Raising an Introverted Child in an Extroverted World

Last year, we cancelled Noelle’s 3rd birthday party because she kept shaking her head, saying, “I don’t want to blow out my birthday cake.  I don’t want everyone to watch me.”  So we stooped down to her level, looked her in the eye, and asked if she wanted a birthday party.  She shook her head no, and that was that.  It wasn’t going to be a very big affair either way, but we wanted her to feel comfortable and at ease on her special day.  She didn’t want any fanfare, so we obliged.

That is just one example of the introversion that has characterized Noelle since she was born.  Not only is she introverted, but she is also incredibly sensitive, keen, and aware – I noticed this even at the tender age of 3 months.  She is what can be described as an orchid child.

Orchid children, in contrast, are highly sensitive to their environment, especially to the quality of parenting they receive. If neglected, orchid children promptly wither—but if they are nurtured, they not only survive but flourish. In the authors’ poetic language, an orchid child becomes “a flower of unusual delicacy and beauty.” (source)

I especially love that sentence at the very end.  It’s exactly how I see Noelle – as someone with unusual delicacy, thoughtfulness, and grace.  I can just sit and stare at her for hours sometimes, observing her gentle, precise movements since she puts obvious thought into every move she makes.

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Parenting a sensitive, introverted child in a world that embraces the opposite definitely comes with its challenges.  For the first two years, it was more exhausting going out with her than staying in.  Even playdates were tough because instead of being curious at meeting new people and experiencing a new environment, she would cling desperately to me… as if afraid I’d suddenly leave her.  If we were just hanging out at home though, she was great about playing independently.  It was easy to drown in the cycle of, “Let’s just stay home because it’s easier”.  I saw friends who could easily drop their kids off at a gym daycare, or have any random person babysit, and I’d think, “Wow, that must be nice”.

It was also tempting to get caught up in the comparison game and wonder, “Why can’t she be more like that?” or “Why can’t she be carefree like other kids”.  I often found myself crying at the end of yet another long day because we tried to expose Noelle to an event we thought might be fun, only for her to stand on the sidelines without any desire or interest in participating.  The disappointment was real.  Sometimes I wondered what I was doing wrong.  I constantly had to check myself when those types of feelings crept into my psyche.  Nothing was wrong with her, or me.  My daughter is just wired differently.  We’re socialized to think that it’s better to be outgoing, charming, and carefree.  The children who get the most attention are the ones who can really ham it up, but introverted children have so much to offer too.

I’d be lying if I said I didn’t care what people thought.  I see the looks people give when she retreats into her shell in a very obvious way.  Inside, my heart shatters, and I long for them to experience her the way I’ve experienced her.  For friends to look beyond her initial quiet and hesitation, and embrace the girl I know.  These experiences have made a direct impact on certain friendships – I’ve become increasingly grateful to some, who love and pursue my daughter relentlessly, and held back with others… who don’t really give her a chance.

As an introvert myself, I know it is not easy being an introvert in an extrovert’s world.  Although I’m not quite like her, I can relate to my daughter in part.  I know social situations can be overwhelming, even moreso when you’re surrounded by people more than double your age and height.  I remember that feeling of wanting to hide behind my mother’s leg, of saying hi then quickly running off again.  So I tell her to take her time, take it slow.  I let her know that it’s okay, that I’m always here.  At the same time, I push her beyond her comforts, and encourage her to face her fears.  It’s a tricky balance – to accept her as she is, but to also not let her shyness and introversion paralyze her from speaking up, making friends, and confronting challenges.

So now you know all about the inner workings of a mom whose had the privilege of raising an introverted, orchid child.  With that said, these are some things we’ve kept in mind over the years while raising our daughter:

1.  Accept and love her just as she is – There is nothing that needs to be “fixed” about an introvert.  It is simply a different way of navigating and relating to the world.  Some people are external processors, and others are internal processors who need time to warm up.  Accepting your child for who she is, and not forcing her to become someone she’s not, gives her the confidence to move forward at her own pace and timing.  Knowing she is loved fully and unconditionally goes a long way in building her self-esteem.

2.  Embrace the word shy – I don’t shy away from this word, and don’t see it as a negative quality.  Noelle is shy, but she is also silly, introspective, observant, and loving.  “Shy” is just another term to describe a very real part of who she is.  The very definition of shy is, “being reserved or showing nervousness or timidity in the company of other people”.  That is exactly Noelle when she first meets new people or enters a new environment.  She needs time to warm up.  I don’t want to stigmatize the word, so we do use it to explain Noelle’s natural temperament to new people.  Now that she has a good understanding of the word, she will sometimes say, “Mommy, I’m just being shy”, and I’ll say, “That’s okay, but you can still at least say hi”, and so she does.  You can be many things, but still choose to respond appropriately.

