A Shy Little Girl

“Hi, little girl. I am your grandfather’s neighbor. What’s your name? You know it’s not polite to ignore adults, right?”

“Does she even talk?”

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The old woman wearing a yellow floral apron had been talking to my mom when she turned her attention to me. I quietly hid behind my mom’s legs in hopes that she would eventually forget about trying to get me to talk.

My mom came to my defense because that’s what moms do. She never made a big deal out of my introverted social awkwardness. She quietly said: “this is Tove. She’s just a little shy. It’s ok.”

The old lady wouldn’t let it go. Some people feel it’s a fun sport to do everything in their power to get quiet kids to talk. She stomped off inside her house and returned with a candy bar.

My mom smiled and tried really hard not to laugh because she knew. She knew me and how effective bribes were. The woman pulled the candy bar out of the front pocket of her floral apron. It wasn’t a small snack size piece of chocolate. No, she came prepared with a big, huge delicious piece of chocolate… and I LOVE chocolate.

“You can have this, if you tell me your name,” she said, waving the chocolate in front of me, as I continued to hide safely behind my mom’s legs. I looked at her, the chocolate and my mom before I shook my head no.

My mom laughed and said “I would have been very surprised if she took the candy bar. Our little Tove cannot be bought!” – and then she changed the topic to get me out of the spotlight.

This incident took place 38 years ago, but I still remember the reassuring look my mom gave me and how comforting her hand felt on my back. I knew my mom wouldn’t be upset with me or my silence. She understood that I was introverted, accepted me and that’s all I needed at the moment.

An Awkward Little Boy

I was a quiet girl, socially awkward, shy, an introvert, but I was also loved and fully accepted by those closest to me. That love and acceptance are what I am now passing on to our quiet, shy, socially awkward, introverted boy. At times it is almost painful for me to watch him in social situations.

I can READ his mind. I know when he would rather just crawl into a shell and shut off the outside world, but unfortunately, that’s just not always possible. Instead, we are working with him, giving him strategies to overcome his “awkwardness.”(Of course, it is an awkwardness only perceived as such by others. He feels his silence is perfectly well-justified and normal, as I did when I was a little girl.)

We want to help him navigate social situations on his own terms, without him being perceived as rude.

7 things to do to help your introverted child in an extroverted world:

  1. Unconditional acceptance!
    • Like my mom did (and does), we are doing the same with our son. We accept him fully and completely. He’s painfully shy – and that’s OK.
  2. Don’t put them on the spot or call them out in public!
    • It would be so easy (and sometimes tempting) to say “oh come on, speak up” in a public setting when your child’s silence makes a situation awkward.
    • 38 years ago my mom reassured me of her continued acceptance with a gentle hand on my back, and then she quietly drew the attention away from me by changing the subject.
    • She never pushed me or made a spectacle of the situation.
  3. Prepare them ahead of time!
    • We have back to school “meet the teacher” this week, which is always a very hard hour for our shy boy. He doesn’t like walking into social situations unprepared.
    • Once we find out who his teacher is, we figure out if there is someone in his class he knows – so he will be prepared to see a familiar face.
    • We find his teacher’s picture in the yearbook, so he can at least visualize her.
    • He is reminded of the three-step process: look her in the eyes, shake her hand and say “it’s nice to meet you. My name is ____!” – and that is ALL I will “expect” of him during that event.
    • Any additional words are icing on the cake.
  4. Arrive early!
    • Our shy boy has NEVER done well by entering a room full of people. He feels much more confident when he gets to class, a party, “meet the teacher” or sports practice as one of the first people.
    • Logistically, it is not always possible for us to do this, but we make an effort to at least never have him late.
  5. Give talking points and role play!
    • We are preparing our sweet boy for the first day of school, by giving him quick conversation starters and answers to commonly asked questions.
    • Of course, he knows what we did this summer, which is one of the questions he will definitely be asked.
    • But in the heat of the moment, I picture him shrugging his shoulders saying “yeah. I had a good summer.” Instead of saying “we went to LEGOLAND California for five days and then Seattle. How was your summer?”
    • We will practice this scenario several times over the next week until he feels confident when answering.
    • Having a few simple go-to answers and follow up questions will make the overwhelming experience of meeting a new class full of kids, less scary and more manageable.
  6. Give them space!
    • Our introverted boy has a bigger need for alone-time and privacy than his brothers. He enjoys his own company, but who wouldn’t when they are always surrounded by three brothers.
    • We make an effort to have his brothers leave him alone when he needs to decompress with a good book in his bed.
  7. Expose them to social situations!
    • While we know he would rather stay at home, we make sure that he is active in sports (without over-scheduling him).
    • Being part of a team sport, seeing the same kids week after week and feeling the camaraderie has been a great experience.

As an introverted child, I always felt comfortable with silence, although my lack of words was exactly what made others feel awkward. I get the same sense of inner-peace from our boy, to him there is no such thing as an “uncomfortable silence.”

After days of role playing and practicing, I pray that his new teacher doesn’t pull out a big candy bar in an effort to connect with him. Not only does he not like chocolate, but our introverted child can also not be bought – just like someone else I know.

What’s your best tip to other parents of how to help an introverted child?