Do you have a shy, introverted, or extremely sensitive kid?
While these traits or descriptions often go hand-in-hand, Susan Cain distinguishes between “shy” and “introverted” and Elaine Aron outlines a separate set of traits for what she calls the “highly sensitive” personality. Both researchers have recently shed light on ways parents can better support kids with these characteristics.
Whichever word best describes your child, it’s likely that there have been situations that have confounded you as a parent. Unless you share these traits, you may often be left wondering why your child’s emotional reaction seems out of proportion to things that seem small or inconsequential to you.
Over the past few weeks I have talked with two different parents whose children’s personalities and behavior confound them. In one case, the five-year-old daughter of an outgoing, comedic, stage-loving father can’t stand having even a little attention on herself. In the other, the youngest of three boys exhibits more emotionality and less flexibility than his siblings and doesn’t “go with the flow” usually expected from a third child. In both cases, I passed along some ideas and information that I thought would be helpful, and I’m sharing even more resources here today.
I would have benefited from these resources a few decades ago (before it was available) when my own sensitive, quiet child was a baby. Instead, I came to a better understanding of these personality traits through my daughter’s own research as an adult. She sent me a link to Aron’s website along with a text that said, “This is me!”
Kids (and adults) who are more introverted and sensitive interact with and react to the world differently from the louder, steam-rolling extroverts who seem to be ubiquitous. For parents who are struggling to support and encourage introverted, sensitive kids, Cain and Arons offer some informative and encouraging resources that might save you and your child from some of the anxiety that will result from not making modifications.
This week I listened to an interview with Susan Cain on the Happier Podcast. She talked about introverted kids needing a “longer runway” to get ready to do things, especially new things. That metaphor really resonated with me and is one I will pass along to our counselors at staff training this summer.
One of my biggest parenting mistakes was thinking that my more sensitive daughter would have the same positive experience with the militaristic, throw-the-kid-in-the-deep-end swim instructor who was a good match for her more extroverted sister. Cain even used the example of swimming when talking about how to ease introverted kids into activities more slowly. She suggested taking kids to visit the pool a few times and using a gentle, slow instructional method.
I tortured my daughter with one, two-week set of daily swim lessons because of my own misinformed belief that she’d get over the anxiety she felt at every single lesson. I did have the insight to find a different program the following year that was much better suited to her. If I had been armed with the information I now have, I would have either (1) not signed her up for that particular style of lessons or (2) not made her complete that first set of lessons once I saw how stressful it was for her.
Thankfully, I have learned from my own parenting foibles that kids are extremely resilient, but I’m sharing this parenting mistake with the hope that it will encourage other parents to go with their gut on these things if they have an introverted, sensitive child. If a situation seems just too stressful, give your child the “longer runway” they need, and they will do just fine. They just need a little longer before they “take off.”
Another brilliant piece of advice Cain shared was the benefit of getting places early with introverted kids. When they arrive at sport tryouts or parties early, introverts are more likely to feel comfortable with the environment than if they arrive in the midst of a chaotic, crowded event in progress.
In my own experience, I’ve learned that there are many positive traits that go along with more introverted personalities. My two family members who are more introverted than the rest of us are also the two most observant, empathetic people in the family. They are excellent listeners, and they are loyal and understanding friends who can tell almost immediately how someone they love is feeling. These traits are incredibly valuable in relationships and in the workplace. Thanks to Susan Cain’s Quiet Revolution, introverts themselves are learning to own and embrace their differences and recognize the positive contributions they make in the world. They are also learning to take charge of their own environments and schedules and make adjustments so that they can flourish.
The other thing I’ve learned from my own experience loving my introverts is that although the first impression most people get of them is that they are quiet or shy, people who know them well would never describe them that way. Once they are comfortable (the long runway metaphor works here, too), they can be the life of the party (especially small parties!).
Although I haven’t personally researched the relationship between anxiety and introversion, I am fairly certain that much of the anxiety we’re seeing in kids today may be the result of not recognizing these personalities and making small adjustments to help them get along in a world which is often not well-suited for them.
If you happen to have a highly sensitive and/or quiet kid in your family, making them do the same things that work for the other kids in your family and insisting that they “go with the flow” won’t work out well for them or for you. I know this from experience, and I hope you find these resources helpful and reassuring.
Resources for Parents of Introverted or Sensitive Kids: