Loving Our Introverted Children
About the Guest
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Do you ever struggle with knowing how to best reach your introverted child? Holley Gerth coaches parents on how to love and understand your introverted child.
Loving Our Introverted Children
Bob: If your teenager is spending a lot of time in his or her room by themselves, should you be concerned about that as a parent? Is that a warning sign of something troubling? Holley Gerth says there are good ways to diagnose what might be going on in your child’s life.
Holley: Knowing if that child is withdrawing and then reengaging—that’s the pattern of a healthy introvert—is withdrawal to refuel; then reengagement. If you’re seeing that in your kiddo, where they need to go in their room, but then they come back out and they’re a happier, more energetic person, that’s normal introvert. If they are refusing to ever engage with anyone—they’re isolating; they’re not talking to anyone in their lives—that’s a red flag.
Really, it’s just looking at: “Is this pulling away a temporary thing that leads to something positive?” or “Is it a sudden change, associated with other things like mood, and things where you probably want to get a counselor involved?”
Bob: This is FamilyLife Today for Friday, January 15th. Our hosts are Dave and Ann Wilson; I'm Bob Lepine. You can find us online at FamilyLifeToday.com. We need to recognize that, if our child is an introvert or an extrovert, we’re going to have to adapt our parenting style as we raise them. We’ll talk more about that today with Holley Gerth. Stay with us.
And welcome to FamilyLife Today. Thanks for joining us. We’re spending some time this week talking about introverts and extroverts, and I’m just wondering whether there’s a relationship between extroverts and colic with babies. [Laughter]
Bob: Don’t you wonder about that?
Ann: Yes, it’s true!
Bob: We have one child, who was the calmest, quietest, most peaceful baby of probably all five of ours. In fact, I think my mom wondered if this child had a hearing problem or there was something—because, early on, he was just so mellow—that son has grown up to be an introverted son. Yet, I think of our kids, who are more outgoing; and I’m thinking back to who they were as babies—my brain goes here when we’re talking about these things.
We have Holley Gerth joining us this week, who is an—can we call you an expert on introversion?—[Laughter]—she is one; and she’s written a book, The Powerful Purpose of an Introvert. Holley, welcome back.
Holley: Thank you for having me.
Bob: Can you tell, as a parent, do you think if a child is an introvert or an extrovert when they’re a month old, or six months old, or a year old?
Holley: There have been studies done with babies, where that was the purpose of the study—to figure out: “Are these kiddos introverts/extroverts?”—and follow them into adulthood; because obviously, you can’t draw a conclusion. Sure enough, most of the time, the prediction was right, based on how they engaged, again, with their external environment.
Bob: An extroverted baby would act like what?
Holley: If you introduce something new to them, they sort of just go all in. Walk into a room—it was an experiment—where they would walk into a room, with a volunteer they didn’t know, a bunch of toys they’d never seen; they’d jump right in.
The introvert kiddo would kind of hang with mama a little bit, take a look around, figure it all out, and then probably engage. Again, it’s that external environment piece, and the processing that we’ve talked about, with the brain and nervous system. Is it that shorter-faster brain pathway they’re using?—or the longer, more complex one, where it means they just need a little bit of time. I’ve heard it said that extroverts are more like helicopters, where they can lift off immediately; and introverts are more like planes, that just need a little bit of a runway.
Bob: That’s interesting.
Holley: Susan Cain, actually—who wrote the book, Quiet, and talks a lot about parenting introvert kids—says, If you have an introvert kid, and you’re taking them into a new environment, just think of that—that they’re a plane that needs a runway—but they’ll get there.
Dave: So often, as parents, we do the opposite. We shame the child, you know, if you’re walking in a room and your child grabs your leg. It may be, because they’re an introvert, they’re just a little more timid to be a helicopter. I’ve seen—I’ve probably done this—pushed them, like: “Go! This is what you’re supposed to do. You’re supposed to be a people person/extroverted,” rather than helping them; right? We sort of shame them. That’s horrible; maybe I’m just talking about myself. [Laughter] But I’ve seen that done, like, “This is the way you’re supposed to be as a child,” rather than celebrating they’re introverted.
Holley: It helps to know that—right?—that that’s what’s going on. Their little introvert brains are probably registering strange people the same way they would a strange dog. If your kiddo hid behind you because they saw a strange dog, you would say, “This is Sam, the neighbor’s dog. Why don’t you pet him on the head a little bit?” You know, gradually introduce the child to that thing that is triggering their fight-or-=flight response. It’s just hard to think of people being that, but it is. Our brains read other people and social things as potential threats.
Bob: I want you to talk about Dave’s point; because if we’re raising kids and we figure: “This child is outgoing/extroverted; the other child is shy/introverted,” first of all, do we have our categories right, based on reticence or engagement?—and then secondly, I’m guessing that we value extroversion; and we punish introversion. How should we be doing it differently?
Holley: Man, I hate to make parents feel that way—that they’re doing it wrong with their kiddos, you know—because extrovert parents give different gifts to their introvert kids. They can help them be braver and step outside of their comfort zone, and sometimes that’s what they really need. I don’t want to shame extroverts when we’re talking about shaming introverts, because I think it’s individual to each parent and child.
