I like talking to people, I’m okay with meeting new people, and I’ve even been known to intentionally engage in situations where I’m forced to converse with perfect strangers. Still, I know myself well enough to admit that I’m more introverted than extroverted. I prefer listening to talking, I hate situations that require all eyes be on me for more than a few minutes and I abhor even the slightest bit of public embarrassment.
My four-year-old son Oliver? The boy is my walking, talking contradiction. He will plunk himself down on the lap of someone he’s never met, yammer about everything from what he ate for lunch to how big of a deposit he made in the toilet that day (true story), and laughs until his sides hurt if something unexpected happens when he’s entertaining a crowd.
Adrienne Harrop, mom of two from Ennismore, Ont., knows what it’s like to raise an outgoing, extrovert child. She says it was obvious from the start that her now three-year-old son, Wil, was an extrovert. “He’s the type of kid who never made strange and is happy as long as he gets attention.” Though she’s grown accustomed to his character traits over time, she says they still create an interesting dynamic. “On my own, I instinctively prefer to hang back in a crowd and engage in conversation only when I’m comfortable. With Wil around, I’ve learned to roll with being thrown into social situations on a moment’s notice. He certainly keeps me on my toes,” she says.
Adrienne and I are hardly alone in parenting our personality opposites, says Minnesota-based Dr. Mary Sheedy Kurcinka, parent educator, speaker and bestselling author of Raising Your Spirited Child. According to her, while it’s nothing new that introverts are raising extroverts (and vice versa), parents continue to be surprised when it happens to them. “There’s this unspoken expectation that our kids will be a carbon copy of ourselves, especially when it comes to personality, and that’s often not the case,” she says.
Another misconception? That kids choose their temperaments. “The personality traits a child has are inherently based on how they draw their energy, not by preference,” says Judy Arnall, Calgary-based parenting trainer, speaker and bestselling author of Discipline Without Distress. She says that despite the fact that we all have tendencies to be either more extroverted or introverted, everyone is capable of exhibiting characteristics of both temperaments. In many cases the direction we take is dictated by the situation we’re in.
For example, Dr. Sheedy Kurchinka says that though introverts are typically thought to be shy or potentially awkward in social situations, that may not necessarily be the case. “Being introverted doesn’t mean you automatically feel out of place in group settings, though it’s possible that an introverted person could exhibit these characteristics when surrounded by extroverts. It simply means that although you can be completely at ease with others, you feel drained by too much interaction and need time alone to recharge after social settings. If you don’t get it, your ability to focus, communicate and even process information is affected.” She says the opposite is true for extroverts, who thrive in groups and crave interaction to recharge their batteries.
Though I inwardly cringe when Oliver’s exuberance means I’m forced out of my comfort zone, there’s a small part of me that’s a bit excited, too. After all, spending time with my chatterbox extrovert has led to events, outings and friendships that would never have happened without him. It is those experiences and relationships for which I’m incredibly thankful.
Liz Bruckner is an introverted freelance writer and mom of three boys, two of whom posses dominant extrovert traits. Her eight-month-old baby is showing signs of following the same personality path as his brothers and it scares her.
Whenever my daughter Katie and I had alone time, she was a charming little chatterbox. Whether I was driving her to gymnastics or we were having dinner, she would talk my ear off. However, if more than two or three people were visiting, even if they were family, she suddenly became the silent child.
When a large group of her friends would drop by, it was heartbreaking for me to watch her quietly retreat to a swing in the backyard. She seemed happy enough but I worried about the way she withdrew. The more I tried to draw her out, the more she pulled inside of herself.
I, of all people, should have recognized that I was dealing with an introverted child. Not only had I written a parenting column for a daily newspaper and read about introverted children but – and this is the big one – I am married to a classic introvert.
He needs his alone time to reenergize while I feed off the electricity of being with friends at a rambunctious dinner party. So why did I fail to see that my daughter was an introvert? When I put that question to Toronto psychotherapist and parenting expert Alyson Schafer, she explained that the challenges of raising an introverted child, especially when you’re an extrovert, often stem from the reality that the world belongs to extroverts.
“We live in a society that idolizes the qualities of extroverts so we pathologize introverts,” Alyson says. “We parents worry that if our kids are too passive and that if they don’t stand up for themselves they won’t make friends or get into Yale.”
Even worse, says Alyson, we often mistake introverted children as having low self-esteem or even being depressed. What the outie parent who is struggling to raise an introverted child needs, says Alyson, is a shift in his or her perspective.
“When you’re the extrovert, it’s often difficult to understand that our way is not the only way. It’s really an exercise in flexibility of thinking. I think it’s really important for parents who maybe have never had to step outside of their comfort zone to think about it in the same way as we’ve come to understand different learning styles.”
