With society favouring extroverted people who exude positivity and enthusiasm, an introvert child is generally shunned for shy and socially awkward behaviour. But contemporary research indicates that the reflective traits of introverts helps them develop into good communicators and leaders – Aruna Raghuram
Eight-year-old Anupriya Mathur, a class III student of a top-ranked Delhi school, has few friends. She spends long hours by herself reading or dabbling in art. Although an above average student, she rarely participates in the school’s cultural activities. In social gatherings too, she is reticent. However when her grandparents visited recently, Anupriya was forthcoming and cheerfully interacted with them. Anupriya’s mother is worried that her daughter lacks the social skills to succeed in the workplace and life.
It’s not unusual for parents to fret and worry about introverted children. With society favouring extroverts who exude positivity and enthusiasm, introverts are generally shunned for their shy and socially awkward social behaviour. But contemporary science and research indicates that the reflective traits of introverts enables them to develop into better communicators and leaders. For instance a recent study conducted by researchers at Harvard, Stanford and Chicago universities reveals that companies managed by introvert CEOs outperformed their peers.
Susan Cain, author of the best-selling Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World that Can’t Stop Talking (2012), cites research in biology, psychology, neuroscience and evolution to demonstrate that introversion is common and normal, highlighting that many of humankind’s most creative individuals and distinguished leaders (e.g, Albert Einstein, Mahatma Gandhi, Charles Darwin among others) were introverts. “A widely held, but rarely articulated, belief in our society is that the ideal self is bold, alpha, gregarious. Introversion is viewed somewhere between disappointment and pathology,” writes Cain. In her deeply researched book, Cain calls for changes at the workplace, in schools, and in parenting to help introverts realise their full potential.
The terms ‘introvert’ and ‘extrovert’ were first made popular by Swiss psychiatrist Carl Jung in the 1920s. Jung defined introverts as individuals who are drawn into their internal worlds of sentiment, thoughts, and emotions, while extroverts are eager participants in external life of people and activities. Introverts get their energy from lonely reflection unlike extroverts who draw energy from involvement with people and group activities. Introverts are typically introspective, quiet (but not necessarily shy), and observant.
Susan Cain explains that introverts differ from shy individuals. “Shyness is much more about the fear of being judged. It’s a kind of self-consciousness and not wanting people to look at you and feeling easily embarrassed or easily shamed… Many introverted children are also shy, but many are not. You can also have children that are quite extroverted but who are shy.”
A 2015 study titled Childhood Experiences of Introversion: An Exploration of Navigating Social and Academic Spaces and Ways of Coping by Leah S. Schwartz contributed two significant observations about introversion. First, introverts have spaces of discomfort, particularly social settings where they feel different and unseen. Therefore, they create spaces of comfort, such as the home, among close friends and family members, where they felt at ease and valued. Second, introverts may enact extroversion in some social situations to be accepted because of an inherent belief that introversion is not socially popular.
The brains of introverts and extroverts are wired differently. According to latest research, they react differently to the neurotransmitter dopamine — a chemical released in the brain that provides motivation to seek external rewards such as earning money, climbing the social ladder, attracting a mate, etc. Extroverts react more strongly than introverts to dopamine which prompts them to seek external rewards. In contrast the brain of an introvert uses more of the neurotransmitter acetylcholine which makes them feel good when they turn inwards and think deeply.
Moreover, while introverts favour the ‘parasympathetic’ side of the nervous system which makes them withdraw from the outer environment and contemplate, extroverts prefer the ‘sympathetic’ side which makes them active, daring and inquisitive.
Sugami Ramesh, a Bangalore-based clinical psychologist and counsellor with over 25 years of experience, believes that parents need to understand and appreciate children’s introversion. “Research indicates that there is a strong biological and genetic basis which makes people introverts or extroverts. Parents need to understand that an introvert child gets energy by focusing inward. It is best to provide her the time to process each experience before moving on to the next. Also, an introvert child may feel out of place in social settings and needs help to develop coping skills. Parents should make efforts to discover and encourage the hidden gifts of introverted children by providing opportunities for creative expression,” says Ramesh.
Parenting an introvert child
Here are some ways parents can help and nurture their introvert children to realise their full potential.
Accept your child. What an introvert child needs most from parents is acceptance. If your child feels she isn’t living up to your and/or societal expectations, she may undermine her self-confidence. Parents need to understand that introversion is not a socio-emotional problem but a personality trait. Avoid labelling her as shy or loner. Instead, reassure her that she is unique and special.
Don’t force her to make friends. You may wish she was more sociable, but don’t force her to interact with peers. It is alright to have a few friends. Being popular and having numerous friends is not really important.
Don’t push her into group activities. Introverts don’t like crowded places and are hesitant about interacting with strangers. Encourage your child to participate in group activities, without pushing her. An activities-filled schedule could drain her emotionally and make her irritable.
Respect her solitude. An introvert loves spending time engaged in solitude and contemplation. Don’t be annoyed if she doesn’t spend much time with the family.
Become her confidante. As an introvert, your child is likely to turn to you for support in difficult times. Therefore learn to be a good non-judgemental listener.
Encourage her passions. Since introverts tend to feel intensely about experiences, interests tend to become passions. It’s important to encourage these passions as your child will get intellectual stimulation and experience emotional growth by pursuing them.
Don’t pressurise her to socialise at family events. Your child may dislike parties and withdraw when there are family reunions. Help her to open up gently without coercion.
Help her express her feelings. Parents can help children to express themselves by encouraging conversations at home. This practice in social interaction in a ‘safe place’ will gradually give her the confidence to speak up in public. Encourage her to write a journal, indulge in art activities, free play etc.
Teach her to stand up for herself. Your child may be bullied in school for being quiet and reserved. Encourage her to stand up for what she feels is right. Introvert children should know that their voice is important.
Value your child for her strengths. Apart from being more sensitive, empathetic, creative, and talented, an introvert child makes thoughtful and informed choices and is less swayed by peer pressure.
Talk to her teachers. Her teachers may think she is disinterested in studies or lazy because she doesn’t participate in class or fails to express her ideas while working in group projects. If you explain her introversion, teachers will be more supportive.
Appreciate her efforts to socialise. Your child might try to step out of her comfort zone and talk to visitors or take part in a group activity. Knowing how difficult it is for her, you must appreciate her efforts every time.