Updated: Nov 30, 2022
Parenting an introvert is awkward.
For example: For years, I hosted a number of annual neighborhood gatherings. If they were “supposed” to end at 7;30, at 7:35 Sophia would be tapping me on the shoulder in the middle of our well-populated kitchen and stage whispering, “The party ended five minutes ago! Why hasn’t everyone gone home?”
I’ve been raising an introvert for almost 18 years, and as an extreme extrovert, it’s taken me the entire time to understand how to help her navigate life in an extroverted culture.
The truth is, Sophia was born knowing how to steward her own energy. When she was two years old and I was hosting play dates for moms and their toddlers, she would leave the block-strewn carpet, curl up in a corner of the couch and suck her thumb.
And so, they have it hard from the get-go in our country. It was fine for two year old Sophia to climb up on the couch and suck her thumb. She can’t do that at school. Most of modern American life is centered around crowds. Classrooms. Holiday celebrations with dozens of people. Youth groups with house music and nerf guns. Sporting events with bands and t-shirt guns.
So, in the past couple of years, I’ve come to have great compassion for the introverts I know, many who have spent some of the most sacred days of their lives completely out of their comfort zone. During what our culture lauds as the most wonderful moments, they have felt surrounded and over-stimulated!
Let’s clear this up once and for all. Introverts aren’t misanthropes. They aren’t awkward. They just like being alone more than extroverts, who are energized by people and enjoy long stretches of time with people. Psychologists say that Introverts are also energized by people in the right context, but they are over-stimulated more quickly and recharge alone. (Graphics like the one below don't always give the best representation of what it is to be an introvert, though they do make us laugh).
I have learned to listen to my introverted daughter, to cherish her, and not to pathologize the way her nervous system is made. I’ve learned to put hard stop times on gatherings we host. At family gatherings, Jeff and I give her permission to go to a back bedroom to read or take a nap. Now that she drives, she can come late or leave early on Christmas and Mother’s Day.
And this has gotten awkward, as grandparents have lamented that she has changed! That she used to love to spend hours surrounded by people! That they’re disappointed she no longer wants to act as camp counselor to hordes of marauding cousins half her age.
Sometimes I explain to them that this is always how she’s been wired. Other times, I just hand her the car keys, and send her out the door.
Raising a child unlike me has grown me in compassion and a desire to allow the introverts around me to be their authentic selves. Here are some suggestions for loving the introverts in your life. For purposes of simplicity, let’s call them your Introverted Loved Ones, or ILOs.
· Don’t take it personally when your ILO needs time to recharge away from you. They don’t want to talk on the way home from school, or when they first get home from work. They’ll talk when they are ready, and only if they need to.
· When your ILO does talk, listen. Put down your phone. Close your laptop. And don’t interrupt. My ILOs won’t fight for their part in a conversation, and so extended family gatherings are not a great place to get to know them, where everyone is yelling over each other to pass the gravy and telling three different stories at once. If you don’t let them finish their thought, they change their mind about saying it out loud.
· Don’t plan multiple activities in a row, or outings and celebrations immediately after work or school. Build in cushioning time between gatherings.
· If your ILO is a kid and appears to be becoming more introverted, don’t assume they are changing, becoming shy, becoming awkward, or being surly. It’s possible that they just have more power to tell show you or tell you what they want than when they were little. Teenagers do like to be alone more than younger children – and that’s normal! – and introverted teenagers really do.
· Don’t tease your ILO to their faces, or disparage them with your family and friends who might make comments about your ILO’s retreats. Defend and normalize, then get back to your extroverted conversations instead: “Jack is just going to recharge his batteries. Now, tell me more about that funny incident at work this week.”
· If you have a friend who is an ILO, be sensitive to their energy levels; they will want you to go before you’re ready. January 3 was actually World Introvert Day, and organizational psychologist Adam Grant (@AdamMGrant, see his Intagram account for great links on understanding introverts) posted that he’s not antisocial, he’s pro-quiet. I reposted with a promise to celebrate by visiting my introverted friends quietly and leaving exactly when I said I would. I got multiple DMs from ILOs who said they actually stopped hanging out with people who would come to their house and stay too long.
· And finally, if you are an extrovert living among introverts, as I am, don’t feel guilty about leaving them home alone to go have fun. They like being left home alone. My husband is my favorite ILO, and my youngest daughter is an extrovert, who would be running around the house passing out marshmallows while Sophia was trying to get people to leave. Liv and I have learned to have our friends over when Jeff and Sophia are otherwise engaged, or to leave them home on a Saturday and do our own thing, knowing they’ll be ready for two hours of family time on Saturday night. Because they love us dearly, a few hours as a time.
Next week, I'm going to continue this series, but sharing how studying introverts can help us all learn about healthy boundaries.