Here are suggestions from Linda Silverman, director of the Gifted Development Center in Denver and author of “Upside-Down Brilliance,” and other experts, on how parents can help their introverts thrive:
1. Nudge, but be patient. Accepting your child’s introversion doesn’t mean you shouldn’t gently push them to expand their comfort zone.
John Zelenski, a psychology professor at Carleton University in Ottawa, has studied introversion extensively. His research shows that with more engagement, introverts can refine their social skills and increase their confidence. Children also change, and over time may become more interested in socializing or even leadership roles, and then could regret not having developed those skills, he said.
Cain agrees, saying “parents shouldn’t shelter them from difficult social situations” and should “show them that they understand and sympathize and want to help.”
Silverman said parents who pay attention will “intuitively understand when and how to encourage their children to stretch themselves beyond their comfort zone.”
2. Provide practice. Give your child safe places to try being more outgoing, and allow them to get comfortable with it. Encourage them carefully, Cain said. Ask an introverted child to explain an interest to a familiar adult, for example, or suggest they order their own food at a restaurant and pay the cashier. Have an older child write the teacher a note about an unfair grade or a friend about a confusing encounter – and, perhaps, have them ask for time to talk.
At home you also can create scenarios and have a child talk through or act out responses. What will they do when they have to choose a seat at lunch?
3. Help them find a niche. Cain suggests parents should help introverts find activities they enjoy and are successful at, even if they seem to contradict the child’s quiet nature. Actors and other performers often are introverts. Pinto found she was comfortable as a speaker when the words were provided and she had a captive audience.
Others, however, may be more comfortable behind the scenes as the editor of the school literary magazine or newspaper. A tech-savvy high school junior may shine explaining the workings of a robot to middle school students after school, and a good musician might give basic piano lessons. Provide options and encourage, or even require, participation in one.
4. Carefully plan encounters. Cain notes introverts might feel more comfortable if they arrive early for a birthday party or go with a friend. Allow them to join activities slowly or stay on the outskirts and plan for a break if they get overwhelmed. Always have an exit strategy, Cain said. Even if they don’t intend to use it, knowing it’s there can ease their mind.
“Escapes and backup plans are essential so the child doesn’t feel trapped,” Silverman said. “Parents tell me, however, that once they participate, they enjoy it. If that’s your child’s pattern, remind them of how much fun it was last time.”
5. Build in structure. At home, give your introverted child quiet time, but have normal expectations for chores, homework and keeping to a regular schedule. Introverts, warns Sophia Dembling, author of “The Introvert’s Way,” can get lost in a book or a movie, so structure is important.
Work with them to develop a plan for the evenings. Include time reading or on the computer, but also a chore that requires thought beyond their private world and perhaps social interaction. Dembling’s parents asked her not to read at the table, and she is happy they did.
She notes, however, “a completely unstructured day once a week might be very good, too, for an introverted kid.”
6. Teach mindfulness. Yes, it’s trendy and can help pretty much everyone. But some research shows introverts benefit from mindfulness and relaxation techniques more than extroverts because their brains are more easily aroused, which causes them to avoid stimulation and feel better when they calm it down, according to Peter O’Connor, a professor at Queensland University of Technology in Australia who has studied therapies to help shy and introverted people. He recommends children’s yoga, simple breathing exercises or progressive muscle relaxation exercises for 5 to 10 minutes.
Zelenski also suggests they may be happier if they consciously try to improve their mood by thinking more positively.
And being patient while gently encouraging your introvert can pay off.
Marsha Pinto’s parents remember when she told them she planned to participate in a speech competition.
“She spoke about her shyness, and she won it,” Melwyn Pinto said. “This quiet, introverted kid won the public-speaking competition. The stone the builders rejected suddenly became the cornerstone.”