As an introverted child, I lived partly in a small suburb in Minnesota and partly in my imagination. I was content spending whole afternoons by myself, writing books on construction paper and daydreaming. As a teenager, I had a lively group of girl friends, but I didn’t understand why I felt drained after spending the day at the mall with them. They didn’t seem to need the alone time I craved. I told myself they were “normal” and I should be more like them.
Thankfully, as an adult, I’ve learned there’s a word for who I am—introvert—and this is a perfectly “normal” way of being in its own right. I was likely born an introvert and I will always be one.
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That’s because our temperament—meaning, whether we’re an introvert or an extrovert—is generally stable throughout our lives. Research suggests that most kids remain true to the temperament they first exhibit beginning around the age of four months, writes Dr. Marti Olsen Laney in The Hidden Gifts of the Introverted Child: Helping Your Child Thrive in an Extroverted World. Once an introvert, always an introvert.
What are some other characteristics of introverted children? No two introverts are exactly alike, but introverted children tend to share these characteristics:
1. Introverted kids have a rich inner world. It is alive and present for them. They rely on their inner resources to guide them rather than constantly turning to others. “In their private garden away from the material world they concentrate and puzzle out complex and intricate thoughts and feelings,” writes Dr. Laney. Introverted children like imaginative play, and they prefer playing alone or with just one or two other children. They often spend time in their own room with the door closed, doing solitary things like reading, drawing, or playing computer games. Unfortunately, having a rich inner world can be a double-edged sword, because it can lead them to feel isolated and alienated from others. It’s important for parents of introverted children to help them see how their temperament can be a source of strength.
2. They engage with the deeper aspects of life. Often, introverted children are not afraid of the big questions. They want to know why something matters or what something means. Astonishingly, even at a young age, many of them can step outside themselves and reflect on their own behavior. Often, introverted children want to understand themselves and everyone and everything around them. They might wonder, What makes this person tick?
3. Introverted kids observe first. They prefer to watch games or activities before joining in. Sometimes appearing hesitant and cautious, they stand away from the action and enter new situations slowly. They may be more energetic and talkative at home where they feel comfortable.
4. They make decisions based on their own values. Their thoughts and feelings anchor them inwardly, so they make decisions based on their own standards rather than following the crowd. This can be an extremely positive aspect of their nature, because it means they’re often less vulnerable to peer pressure and they don’t do things just to fit in.
5. Once they’re comfortable with you, they’re excellent conversationalists. Just like introverted adults, introverted kids may warm up to new people slowly. They may be quiet and reserved at first, but, when they’re in a relaxed atmosphere, they enjoy chatting about topics that interest them. Often their aim in conversation is to better understand their own or someone else’s inner world; they value connecting and really getting to know someone. They are often good listeners and remember what their conversational partner said. Introverted kids may speak softly, occasionally pause to search for words, and may stop talking if interrupted. They may look away when speaking to gather their thoughts, but they make eye contact when listening.
6. Introverted children may struggle in group settings. Over the years, our society’s values have shifted and extroversion has become the ideal. We praise assertiveness, group acceptance, and external accomplishment rather than quiet reflection, solitude, and careful decision-making. Sadly, the standards of being outgoing and active have been woven into every school and institution that an introverted child encounters. At a younger and younger age, children are spending time in group day cares and preschools. When they begin formal schooling, they spend 6-7 hours a day with 20 or 30 other children, all the while being encouraged to participate and work in groups. This is challenging for introverts, who do better at home during their early years and adapt more successfully to group settings as they grow older, writes Dr. Laney.
7. Introverted kids socialize differently. They may have just one or two close friends and count everyone else as an acquaintance, because introverts seek depth in relationships not breadth. They probably won’t spend as much time socializing as extroverted kids, and they will likely need to go off on their own after a while to recharge their energy. This is because introverts—both children and adults—become drained and tired after being around other people for long periods of time. They may zone out, clam up, feel overwhelmed, or become cranky when they don’t get enough downtime. But it doesn’t mean they’re unsociable, they’re “differently social,” writes Susan Cain in Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking. After some time spent alone in their bedroom, reading, writing, playing a video game or just letting their mind wander, introverted kids will feel energized. They will come out of their bedroom, happily ready to spend time with their family or friends again.
Introverted Kids vs. Extroverted Kids
How do introverted kids compare to extroverted kids? Here are some characteristics of extroverted children, from Dr. Laney’s book:
- Talk with a snappy patter and loud voice, even more so if nervous
- Like to switch subjects often
- Have the capacity to sound like they know more than they do about a subject
- Stand close to the person they’re talking to
- Interrupt conversations
- Look away when listening
- Use a lot of facial expressions and body language
- Walk away if a conversation goes on for too long
- Think of most people as friends
- Jump into new situations easily
- Feel charged up after stimulating activities
- Complain or feel drained if they spend too much time alone
If you’re the parent of an introverted child, the best thing you can do for your child is to honor their temperament. Help your child understand why they feel tired and cranky after socializing, and let them know it’s okay for them to spend time alone. Don’t ever let them think there is something wrong with them because they’re introverted. When we accept introverted kids for who they are, it gives them the self-esteem they need to go confidently into the world.