As a baby, my daughter didn’t generally like people outside her family. I figured this was just as phase; eventually she’d grow up to be just as happy to be with people as her father and I were. But she didn’t grow out of it by the time she was a toddler or by the time she was a preschooler or by the time she was a kindergartener or first grader or second grader, and eventually I detected a pattern.
By the end of fourth grade my daughter still hadn’t gotten beyond the acquaintance phase with any of her school peers. During the school day she hardly spoke at all. She preferred the outskirts of any situation—as far away from the commotion and action as she could get. Her greatest aspiration was to be ignored and forgotten. Her greatest frustration was being recognized in a group. When she wrote an exceptional essay, she resented the teacher’s public commendations. When she made an expressive drawing, she disliked her classmates’ admiration.
She disliked me too; I was the one who forced her to go to school.
One morning she said that she had dreamed that she was stuck in a deep pit and couldn’t get out. She looked up and saw me walking by above, so she called out to me to help her up. But I flatly told her no—I was sure she’d find a way to get out on her own. . . . And then she died. End of dream.
Obviously, my daughter felt that I wasn’t giving her the tools she needed to handle her life. I’m sorry to say that it took me about ten years to finally accept that she was just really different from other kids, and it was futile to wait for her (or pressure her) to change. It was only once I did this that she started developing into her best self.
I started thinking about ways to give her tools and to show her how to use them. In our weekly
, we role-played how to look people in the eye, give a firm handshake, and say polite things. We practiced together and then throughout the following weeks and months I praised her for (occasionally) getting it right in public.
I made sure that she learned that being different is not bad. It’s just . . . different. It was because of her social differences that she could uniquely appreciate and find joy in the world. And she could contribute to it
For example, it’s because of her different approach to people that she knows just how to pose characters in her drawings and how to arrange the face into telling expressions. Her keenness as a listener and observer is evident in everything she creates.
Her talents have helped her develop her sense of self in a way of her own choosing. At school she was labeled “shy” and “quiet,” and she always resented the labels because they didn’t represent the self she wanted. So we’ve pursued opportunities to enter her drawings and writings in contests and publications to help her expand her sense of self and build up enough confidence to take more risks. We’ve encouraged her to pursue ambitious projects and to learn from her setbacks.
Over time I eventually realized that her problem wasn’t actually that she disliked people; it was that her comfort zone was just really, really, really small—like, about the size of our house. That’s why it was relatively easy for her to make friends with her cousins or with kids she saw in her home regularly. Making friends on the playground or at school was way too much to ask of her, however. Any expansion of her comfort zone had to start at home.
The personality types that have made the easiest friends for her are what I like to call “Barney personalities”: very verbal, loving, and expressive. They are the kind of people who don’t need any feedback at all to continue talking about whatever interests them. You could be a telephone pole with a painted-on face, and they would still talk to/at you.
That is why God sent us
. Socially, he has taken his older sister by the hand many a time and helped her step outside her comfort zone. The year my son entered elementary school was the year that my daughter stopped vehemently complaining about going to school.
The realization that our home was key to expanding my daughter’s social capacities was transformative. When we consistently identified and invited Barney-type kids into our home, we saw correspondingly consistent progress in her social confidence and enjoyment. These types of kids might drive you batty with their chatter, but if you could hear the uninhibited laughter they can elicit from my daughter, you would understand that they have an important mission to fulfill on this planet.
So she makes friends best on her own turf and with a certain kind of personality. Another important element in friend-making for her is being among her siblings. They help her build emotional bridges to people outside her comfort zone. When they’re involved in her play dates, she can much more easily cast off her inhibitions and be her true self.
In summary, here’s our quick-and-dirty list of tactics that have helped our introverted child become her best self:
- Role-play, practice, and review social conventions like eye contact and smiling; don’t assume that a child already understands how to use these tools.
- Encourage relationships with Barney-type friends. They don’t even have to be the same age or gender as your child.
- Set up play dates where the introvert’s siblings can participate.
- Help her develop a strong sense of self. This can be through anything she’s good at or interested in. These things will help her grow confident in her unique voice and capacities.
- Develop a strong family culture. Your child’s first and primary comfort zone is your home, so you need to make it feel as safe, stable, loving, and inviting as you can. Maintain daily, weekly, and seasonal family traditions. We have a lot of these traditions because of our religion. Religion can and should provide a strong sense of identity and purpose. If you don’t have a religion or don’t want one, you’ll have to think hard about how you can compensate with other healthy traditions. They are powerful.
When my daughter was a baby, I found her every movement, sound, and expression enthralling. She was like a campfire in a dark night. I couldn't take my eyes away from her. I still find her as wondrous as ever—she’s always changing in beautiful new ways. I love that little by little I find tools and understanding to help her light up the darkness.