Helping the Introverted and Highly-Sensitive Child Thrive
These days my teenage daughter cheerfully refers to herself as an ambivert, meaning a person who possesses both introvert and extrovert qualities. But this was not always the case. When she was an infant and a toddler, my daughter was highly sensitive and shied away from strangers, did not embrace new situations, and had trouble making transitions. She showed all of the signs of not only being introverted, but also of being a highly sensitive person. She was picky about what she ate, showed an automatic resistance to new foods, and only adapted to anything new, whether food, people or situations, at her own pace.
Do you know where you and your children fall on the introvert-extrovert spectrum? Keep in mind that while temperament is typically consistent for a lifetime, it is not a life sentence. Parents can and do make a difference in helping introverted and sensitive children acclimate themselves to the ways of the world. Don’t avoid learning about temperament because you fear what you will discover about your child. No one tendency is better than any other, even if it is more common. Knowledge is always power, especially when it comes to our family dynamics and our children’s development.
Let’s take a look at some commonly accepted definitions of important words when it comes to identifying temperaments of you and your children. The estimated percentage ranges come from recent expert opinions.
Extrovert: An extrovert is typically considered an outgoing, gregarious person. Extroversion means the act of directing one’s attention outward or to things outside the self. Extroverts typically prefer the external environment over exploring their own thoughts and feelings.
Estimated percent of population: 50-74%
Introvert: Historically considered a shy person, but this is not always true. An introvert prefers his own thoughts and feelings over attention to the external environment. Preferring his own company or favoring the company of one or a few people rather than exposure to many or a crowd of people. Estimated percent of population: 33-50%
Ambivert: A person possessing the qualities of both an extrovert and an introvert. Estimated percent of population: 38-66%
Highly Sensitive Person (HSP): According to Susan Cain, author of the book Quiet, The Power Of Introverts In A World That Can’t Stop Talking, an HSP processes information about the emotional and physical environment deeply. Tends towards philosophical and spiritual thinking rather than materialistic and hedonistic thinking. Observes carefully before taking risks. Describes self as creative or intuitive. Loves music, nature, art, and physical beauty and is highly empathic. Estimated percent of population: 15-20%
An Extroverted World
According to introversion expert Susan Cain, we live in an extroverted world, where these qualities tend to be embraced and praised more than introvert qualities. Since introversion is not typically celebrated in children, you can imagine that a child who is introverted and highly sensitive might have an even more difficult time fitting in and finding a comfortable tribe. Some parents unwittingly pressure children to be more social than they wish to be out of a fear of children being left out or falling behind socially. An extrovert parent may not fully understand the temperament of an introvert child and may pressure a child to change behavior without considering the child’s point of view.
Naturally, overly fearful concern can be detrimental to a child’s development. The first thing parents need to do when it comes to identifying their own and their children’s temperaments is relax. Temperament is not something that typically changes throughout a person’s life, so it is important to detach from judging your own temperament as well as the temperament of your spouse and children.
Temperament is about how each person feels naturally, not merely about how they behave. Practice accepting each person for who they feel they are. Try to better understand the point of view of each family member by listening to what they want you to understand without trying to change anyone. More than any other desire, people usually wish to seen, understood and accepted for who they truly are.
Helping Children Thrive As They Grow
Let’s talk about ways parents can help an introverted child and highly sensitive child cope with living in an extroverted world as they grow up. Here are some tips for helping any child adapt to an extroverted world as he or she grows:
Babies need what they need. No mother is going to be praised for having a fussy, sensitive baby. But your baby is who she is and the first thing you can do to better bond with your baby is identify and accept what temperament baby you have. So if you have a fussy, sensitive baby, try to give her what she needs without expecting her to be a babbling, jovial baby. Pay close attention to your baby’s signals and learn how to respond by trusting your own instincts and applying reasonable trial and error. And don’t be surprised when your baby becomes more bouncy and bubbly once you start paying closer attention to what she needs rather than paying so much attention to what others project.
Toddlers are born to stretch and explore. Your introverted and highly sensitive toddler may not be as adventurous as others, but don’t let this disappoint you. Be loving and encouraging and celebrate even the smallest of milestones with glee. Sensitives often reserve their hesitation for the company of strangers and may act like any other toddler while surrounded by loved ones. However, be careful not to confuse unmet milestones with introversion or sensitivity. If you have a milestone concern, be sure to discuss it with your physician.
Pre-schoolers participate in structured activities. If getting your introverted and sensitive child through the door of the school is a challenge in and of itself, try scaffolding the transition. In her podcast for parents and educators, Cain suggests taking baby steps. First walk your child all the way into the classroom. The next day, stop at the door. The next day, stop down the hall a bit. You get the picture. If this strategy isn’t working, enlist the help of a welcoming, familiar presence to ease the way. I know my daughter always managed transitions best with a quick forecast of what was about to happen, rather than just trying to wing it.
Elementary-schoolers are finding friends and co-creating together. Recess might be torture for your little introvert or HSP, unless he can connect with some children in his class who share his temperament. Consult with the teacher or playground monitor to enlist assistance and brainstorm ideas. Many children at this age play group imagination games during recess rather than sports and other more physical games. Some kids may switch back and forth between groups depending on how they feel. Encourage your child to find the friends who are doing activities he enjoys most each day.
Middle-schoolers are becoming aware of who they are in the social hierarchy. Bully-proofing your introverted and highly sensitive child is important, so don’t hesitate to discuss and even role-play how to handle socially aggressive situations. Bullying happens, and though it’s unclear whether introverts and highly sensitive children are bullied more, they certainly may take negative treatment more to heart. Above all, encourage your child to progress socially at her own pace, regardless of how other children are behaving.
High-schoolers need to use their aptitudes and skills. By the time your introvert or HSP gets to high school, she will definitely want to find her tribes. Luckily many introverted options are usually available at the high-school level. Consider activities like fine arts, creative writing, martial arts, and robotics. Some introverts may even enjoy choir, band, and theater. As for sports, your sensitive child may prefer sports with less physical contact like swimming, softball, baseball, track, tennis or dance. Don’t be concerned if your child does not immediately find peer groups in high school. A little bit of shuffling of friend and activity choices is common when kids are learning to be more clear about what they like and want.
College-aged kids are practicing becoming adults. Your college-aged sensitive needs balance. He may embrace the usual college social situations like class rites of passage, fraternity rush, and themed dances, but find he needs more down time between social events than his peers. Try to choose a college that honors the needs of more introverted students. Your student would likely prefer one roommate to three, a large library with designated quiet rooms and lots of nooks and crannies for hiding away, and scholarly programs that honor the way he learns best. So when it comes to selecting a suitable school, don’t settle for anything less than what your student craves.
Christina Katz is an introvert who was often confused as an extrovert when she was growing because of her strong verbal skills. She hopes to help parents understand that not all introverts are shy, and not all extroverts are highly verbal, but all people crave acceptance and appreciation just the way they are.