Alyson says the worst thing a parent can do is to label their introverted child as shy because “that sends a message to a child that it’s a fixed trait and that they need to change.”
Parents also need to recognize the skill sets of an introvert, for example, that they’re deep thinkers and don’t want to talk about Justin Bieber but, says Alyson, “they may well want to discuss if there’s life after death.”
They also tend to have one or two close friends and count their friends by quality not quantity.
When I dug deep inside of myself to understand why I had failed to recognize my daughter as an introvert, I remembered back to my kindergarten years when I had been the quiet child. I’d lived in fear of being called on by the teacher and tried desperately to blend in at birthday parties.
Perhaps I was trying to save her from that discomfort. Somewhere between my early years and high school, I changed. It turns out I’m actually an ambivert (yes, the term exists), so I live in both worlds.
Between 25 and 30 percent of children are introverts and when you truly understand their qualities, says Alyson, you understand why the world needs more of them. I’ve come to realize that reaching my daughter, who is now 10, means understanding the lens that she filters life through. She is a happy, positive child and she is thriving. And that’s the most important thing.
“There’s nothing worse than a parent sending a child a message that they’re not right and that they have to change,” says Alyson. “We need all kinds of people on the planet.”
Denise Davy has written extensively on parenting, which doesn’t mean she’s an expert on raising children, especially an introvert. She lives in Burlington with her husband and their two daughters.
Two things, says Calgary’s Judy Arnall, parenting trainer, speaker and bestselling author of Discipline Without Distress. Not only do parents need to be sensitive to their child’s emotional needs, they also should be able to communicate effectively with their offspring, personality difference or not. Here’s how.
Know the Difference
Despite the fact that we all have introverted and extroverted traits, chances are your child leans more in one direction than the other. And it’s not as simple as shy versus outgoing. Not sure which temperament better defines your child? Author Dr. Mary Sheedy Kurcinka says to pay attention to how they spend their free time.
“Introverted kids like quieter activities, such as drawing, writing, reading and anything that can be done on their own,” she says. “They like to explore ideas, think and get caught up in solo activities. They thrive in peaceful environments and prefer to have their day mapped out so they can prepare themselves for what’s to come.”
Extroverted kids, on the other hand, are exuberant, boisterous and thrive on attention. “They want to put on plays or puppet shows, dress up in costumes, sing in front of people and do anything that involves interaction,” she says. They require regular stimulation, are drained by longterm commitments and live for variety.
We get it: Sometimes it’s hard to parent what you don’t understand. But rather than try to make a child come around to your way of thinking, which goes against their nature and may make them feel self-conscious, work with their strengths.
If you’re an introvert parent raising an extrovert child, Dr. Sheedy Kurcinka advises bringing in your village. Enlist Grandma, Aunt Jill or Best Friend Fran to take junior for a few hours every week, visit drop-in playgroups, make friends with parents in the same situation and make sure your partner in parenting understands and contributes to fostering your child’s personality. Also important, adds Judy, is teaching your bundle of energy that they need to respect that not everyone wants to be active and interacting at all times.“Extroverted kids need to understand that some people need personal space and alone time. You can help them grasp that by encouraging quiet portions of the day where books are read, pictures are drawn or a television show is watched,” she says.
If you’re an extrovert parent raising an introvert child, the biggest challenges are to slow down and step away, Judy says. Respect your child’s need for solitude, don’t over-schedule them and teach family members that time and space are required for your child to feel their best. Designate an area at home that is theirs alone for decompression and quiet time, and give them time to approach new people and situations on their own terms. “One of the hardest things for extroverts to do is back away, but introverts need time to just be. It can be a hard adjustment at first but parents relax when they realize how beneficial the recharging time is to their child,” she says.
The Bottom Line
Accept the child you have: “Personality traits are inborn characteristics and forcing a child to change is not going to work,” says Judy. “When parents realize the difference between their children and their own preference, they can adapt how they live to make changes that fit both personalities.”
Don't label: Regardless of whether your child is introverted or extroverted, avoid describing them as “outgoing” or “shy” when talking to them or other people. They are who they are, and they don’t require potentially hurtful words to define them.
Appreciate the difference: “Parenting a child who has a personality, temperament and preferences completely different than your own is a great motivator to be open to the unfamiliar,” says Dr. Sheedy Kurcinka. “Despite the difference that may be innately present, try to be appreciative of the new experiences your child brings to your life. Whether it’s more peace and quiet or the chance to never know boredom again, focus on and recognize the unique value they add to your family.”
Both originally published in ParentsCanada magazine, November 2013.