Monday, June 18, 2012

How To Take Care of Introverts: Toddler Version 1.0

I keep seeing this picture circulating on Facebook, Pinterest, etc. It's based on Linda Kreger Silverman, Ph.D.'s piece "On Introverts." I consider myself an extrovert, but Aias seems to be an introvert and whenever I read this it always strikes me how useful these tips are in keeping him happy and healthy. I thought I'd write out a few examples of how these tips apply to toddlers and small children, namely Aias.  I divided my thoughts into two parts: one for parents of introverted children and one for friends and family of introverted children. 

I believe this design was made by Questionably Late on Tumblr, but I can't be certain. If you know for sure, let me know.
Lots of people expect small children to all be precocious, confident, and outgoing like Michelle Tanner from Full House or Olivia from the Cosby Show.  I think I always thought Aias would be the same.  For some reason or another, he's simply not.  When I introduce him to friends (or even family members) that haven't spent any time with kids, they always seem really surprised that he's so shy and unwilling to just run into their arms.  At first I sort of felt like I was letting people down in public, because when they meet Aias he doesn't just run up to them and give them a hug or want to be best friends with them.  I realize now that there is nothing wrong with Aias for being this way.  Perhaps, like me, you have a toddler or small child that seems to be growing up and becoming more of an introvert.  If so, please consider these tips above and how they apply to day to day life with your toddler or other toddlers in your lives.

1.  Respect their need for privacy

What parents can do: While Privacy doesn't seem to be something we can give our toddlers a lot of, since they need so much supervision, it is possible to give them a bit of it.  In Aias's case, he likes to be able to play privately for a while each day.  This means not forcing him to play with others all day everyday, and making sure he has some quiet time in the morning to play with his toys all by himself.

What family and friends can do:  Please understand that my child needs to spend some time alone.  He may love you and love spending time with you when you are visiting, but he will also need some time to himself.  Please don't take it personally.  

2.  Never embarrass them in public

What parents can do: Most people are gentle enough to always obey this rule with their children whether they are introverts or not, but embarrassing an introverted child in public can be extra devastating. In Aias's case, if you embarrass him about doing something funny or silly, he may literally never even try doing it again.  Right now Aias's favorite thing to do is sing and dance, all the time, everywhere.  It's our worst fear that someone will someday make him feel self conscious about this because we know once this happens, he will never do it again. 

What friends and family can do: Please be gentle with my child when it comes to possibly embarrassing them in front of others; this means avoiding even good intentioned jokes that may make them uncomfortable.

3.  Let them observe first in new situations

What parents can do: When you bring your child into a new environment, even if it's a kid-friendly one, allow for them to observe for a bit before encouraging them to jump in and participate.  In Aias's case, we often show up a bit earlier to doctor's appointments, etc, so he can get a feel for the space.

What friends and family can do:  Please understand that when we show up for a play date or to take part in a new class or activity, it will take a while for my child to warm up.  He isn't being rude by not jumping right in, he's just trying to make sense of the new environment. 

4.  Give them time to think. Don't demand instant answers. 

What parents can do: When you are playing with your child and discussing colors, numbers, etc, give your child a few minutes to think about their answer.  In Aias's case, we often find ourselves asking tons and tons of questions all the time; if we don't get a quick answer, we answer it ourselves.  After a while Aias must feel like he's just constantly being quizzed and tested.  To stop doing this, we stopped asking tons of questions.  Instead of asking him "What colour is that block, Aias?" we instead say "That block is blue!"  He will often just start identifying things as different colours after a while if we do things this way.

What friends and family can do: Please give our child time to think through the questions you ask of him.  Try not to spend time "quizzing" or "testing" our child, as he feels a lot of pressure if you do this.

5.  Don't interrupt them.

What parents can do: Let your child speak and be patient for them in finishing their thoughts and sentences.  This can be hard with Aias because sometimes he seems to speak in a jumbled and jargony tangent; we have to be sure to let him finish, always.

What friends and family can do:  Please let my child finish his sentences, even if you can't understand a word he's saying.  You may not understand what he's trying to convey, but he does, and he's doing his best to share with you.

6.  Give them advance notice of expected changes in their lives.

What parents can do: If you are going to the park later, or if one parent will be away for a few days, or if they will be staying at home with their auntie while their parents go out to dinner, make sure they know this is going to happen.  Springing it on them at the last minute will be terrifying to them otherwise. Aias needs time to prepare for things like this, and to be given enough time to ask questions.

