With my husband and I being introverts ourselves, it was no surprise that our firstborn (now five years old) also turned out to be an introverted child. Personally, I have very vivid memories of struggling to make new friends in primary school. To add to this, the children in my class would change every academic year. I remember the feeling of dread that would wash over me when I found out that I would be separated from my friends for the next school year. This was the early ’90s, where a lot wasn’t known about introversion as a personality trait.
Related: How to parent an introvert
The Myers-Briggs concept of introversion vs. extroversion involves a tendency to derive energy from time spent alone. I now look at my son who is also one of the youngest kids in his year and wonder if much has changed in helping an introverted child to better assimilate socially within the school’s social milieu—of which making friends is a significant part. So what can I do as a parent to help my child navigate this often daunting path? It is first important to understand what introversion is and how it manifests itself in a child’s behaviour.
Introversion is very often confused with shyness. In fact, even the Oxford English Dictionary defines it as ‘the quality of being shy and reticent’. However, even though these two concepts are not entirely mutually exclusive, there is one fundamental factor differentiating the two.
Shyness prevents someone from being socially active whereas in introversion, the individual consciously chooses not to be socially active. Introverted children share many characteristics with introverted adults (which Susan Cain mentioned in her book “Quiet.”)
In order to help your introverted child make friends at school—which essentially is an extroverted quality or a quality that comes more easily to an extroverted child—it is important to first recognize the characteristics of an introverted child (Psychology Today, 2019) in order to understand their strengths and to then build on those strengths to help them make friends more easily.
In her book “The Hidden Gifts of the Introverted Child,” Dr. Marti Olsen Laney identified seven characteristics that an introverted child may demonstrate. Considering these characteristics, I have attempted to relate those that sit well within the gamut of making friends and have come up with techniques to help my own introverted five-year-old.
How to help your introverted child make friends
1. Identify your child’s friends
Introverted children have a very rich inner world and rely on themselves more than they do on others around them. Consequently they are more comfortable in their own company or in very small groups of two to three other children. In school, it is very likely that your introverted child will consider a few other children as friends whereas others ‘may not want to play with me’, ‘are boring, loud, rude or naughty’ or ‘are always playing girl or boy stuff.’
As a starting point, it would be helpful to first identify your child’s friends and include them along with one or two other kids as part of a playdate that can be arranged outside of school. A small and mostly familiar group will lend well to your introverted child’s comfort level whilst offering them an opportunity to form new friendships.
2. Cater activities to your child’s preference
Introverted children tend to prefer play and activities that help them focus inward. These are activities like imaginative play, puzzles, play-dough, role-play, using props and so on. As a result, they may often be seen playing by themselves—alienating themselves further from their school friends. As a parent who is keen on helping your child make friends at school, include these activities that your child is naturally drawn towards as part of the playdate. It may be more effective if you host the playdate in the beginning so that your child is more comfortable in a familiar environment and perhaps more likely to open up and bond with school friends present at the playdate.
In a world that invariably encourages and appreciates extroversion, being an introvert can be hard.
3. Give your child time to recharge
Introverted children may need time to recharge after a social activity outside of school hours that involves kids from their school. For example, a play date or a birthday party. Keep this in mind when organizing your introverted child’s day. They would greatly appreciate this time to themselves, as it provides them with much-needed rest and rejuvenation. Avoiding social activities one after another would be a sensible idea here. Having had the time to recharge, that introverted kid may be better prepared to make friends with other school kids.
4. Let your child take their time in social settings
Introverted children are often cautious and observant in their approach, taking their time to enter into a social situation. It is important that they don’t feel pushed into a situation, but rather that they do it on their own time. Once they’ve had a successful and/or positive experience within a social environment with other school friends, they are more likely to engage in the social situation and may even initiate it over the next few days. It’s important not to hurry your introverted child into making friends at school. They will, on their own time.
Clubs like drama club, for example, are great in order to help introverted children explore their social boundaries a bit more by functioning within a more structured social environment. The positive experiences within a drama club (like singing, dancing, or drama itself) may help your child make friends with other kids in the group. This also applies to any other extracurricular activities that are provided within the school. Essentially what we are doing here is providing the introverted child with a structured environment to make school friends.
Similar to adults, some introverted children could also be highly sensitive personalities. These children display high levels of empathy for their age (as mentioned by Susan Cain in her book “Quiet Power: The Secret Strengths Of Introverted Kids.”) This could be looked at positively, because as your child becomes older, they will be able to make friends at school more easily because of their caring and empathetic nature.
Finally, it is important to get your child’s class teacher on board so that they become aware and small changes can be introduced to help your child make more friends (like putting the child in different work groups periodically or encouraging them to participate more in class).
In a world that invariably encourages and appreciates extroversion, being an introvert can be hard. As a child, this may be even harder. As parents, all we can do is to recognize the characteristic traits of our introverted children and provide them with the right environment to make friends in one of the first and most important social institutions where they can thrive—school.
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