Are you an introvert? The word "introvert" has been in the spotlight lately -- just type it into Google News and over 5,000 stories will appear. Last year, Susan Cain's book, Quiet, kickstarted the conversation about the power of introverts, and there are still a slew of articles (from Huffington Post to HelloGiggles) trying to clarify misconceptions about introverts.
I'm an only child, and growing up without siblings and being surrounded by adults meant I was: a) an introvert and b) a shy child. As a result of these combined traits, I preferred writing to speaking, and I was very, very quiet in school. For two years, from kindergarten to first grade, I actually never talked (though a boy tried coaxing me once with the offer of a frosted strawberry Pop-Tart), and it wasn't until I toured the Child Mind Institute in 2011, that I heard the term "selective mutism" and realized I had an undiagnosed social anxiety disorder for a while, before I decided to start talking.
So reading all these different articles about introverts made me curious about the differences between introversion, shyness, and selective mutism. I reached out to Rachel Busman, Psy.D., a clinical psychologist and expert for the Child Mind Institute, and asked her some questions about raising shy, introverted, and quiet kids.
What's the main difference between shyness and introversion? Is a shy kid always introverted and vice versa?
There are a lot of misconceptions about introversion; it's not the same thing as shyness. People who are introverted prefer to be more contemplative and gets more energy from spending time alone or doing a solitary, thoughtful activity. They can also be quiet in social situations like shy people, but people who are shy may actually be quite extroverted. They are interested in and drawn to social activities, but they feel quite anxious when required to do so. However, shy kids can certainly learn skills to help them approach the situations rather than avoid them.
If a child has selective mutism, is that an extreme form of shyness or introversion?
Shyness is a temperament and, with time, kids warm up and become less shy. Children who have selective mutism, however, have a diagnosed anxiety disorder that is chronic and can impair them without proper treatment.
Are shy or introverted kids able to "grow out of it" as they age?
Some shy children become shy adults, and those who find enjoyment and energy in solitary activities often choose a career path that fits into their preference (e.g. writer, engineer). However, this does not mean that shy or introverted people cannot or do not spend meaningful time with others.
Should introverts spend more time with extroverts to "come out of their shell"?
Different kids have different temperaments, so honor your kids' temperaments and preferences, especially if they are not impaired by them (e.g. they have trouble making friends, they refuse to attend school). Children should be encouraged to participate in different activities that either make them feel comfortable or that challenges them so they will learn skills and flexibility.
What are some ways parents can help nurture their shy and introverted kids?
To nurture both introverts, allow kids to choose activities that they enjoy and get pleasure from (reading a book, doing a puzzle, running track, drama club). For shy kids, allow them more time to warm up to talking to new people instead of telling them, "It's fine. It'll be easy!" And always praise brave behavior.
Now that I'm older, I've remained an introvert, so it's no surprise that my chosen career path is a "quiet" one as an editor/writer (see #22 on Huffington Post's "23 Signs You're Secretly an Introvert"), but I am less shy and I feel more comfortable meeting new people. So take it from me: if you have an introverted child who is either seriously shy or sometimes shy, it's definitely possible to manage her shyness while helping her be comfortable with being an introvert. With patience, praise, and encouragement, your quiet child will blossom and be confident in herself!
Image: Hello My Name Is Introvert via Shutterstock