What friends and family can do:  Please understand that if you text me and ask if we can come to the park in 10 minutes, it may take us longer than that.  My child may be in the process of doing something else and it will take a bit of notice and transition time for us to get there.  I know you can't always give tons of notice, and I appreciate the last minute invites, but please be aware that while we will always try our best to make it, it may not always happen.

7.  Give them 15 minute warnings to finish whatever they are doing. 

What parents can do:  This one is easy, just give your kid 15 minute warnings to finish whatever they are doing.  Maybe even give them another 10 minute warning and then even another 5 minute warning. I'm not sure this is an introvert only thing, I think it may be a standard toddler thing too!

What friends and family can do: Please understand that I can't often just pick up my child and go at the drop of a pin.  Let me know, in advance, if you would like us all to leave a place so that I can give my child some warning.  Please understand that I do this to avoid meltdowns and tantrums and to make these transitions more smooth and comfortable for everyone.

8.  Reprimand them privately.

What parents can do: This can be difficult in a play group setting, but sometimes the best thing you can do when a child needs their behaviour guided is to get down at the child's level, use a firm but gentle tone, and look them in the eye and quietly convey your message.  Screaming at the child so that the whole room stops to look can be devastating to an introverted child.

What friends and family can do: Please understand that screaming at my child loudly in public places is not actually going to change their behaviour, it's just going to shame and frighten them.  Please don't interpret this as my "spoiling" them or being too permissive, I'm only doing things in this way because I know it creates the best long term behavioural results for my child. Please know that it doesn't mean I'm not taking my child's behaviours lightly.

9.  Teach them new skills privately.

What parents can do:  Try to teach your child new things one-on-one or in smaller groups.  We saw this in action when we taught Aias how to pedal a bike.  We were at the Community Centre and around several small kids and he was very shy about practicing his new skill in front of both of us, nevermind in front of all the other kids.  He took the bike to a corner of the room and decided to practice it where no one could see.  When he felt comfortable doing it, he proudly came back to where the rest of the kids were and showed off his new skill.

What friends and family can do:  If you are showing my child a new skill around many other people, please realize he may not do a very good job and may seem resistant to try at first.  He isn't behaving this way because he is trying to be indignant, he's just trying to feel comfortable.

10.  Enable them to find one best friend who has similar interests and abilities.

What parents can do: Parents sometimes get really worried when a kid wants to spend all their time with just one or two other kids, instead of around every other kid.  In the case of Aias, he tends to find one or two people he really cares about and then likes to spend his time nurturing those friendships. This is because it takes so very long for him to feel comfortable around anyone in the first place.  Once he finds someone he's comfortable with, he likes to stick around with those people.

What friends and family can do: Please don't take it personally if my child doesn't become your best friend instantly (or your child's best friend!).  These things take time for him.  Over the course of a few days/weeks/months/whatever, he will get to know and trust you/your child as well.  If you try and push the relationship, it will take longer.

11.  Don't push them to make lots of friends.

What parents can do:  Aias knows lots of kids, but he only has a few real friends.  This is partially because of his age but also because he takes so long to feel comfortable with people.  When he is comfortable with people, he thrives!  If your child is the same, let them choose quality over quantity when it comes to friendships.

What friends and family can do: Please don't expect my child to become best friends with every child they meet, or even take an interest in every child they meet.

12.  Respect their introversion.  Don't try to remake them into extroverts. 

What parents can do: This is a tough one.  We all want what's best for our kids.  I personally took Aias to about 5 playgroups a week to try and make him "come out of his shell" at first, and while he did benefit in many ways, it got very stressful for him as well.  I cut it back to 3 playgroups and then once we started meeting some people, I cut it down to 1 playgroup a week and several play dates with people we know, instead.  This has been really helpful for him.  I also had to be careful about finding the balance between listening to what he requests and encouraging him to take part in things he didn't really think he would like to take part in at first. For example, I used to say "Ok we are going to go to the Family Centre today" and 99% of the time he would say "No, stay home!"  I knew it wouldn't be healthy to sit at home and not socialize every day, so I'd say "We are going to the Family Centre for 20 minutes and if you don't like it we can leave. If you are having a good time we will stay."  After saying that, I'd always follow through.  If he was having a good time after 20 minutes (this was the case 99% of the time) we would stay, and if he wanted to leave, after he did his 20 minutes we would leave as promised.

What friends and family can do: Please understand that we will attend important family events, birthday parties, play groups, play dates, etc, but there may be times when we can't stay long or when we have to separate from the group for a while.  In the long run, this benefits everyone.  Please don't take it personally but my child can sometimes get overstimulated and stressed out in social situations.

I hope this has been a helpful exercise for you as it has been for me. Please share any other information or thoughts you may have on this topic in the comments.

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