3.  She can’t help how she feels, but she can control how she responds – Standing on the sidelines and clinging to mommy is the comfortable and easy thing for Noelle to do.  However, being shy or introverted does not give her a free pass to ignore people or depend on me for every little thing.  I am responsible for raising a capable little human that will function well in society, so I’ve always encouraged her to say hi, bye, and thank you when socially appropriate, even when the first thing she wants to do is cling to mommy’s leg.

4.  Encourage her to speak up on her own – Along the same vein as point #3, my motto is always: “If you don’t ask, you don’t get”.  This is something I recently learned in adulthood too.  I am constantly forcing myself (I prep myself mentally in my head over and over again to work up the courage!) to ask for things – whether it’s a promotion, raise, a helping hand – knowing that the worst they can possibly say is no.  The more I do it, the more natural it becomes.  The same goes for Noelle – I’m teaching her to order her own meals at restaurants, ask for that sticker or treat from the director at our preschool, ask to play with someone else’s toys, and the list goes on.  The more she practices, the more at ease she becomes.  She has come a long way in the last 2 years!

5.  Prep her in advance of going to social settings – I’ve found that setting up Noelle’s expectations in advance of entering a social environment has helped her tremendously.  She goes into it knowing what to expect, and opens up quicker than she would otherwise.  I always remind her that she’ll need to say “Hi” to her aunties and uncles, and be a good sharer with the other children there.

6.  Get to social settings early – It’s nice to get to places early before the chaos begins.  It gives her time to adjust to her surroundings, and settle into a new place before it gets too overwhelming.  Being the first ones at an event that later gets crazy, then blending in as people trickle in, is much easier than entering an already lively scene, and not knowing where to insert yourself.

7.  Expose her to social settings regularly, but also honor her need for quiet and alone time – We are lucky we have made a lot of good friends nearby with kids similar in age to her.  Despite being introverts ourselves, we are pretty engaged and social people.  Keeping her exposed to social settings on a regular basis has helped her adjust to a variety of environments.  We always incorporate downtime as well for all our sakes.  All of us need time to recharge in the comforts of home, so making sure we fit that in is not at all hard for us.

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Oh how far we’ve come… dancing without reserve at a public fountain

Noelle has really blossomed over the years.  She surprises me daily with her silliness and wit.  Although she is still an introvert at her very core, she is more comfortable around others now, and warms up at a faster rate.  I’ve actually had people tell me that she doesn’t seem shy at all.  Those who have known her since birth have told me she’s really opened up in recent years.  I do not ever expect her to be outspoken, loud, easily excitable, and outwardly expressive because that is just not who she is.  However, she is expected to play nicely, and treat others with respect, regardless of where we go and who we meet.  I’m so proud of the girl she is, and the little lady she’s growing into.  She’ll always be my Noelle, and I love all of her.

Are you raising an introverted child?  Have you faced similar challenges and experienced similar feelings?

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6 thoughts on “Raising an Introverted Child in an Extroverted World

  1. Great post Angela! I think Erin is pretty similar to Noelle. Although she’s SLOWLY becoming more expressive and social, I used to get a bit annoyed when people would complain about her not being those things. I’d think to myself, “Hey, relax. She’s x months old. You’re comparing her to a 20-year old,” and I wish they could see the smiley/goofy/sweet side of her that Grace and I see at home. Good to know we’re not the only ones going through this.

    And I really liked your suggestion of going to social settings early. E is very observant of her surroundings (and has been since early on), and I think too much stimulation at once freaks her out. Easing her into it seems like a great idea.

    • Hi Ken! Thanks for commenting and sharing your experience with me! I know that feeling of getting annoyed.. I’d try to suck it up and laugh it off, but the mama bear instinct would secretly rear its head. It really is so nice to know that there are others out there who can understand. I felt pretty alone with all this for awhile! E is so cute – I love seeing the pics you and Grace post of her on FB and IG!

    • I will relay the message to your little BFF! She was asking where you were the other day! It came up cuz I told her you said “Hi!” – I had to tell her you were very very far away. Trying to keep your memory alive through your prerecorded book though, lol!

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