I was always a highly introverted child; an observer. It showed. For instance, when I was in high school, I learned that for my dance group’s upcoming graduation dinner, the other dancers selected me to receive the spoof award for being the “Most Reserved.” Knowing how much I despised being called by my “label” when there was so much more to me than that, my Mom suggested that I tape a sign that read “I AM NOT SHY” to the back of my underwear. She said that when I walked up to receive the award, I should moon everyone with my, ahem, (not shy side). Although I appreciated her sentiment, I did not take that advice.
Fortunately, the award never happened, but the message to me was clear. I’d known since I was little that I was an “observer” and wired differently from some of the louder kids.
Even the littlest kids intuitively know how people want them to be.
In general: gregarious = good; quiet = problem. Well-meaning adults often pursue introverted children who aren’t quick to respond with a sweetly teasing inquiry of “Oh, are you shy?” No matter how good-natured the intention, a child can perceive this as, “You, little human, are not okay as you are.” In truth, the child may not be shy at all. He may just be an observer who wants to find acceptance in the world. We all want that. Splitting hairs? Nah. For some, it’s actually quite different, and both can be completely developmentally normal. There’s a difference between lacking confidence and being an observer who’s sure of oneself. Some kids just prefer to enter the pool through the shallow end, so to speak.
Going slowly gives an introverted child the information they need to feel comfortable in new situations. Regardless of your child’s confidence, it’s important for the world’s naturally gregarious people to understand that the seemingly innocent question about shyness can embarrass or cause pain for some introverted children.
For those of us who have the quiet ones in our homes, part of respectful parenting is accepting our children exactly as they are.
Here are some ways you can support them “in the moment.”
When in a situation that’s typically challenging for your introverted child, talk ahead of time about what to expect (even if she’s seen it before).
To you, it might just be another kid’s birthday party. To your child, it might be “a place where people I don’t know look at me and adults try to talk to me, and noisy kids are everywhere.” Rather than telling your child what others expect of him (which she can perceive as pressure), state just the facts and describe what your child is likely to see there. Then, remind your child that you (or another trusted adult) will be with him the whole time. Finally, agree on a script of what he can say if he needs support. If talking to another adult without your involvement is tricky for your child, consider giving him a small “help card” to show that adult, instead. If you’re staying present with your child, here are some steps you can try:
Wait to see if that anyone says anything to your child, and let your child enter the social scene at his or her own pace (or not at all).
If someone does say something to your child, then ask your child something like this (within earshot of that person): “Would you like to respond, or shall I tell them you prefer to observe?” There are lots of variations you can try here. Now that I have an introverted child of my own, I’ve had lots of opportunities to practice with her. For instance, once we graduated from this question, we moved onto, “Would you prefer to say ‘hi’ or just wave?” Remember the importance of your loving, supportive touch along the way.
Above all, your introverted child will grow in confidence if he feels your unequivocal support.
Respect your child’s choice.
If she chooses observation, simply tell the other person: “She prefers to observe until she knows people better.” Smile. And then redirect the adult conversation.
Support your child by not offering apologies or excuses.
A simple smile assures the person with whom you’re engaged in conversation that all is well.
If you don’t have an introverted child, the best thing you can do is let the quiet ones be, without judgment or comment. By doing that, you’re sending the message that they’re exactly right, just as they are.
Further Reading about Introverts
(Amazon afflinks):This book about sensitive children helped me understand many introverted kids better than any other I’ve found; I highly recommend it. If you are, or know, a sensitive adult, this book provides fantastic insight. And of course, this award-winning book is phenomenally insightful for understanding introverts big and small.
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