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How to parent a young introvert when you’re an extrovert — Good Parenting

Dear Dr. Debbie,

Here’s what typically happens: I take my daughter to a new activity, say, ballet class, and unless the teacher speaks to her directly, she just stands there. The other girls seem to catch on and follow the movements she tells them or shows them, but my daughter needs a personalized invitation. At home, however, she dances up a storm. Same thing happens at the playground. Other children seem to find playmates instantly while my child quietly moves away from the crowd. I’ve shown her how to introduce herself and ask other children their names, but it’s like she doesn’t even know why she would want to do that. My husband says she’s just more introverted (like him) while I’m the one looking to connect with other people when we go out.
Can I help her to be more outgoing? I’m worried she’ll miss out on all the fun.

— Wallflower’s Mother

Dear WM,

You’ve given a pretty good description of an introvert. And while being with other people is fun for you, your daughter clearly would be having more fun the fewer people there are. She doesn’t need a crowd of people to give her energy, feedback or models of what to do. Introverts, rather, have a very rich inner world and easily get overwhelmed in situations that involve other people, especially people they don’t know well.

Rather than trying to make her be a different kind of person, try to see her needs from an introvert’s point of view.

Arrive early

An extrovert thrills to enter a crowded room, scanning for familiar faces and delighting in spotting some new ones. The opposite is true for the introvert. Your daughter would do best to be the first one in a room, absorbing each new person into the scene. She also would have an advantage in being able to scan each prospect as they enter, picking out the one person (known or unknown) most likely to share a timid smile or an easy conversation.

For her to come into a social scene in progress bombards her with confusion. Do I speak to this person or that one? Do I make eye contact or avoid eye contact with that group over there? Did I go to summer camp with her or is she one of those girls from last year’s dance class?

Plan time alone to recharge

Pace your days with your daughter so that if she has to be with a crowd – school, for example – she gets some quiet time before more social demands are placed on her.

She may share a word or two with you when you reconnect at the end of the day, but she might prefer to mull things over before sharing any highlights with you. This could be quiet time in the car, in her room, or her favorite nature spot with a snack.

Consider scheduling dance class for the weekend (or use a video lesson at home!) since scurrying from one group activity to another is very wearing on an introvert.

Express feelings safely

Introverts generally keep their feelings to themselves, especially those that might rouse the emotions of others (pity, anger, disappointment, jealousy, even hearty approval). Be careful not to corner her with demands to share how she may have felt in a difficult situation.

Perhaps she could share her feeling through artwork or dance movements. Or she might like to make up a story about an animal that was in a similar spot. If you believe something is troubling her, find some quiet time to start the story for her to see if that helps her let it out. Just be sure to tone down your reactions as it unfolds.

Understand social stimulation

Time with friends is an essential ingredient of childhood. However, the introverted child only needs a few friends, and hopefully for a very long time. They may get together daily, weekly or less often, but you can see the deep focus between them when they do.

Adding other people to the mix only adds distraction and potential stress. Therefore, try to limit socially overstimulating situations. She will learn to do this for herself as she grows up.

Find a compatible playmate

Up to about age 5, you have a lot of control over your child’s companions — choosing her preschool or childcare center and arranging family time to get together with children of your own friends and family members. By early elementary school, children show definite preferences for playmates.

Your introvert may be attractive and attracted to someone just like her — to enjoy amazing adventures as a twosome. On the other hand, a good playmate for an introvert might be her opposite — someone whose fantastic ideas are easy to quietly go along with. The key to a good friendship in any case will be consistency — having the same friend with whom to develop a longstanding relationship based on shared experiences together.

Enjoy fun for one

When she’s not with a friend, your daughter is probably highly capable of entertaining herself. She dances alone. What else does she enjoy?

Many introverts are avid readers, getting wrapped up in mystery or history or fables from foreign lands. Some are artists with crayon or paint or poetry. Others are architects with blocks or Legos. Your daughter might start a garden or tend to a pet. She may play out dramatic scenes all by herself with dolls or dress-ups.

Don’t confuse having fun with being with others. She’s not missing out at all.

Deborah Wood is a child development specialist in Annapolis. She holds a doctorate in Human Development from the University of Maryland at College Park and is founding director of the Chesapeake Children’s Museum. Longtime fans and new readers can find many of her “Understanding Children” columns archived on the Chesapeake Family Magazine website. You can find her online at drdebbiewood.com.

What do you think? Leave your thoughts in the comments or submit a question to Dr. Debbie at Betsy@jecoannapolis.com.

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