Even with two younger siblings and a very large extended family, my oldest son has always preferred solitude and been an introverted child. When our house fills on Thanksgiving with cousins and relatives, he’ll find a quiet corner to read. On rainy days, he’ll play with his brother and sister but inevitably end up in his room away from their chaos.
I worried about his gravitational pull to being by himself, his penchant for not interacting with his peers in social settings. In preschool, he became friends with one little boy, so I worried less. But once elementary school hit, he struggled to make friends. A few times he came home talking about a new friend, but it never manifested into any long-term friendships like I had experienced as a child.
At his most recent well visit, I addressed my concerns with his pediatrician. Because it was a 12-year-old visit, they had my son complete a mental health check that was just between the doctor and him. My son completed his form while I turned my back. I looked over my shoulder and he pulled the form to his chest. “I just was checking if you were done. I wasn’t trying to peek. You are entitled to privacy,” I said.
He nodded his head, his face aging into adolescence before me. But the truth is I did wonder what he wrote. Without knowing what’s happening at school once he leaves my car and with so many incidents of bullying present on social media, I wanted to make sure he was OK. I didn’t want him to be facing a problem alone. I didn’t want to turn a blind eye if something more was going on.
It’s my job to protect him. I even had the guidance counselor check in with him, but she found nothing alarming. He told her he had a few friends at school but no interest in talking to those kids out of school because he had his siblings to play with and he did movie night and walks after dinner with his family. He said his family was all he needed. The counselor said my son was simply an introverted child, and she had no concerns that something serious was going on. But still I worried.
When the doctor came in the room, he reviewed the form and then completed the exam, informing me my son was healthy. I smiled, but wrote a question on a sheet of paper and slipped it to the doctor.
“He has no friends. Should I be worried?” I asked, my posture slouched, my eyes wide. Because the doctor had read my son’s mental health form—something I had not seen—in that moment, he knew more about my son than I did.
“You can’t put your personality on him. Just because you are outgoing doesn’t mean he has to be. There’s nothing wrong with being introverted.”
He shrugged and narrowed his eyes.
I underlined the word “no” three times to indicate my level of concern.
“Does he seem concerned about it?” he asked, while removing his glasses and letting them hang from his neck.
“Not really,” I said.
“He seems happy and well-adjusted. I’m not concerned,” he whispered as my son played a video game. I exhaled in relief. “You can’t put your personality on him. Just because you are outgoing doesn’t mean he has to be. There’s nothing wrong with being introverted.” Initially I scoffed at being characterized as an extrovert, even though I am, but I sat back and digested the words. Why do we think children have to be social to be happy?
Related: How to parent an introvert
Introverts tend to enjoy time alone, prefer quality time with a few people, and find spending time with too many people emotionally draining. Extroverts tend to thrive in social settings and get energized by the company of other people. My son interacts normally with his cousins and siblings but after a couple of hours wants to be by himself to recharge. He prefers reading to building relationships with strangers. The counselor said he was fine. His doctor didn’t have concerns, even after reading his mental health assessment. Why do I feel he needs to be “fixed” because he doesn’t want to make close friends?
Part of it stems from the close friendships I made young, which I still maintain. I want him to have that kinship and connection you build with friends through adolescence and puberty. There will be things he could say to a friend that he wouldn’t feel comfortable saying to his family. But ultimately, as pointed out by the counselor and pediatrician, as long as he’s happy that’s all that matters. I shouldn’t define his happiness based on what made my childhood happy. He’s a unique being entitled to define the relationships he’ll prioritize in life— and if that happens to mean he stays closer to me and my husband and the family we’ve created, who am I to argue?
As parents we worry when we think our children are being shunned or bullied. And it’s important to be mindful and to check in on your children to make sure their social isolation is by choice. But the reality is some children prefer their own company, and that’s okay.
My son’s not broken. Being an introverted child isn’t something I need to fix. It’s something I need to respect.