THE STRONG, SILENT TYPE
Tips on raising quiet children
“Oh, she’s too quiet for that. She won’t do that, she’s too scared. She won’t join in, she’s too shy.” These are just some of the comments I remember growing up with as a child. Learning to interact with the world and finding your place is all part of development, and although the comments were quite truthful observations, I do remember thinking that maybe I wasn’t enough, or as normal as my more confident, outspoken peers. We live in a world that often favours the extroverted, the bold and outspoken, and children may find themselves stuck with the label of ‘quiet’ or ‘shy’ if they don’t exhibit such qualities. But these introverted personality traits are not the negative attributes they are often made out to be. Instead, introversion should be something that is embraced and celebrated; it is neither better nor worse than extroversion but a different way of experiencing the world. So how do you tell which way your child’s personality swings, and what can you do as a parent to embrace and support your child’s ‘quiet’ side? We talk to psychologist Dr Liz Peterson, a senior lecturer at Auckland University, about recognising your child’s temperament and how you can adapt your parenting style and give your quiet child a solid platform to be themselves.
Shyness, introversion and inhibition explained
All children are individuals and respond differently to the world, but there are overarching personality traits that everyone falls into. ‘Introversion’ and ‘extroversion’ are two broad types of temperament, which Dr Peterson describes as the “general labels”. The distinction between extroversion and introversion is in how you interact with the world and how you process your energy and recharge. To put it simply, extroverts gain their energy from being around people,
and introverts gain their energy from solitude or alone time. Shyness, on the other hand, is more fluid. Susan Cain, author of Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World that Can’t Stop Talking, describes shyness as “the fear of negative judgment” and introversion “a preference for quiet, minimally stimulating environments”. “Shyness is just a component of introversion,” explains Dr Peterson. The two aren’t mutually exclusive. You don’t have to be an introvert to be shy. Slightly different again is the trait of inhibition that many children feel. Dr Peterson describes “inhibited children as those who have trouble seeking social interactions but actually want them”. Inhibition differs from shyness in that a shy child may be just fine with their own company or playing by themselves. The inhibited child may desperately want to join in “but they just don’t know how to engage”, says Dr Peterson.
How do I tell if my child is shy?
Your baby may begin to show you they are introverted or shy before they can even talk. “We do pick this up at the early age of around four months,” says Dr Peterson. “It is a lack of adaptability and we can spot this early on.” Watching closely how your little one reacts to different stimuli can be a great guide to see how sensitive they are. Dr Peterson describes a common situation in which a young baby may show these traits. “When you put your child in a cot with a novel stimulus they haven’t seen before above their head, they might start screaming or arching their back,” she says. “They don’t like the unfamiliar.” It doesn’t have to be only visual stimuli they react to - shy children may react to physical irritations such as a wet nappy or an itchy tag, or changes in routine. When it comes to older children, shyness can be easier to spot and respond to. You may notice your toddler becomes grumpy when around people for too long, or becomes anxious in a very stimulating environment. “A really shy three year old might throw a tantrum about being put in the middle of a room full of people,” says Dr Peterson. Simply observing how your child responds to various situations can give you a good guide of their temperament, and what they will and won’t handle.
Is there such a thing as too shy?
It’s only natural to worry about whether your child is unhappy or lonely, but as Dr Peterson puts it, “It’s not a curse to be shy. Temperament or personality is not something to ever be worried about, it’s just the way you are.” Your child may simply prefer to play by themselves, or they may take time to warm up to social situations. “It’s not necessarily fixed either,” says Dr Peterson. “There are a lot of things that make a child behave in a certain way. A shy, inhibited child can still, as an adult, get up and make a speech at work.” Showing quiet traits at a young age is not going to prevent your child from doing certain things as