To say I didn’t like people is an understatement; I hated having to smile and nod and – heaven forbid, talk – to adults or other kids. As a child, I’d try to curl up within myself and blend into the background much to the chagrin of my parents. They couldn’t understand why a kid who would talk animatedly at home would suddenly swap personalities and try to blend in with the furniture when someone outside the family showed up.
Fortunately, there is a term that describes me: I am an introvert.
We are a breed that is sensitive to social stimulation and is overwhelmed easily. But we are, say studies, also a bunch that have deep friendships, a healthy dose of self-awareness and are better than extroverts when it comes to observing and understanding the social behaviour of people in group settings.
While forming social bonds can be a bit tough – the ones that are forged tend to stand the test of time. “For introverts who may get overwhelmed and overstimulated by too many experiences, making friends can feel very overwhelming and exhausting,” says Kim Henderson, Clinical Psychologist at German Neuroscience Center.
But while this may be a default setting, it is in no way a defect. “There has been a lot of focus on children’s temperament and developing personalities as young adults. Popular culture - influenced highly by research in the 20th century - projects having an extroverted personality as someone who is likely to be successful and thus desirable. In fact, what people think of extroversion or introversion may have several facets, which are not immediately recognised.” says Dr Waleed Ahmed, Consultant in Child, Adolescent and Adult Psychiatry, Priory Wellbeing Centre.
What exactly is an introvert?
The term introvert dates back to the 1920s when psychologist Carl Jung classified personalities according to how they get or expend energy. Introverts, Jung said, are self-rechargers while extroverts thrive in people-rich environments.
Signs you’ve got an introvert on your hands:
If your child is displaying the following signs, according to WebMD, it may point to an introvert, who:
- Needs quiet to concentrate
- Is reflective
- Is self-aware
- Takes time to make decisions
- Feels comfortable being alone
- Doesn’t like group work
- Prefers to write rather than talk
- Feels tired after being in a crowd
- Has few friendships, but is very close with these friends
- Daydream or uses its imaginations to work out a problem
- Retreats into his/her own mind to rest
There are two tests - Myers-Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI) and the Synthetic Aperture Personality Assessment Project – that may confirm your suspicions.
So how can I help my introvert child make friends?
The first step, explains Dr Henderson, is to teach your child about introversion and what it means. “Introversion is a personality characteristic that is no better or worse than other personality traits. Instilling this message in your child is important for confidence with others.”
Next, space out interactions. “If your child is an introvert being social multiple times in one pocket of time can be stressful. Give your child breaks in between social engagements to ‘recharge’ their internal batteries. Also consider giving your child break even within the play experience to rest,” she adds.
“Introversion is a personality characteristic that is no better or worse than other personality traits. Instilling this message in your child is important for confidence with others.
Does your child get along better with kids who are younger them him/her? “Something to consider is maybe pairing your introverted child with someone slightly younger than themselves. Older children tend to be assertive or ‘bossy’ and this normal behaviour might intimidate an introverted child and make them want to disengage,” explains Henderson.
While all introverts are not shy – indeed, some can be quietly confident, it’s important to be aware of the different facets of your child’s personality. “It may be important to understand what your child wants. A preference to make friends depends upon many factors like temperament and personality traits but also certain issues like shyness (which does not equate to introversion), anxiety, sensory processing issues and, in rare cases, conditions like autism and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. So, it’s important to play on the child’s strengths and be sensitive to their needs,” explains Dr Ahmed.
“Building confidence is key and therefore, taking a gentle and balanced approach would be helpful. It would be sensible to introduce social situations in a smaller way with only a few friends. Selecting such friends who are less likely to be boisterous and overactive, planning activities that your child may feel more comfortable engaging in, and having adequate breaks for them to check in with you, could help ease the process that they may not be preferentially inclined towards. It goes without saying that children with similar interests and personality traits do tend to gravitate towards each other and may find it easier to have friendships.
Selecting friends who are less likely to be boisterous and overactive, planning activities that your child may feel more comfortable engaging in, and having adequate breaks for them to check in with you, could help ease the process that they may not be preferentially inclined towards.
“Both introverts and extroverts value the positive benefits of social interactions – it’s the type, the environment and the amount that is different,” he says.
Introversion is a physiological thing
Parents enjoy seeing their children happy – and often the image in our minds is them laughing in a group of others their age. But your introvert child isn’t being aloof in social settings to upset you, but rather because he/she is feeling compelled to. Dr Ahmed says: “It helps to understand that introverts and extroverts may have different nervous systems. Psychological research has shown that introverts are more easily able to react to stimulation whereas extroverts require a lot of stimulation to be able to react. On the one hand, if an introvert child might find a social situation like a party too overwhelming, an extrovert child may experience something less stimulating, dull and boring, and may experience sluggishness. A situation becomes exaggerated when extrovert parents struggle to accept their introvert children’s preferences.”
Learning to talk to people
Navigating social landmines can be taught. As can putting on a brave face. It’s just that these things take time. Dr Ahmed says: “Introducing your child to such situations needs to be done gently and in smaller steps - for example, introducing public speaking in smaller groups and smaller family events before getting up on stage at school.”
“Think about expanding your child’s comfort zone by slowly and gently pushing the boundaries, but also being aware of their sensitivities. Help them find and develop hobbies and passions. It may not be a popular one that the “cool” kids do, but it is important for your child to explore, experiment and find something that they truly find joy in,” explains Dr Ahmed.
Is my child an introvert because I am?
Perhaps. “Most psychological processes have biological underpinnings and therefore can be seen as heritable to varying degrees,” explains Dr Ahmed. “Sociability has been linked to dopamine levels in the body. Certain aspects of one’s interaction like shyness and avoidant behaviours that are not necessarily introversion can be linked to a psychological condition like social anxiety, developmental disorders or sensory issues. There is also the likelihood that children are likely to mirror parental preferences and behaviours as they observe what mum and dad are fearful of and are avoiding.”
“An awareness of these issues and being open to your child’s individual strengths, uniqueness, and needs - what’s in their best interests and understanding how they are ultimately going to chart their own paths - will hopefully take pressure off parents from worrying whether they have done something ‘wrong’ or not. The question of nature and nurture will always echo in these parenting pages and the reality lies somewhere in between and in the interaction of these two domains.”
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