An introvert's guide to parenting an extroverted child
When my daughter was in fifth grade, she got the flu and stayed home from school for three days. Like me, she's a bookworm and an introvert, so she spent most of her time at home in her room, reading silently in bed while I worked. It was like spending the day with a well-behaved cat.
The day she went back to school my 7-year-old son, Gabriel, got the flu. He's an extrovert, and he made a bed on the couch and for two days issued nonstop dispatches from the living room.
"Mommy, I drank some water!"
"Oooh, I see a bird in the backyard."
"Want to know what I'm reading now?"
Now 11 years old, Gabriel is one of the most extroverted humans I've ever met. Some days he doesn't stop talking from the moment his eyes open until his head hits the pillow. He once told me he loves school because it's like a big playdate. Last week at the dinner table he announced, apropos of nothing, "I would hate to live alone."
I love extroverts — I even married one. I find it relaxing to spend time with chatty, outgoing people, but parenting an extrovert can be challenging, especially when I've reached my limit on human interaction for the day and my son is just warming up.
To cope, I've developed some strategies to ensure I don't become overstimulated and my son gets the socializing and person-to-person connection he craves.
Write it down
Here's Gabriel's idea of torture: Guests are coming for dinner and he has nothing to do all day.
The questions start early.
"When are they coming over?" I tell him 6:00 p.m. Then 45 minutes later, "Mommy! How long until they come over?"
He gets more keyed up as the day goes on. I get more irritated. Finally we both get so frustrated he goes to the front step to wait, chatting with passersby and petting neighborhood dogs.
One Saturday I was frantically cooking and cleaning the house in preparation for our dinner guests when Gabriel asked me — again — what time our friends were arriving. I was about to answer when I stopped and took out a dry erase marker and wrote on the whiteboard on the side of the fridge, "Guests arrive at 6:00 p.m." For the rest of the day he'd creep up to the fridge, look at the arrival time, then the oven clock, and mutter to himself, "Three more hours."
Fallyn Smith, a counselor who provides social and emotional coaching for families, says it's important for introverted parents and extroverted children to understand their triggers and have strategies in place to cope with the situation.
"If you're feeling tired, what do you need to do? If you're feeling angry, what do you need to do? It's about the front-loading," Smith tells The Week. Front-loading means solving the problem before the heat of the moment, like writing down the guests' arrival time first thing in the morning.
Once I gave Gabriel the tools he needed, he could check on the arrival time of the guests as many times as he wanted without bothering me and I could vacuum the rug in peace.
Gabriel's room is the least-used space in our house.
For most of his life he's used his room only for sleeping or changing his clothes. When he was younger and wanted to play with LEGOs, he'd grab the bin from his room and drag it into the living room, preferring the extra work of relocating his toys to playing in his room. My daughter's preferred reading spot is in her bed, but Gabriel mostly reads on the couch, always planting himself right in the center of our family's life to play, read, or listen to music.
Roseann Capanna-Hodge, a therapist and psychologist who specializes in pediatric mental health, says extroverts like to have people in their eyesight, even if they aren't carrying on a conversation. This desire to be near other people, even in silence, can be a happy medium for introverts and extroverts. At the end of a busy day when I need a break from talking but Gabriel is craving company, he's happy to sit with me on the couch, quietly reading, his feet stretched out and resting in my lap.
"You are setting parameters up, you are honoring him, but also understanding what your needs are," Capanna-Hodge says about our quiet-together ritual.
Use your village
Sometimes reading silently together isn't enough.
That's when it's time to ask for help, says Capanna-Hodge.
"I think the biggest tip I could say is give him time with other extroverts. If it's a grandparent, if it's a spouse, he needs to know what it's like to be off rein," she says.
Smith says it's important to recruit your village and ask other parents help out, whether that's dropping off your little extrovert at the soccer game while you escape to a quiet coffee shop or arranging frequent playdates.
"If your energy is gone, it's not serving anybody," Smith says. Asking for help is often difficult for introverts, but it's worthwhile for us to step out of our comfort zones to take care of our needs while making sure our extroverted kids get the social interaction they crave.
It wasn't until I was in my 20s that I understood why I preferred small groups to big parties, why I always needed time to myself after big social events. I used to think "introvert" was a synonym for shy — but realizing it just meant I needed time alone to recharge was a welcome relief. I want my kids to be equipped with this same self-knowledge so they can understand their own needs.
"It's great to understand yourself and your boundaries, and if people can start doing that for their kids at an early age, that's amazing," Smith says.
It doesn't have to be a strict "extrovert" or "introvert" label. We're all individuals with our own quirks. One person might have introvert tendencies but love attending big parties, another might be an extrovert who relishes time alone.
Capanna-Hodge says it's enough to say to our little extroverts, "You like to be around people, don't you?"
If your child says "I love it," you can say, "Mommy needs time alone."
"Nobody should feel guilty for how we are," Capanna-Hodge says.
Much of parenting is balancing your own needs with those of your children. This tightrope walk can be particularly challenging when your child requires a level of social interaction you find exhausting.
Smith says it's important to figure out what's best for you while helping your kid be their most successful self.
"You need to have your own boundaries," she says, "because if you are feeling drained, you are not going to serve as mother or father."
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