to Do
Now that we better understand what not to do when raising an introvert, what is the best way to respect who your child is while acknowledging that your personalities are different?
First, Carl reminded me that characteristics such as introversion or extraversion are not absolute. “You have a mix of both, although one usually predominates,” he affirmed. With this in mind, parents can encourage the child’s more introverted side (in my case, I immediately thought about the hours upon hours my son carefully crafts intricate creations out of LEGO bricks), while suggesting the child to plan a playdate with a classmate he seems to get along with well.
Now that you have accepted your child as an introvert, understand what he or she needs. “Recognize that your child may take pleasure in her own company,” suggests Didi. She suggests creating a comfortable nook for your child in your home where your child can unwind, read, draw or daydream and still have family closeby. “Be sure to verbalize to your child that you notice how adept she is at keeping herself entertained and how proud you are of her,” recommended Didi.
The differences between you and your child can also be a conversation starter. Carl advises parents talk to their children by saying something similar to: “from you I can learn to develop more of my inward side, and maybe from me you can learn to develop more of your outgoing side. Both sides are good to have.” He also recommends asking your child what he or she enjoys about spending time alone so that the parent can express a desire to learn more about what the child needs.
I now have a lot more insight into why my son and I can have opposite reactions to social situations. Although I feel I am already pretty reasonable about his requests to stay at home, it’s very helpful for me to understand more about why having down time is important for him. My son and I have already had some good conversations about why I like to have dinner with friends a few nights a week (it turns out he doesn’t understand me sometimes, either!), and how we are different, which is fine. As with many other aspects of parenting, I suspect balancing his needs as an introvert and my desires as an extrovert will be a constant walk along a tightrope. Just another thing to add to that parenting resume.
Here are a few book suggestions on introverts I found during my research or which were suggested by Carl and Didi:
Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking by Susan Cain
Hidden Gifts of the Introverted Child by Marti Olsen Laney
The Introvert’s Way by Sophia Dembling
The Hurried Child by David Elkind
Are you parenting an introvert? Or are you an introvert parenting an extrovert? Or do you have to balance between your kids, with some being introverts and others being extroverts? Or are you in a family of all introverts or all extroverts?
Written by: Nicole Basham