I think it’s really coming down to what you were just saying: “being observant.” As a mom, you noticed about your baby, even from teeny-tiny: “This is the way they engage with the world.” Once people are equipped with the knowledge that that affects introversion and extroversion, then you can start adapting and learning about who your kid is/what they need—coming up with strategies together.
You don’t want to overprotect introvert kids, either; that’s not the point. Again, we talked, in our last conversation, about how we don’t want to make excuses for ourselves; but we also don’t want to say, “I’m just going to let my introvert kid always hide.” It’s about getting them to a level of safety, where they can move forward on their own.
Bob: I’ll tell you what we did—not as much when we were raising our kids, but I see it now as a grandparent—and I think this is a strategy we could have employed more. If you’re going to a new setting, something that’s going to be different for the child, rather than waiting till you get there, and letting that experience just happen—[give] some coaching.
We were going recently with one of our grandkids to church. We were talking about the fact that, sometimes, this child is shy about going to kids’ ministry at church. In the car ride on the way over, I was saying, “Oh man, I’m so excited for you; you get to go to kids’ church! There are going to be people you know, and I know there are toys in there. Do they do snacks there?—I think they do snacks.” I was just trying to prep this grandchild for what was coming so that it didn’t just come at them all at once and cause that panic response that you’re talking about.
Dave: You should be in the grandfather hall of fame. [Laughter]
Ann: No; that’s really good, though/really smart.
Bob: I think there’s a lot of that preparation and coaching we can do, as parents and as grandparents, to help our kids and grandkids be ready for what’s coming rather than just expect that, in the moment, they should be able to adapt instantly.
Holley: Yes, I think that’s a great example of building a runway. You built a grandkid a runway, so he was ready by the time he got there.
Bob: You grew up as an introvert.
Bob: You didn’t have a name for it. Did you feel less than?
Holley: It’s interesting, because I am from an entire family of introverts. Both of my parents are introverts; my only sibling is an introvert. So in my world, introvert was normal. It’s been interesting to engage with people that didn’t have that experience, and it’s different. I was just like everybody else around the table; I didn’t think as much about it. It was more in settings like school or youth group. I actually always had a ton of friends, but I always built my own tribe. I drove my parents’ big gray van around and picked up eight kids and took them to youth group every week, but they were my little tribe of people that I knew and was familiar with. I’ve sort of done that all my life.
I think it’s just understanding your kiddo and building that runway; preparation is a great strategy. I think, for littler kids, thinking about physical comfort. If they have a blanket, or teddy bear, or whatever it is that’s comforting to them, let them go ahead and have that; because it’s countering that external stimulation that they’re dealing with.
I think context is always helpful for older kids—like you were saying—“Here’s what’s going on; here’s what’s going to happen; here’s who’s going to be there; how it’s going to work out.” That just helps with all the processing. I think asking/if they’re old enough to ask, “What do you need to feel more comfortable?” They’ll often tell you: “I need to know what time we’re going home, because then I can budget my energy.”
That’s something we have to do a lot as introverts. We know we have “x” amount of energy per day; we budget it accordingly, and then we’re okay. But if we don’t know what’s coming, we can’t budget correctly; then suddenly, we’re in a social situation, where we’ve hit our done point. We physically cannot continue engaging at the level we want to; and yet, we’re with people we value/that we deeply want to show we value them—that causes a kind of panic that is very distressing—so even telling your kid, “We’re going to be here for two hours, then you can go home.”
Dave: Talk about that energy thing, because the misunderstanding that I’ve seen—and I think I had this for quite awhile—was: “Introverts are not good with people; they don’t really like people,” “Extroverts are good with people; they like people.”
When Ann and I, years ago, went through the Meyers-Brigg training, I remember our leader said, “Extroversion and introversion is about energy.” This is how he explained it; tell me if you agree. He said it’s like you have a power cord in your hand. An extrovert sees a group of people over there and he goes, “Oh, I’m going to go over there!” because they get energy from being with people.
An introvert has that power cord, and sees a group of people and says, “No, I’m going to go over here, and be more alone; and I’m going to come out of that with energy.” It’s just an energy thing—they’re not better or worse; they love people—they just get energy, many times, from not being with them. Like you just said, the amount of time can sap their energy. Is that true?
Holley: Yes; well, it’s related to energy in that those neurotransmitter differences that we talked about in an earlier conversation—extroverts prefer dopamine, which is a neurotransmitter that revs you up, that acts like caffeine—obviously, on the outside, that looks like people energize extroverts; but it’s, actually, people cause our brains to release a lot of dopamine. That’s what’s going on.
Introverts with acetylcholine, which is the neurotransmitter that makes us feel best—that’s what energizes us—that’s released when we turn inward, have a meaningful conversation with one person, focus on a project we’re passionate about. It looks like that’s where introverts get their energy; so yes, but it’s also more complex than just how introverts and extroverts are affected by people.
Dave: When you mention dopamine, I think, “addiction.” Can an extrovert be addicted to people?
Holley: I think it’s possible.
Dave: Whoa; that’s interesting.
Holley: Yes; because dopamine’s associated with a lot of actual addictions, like gambling.
Holley: You know, you pull a slot machine handle, you get a hit of dopamine. If withdrawing is the temptation of introverts, then I think using that dopamine hit in unhealthy ways would probably be a vulnerability for extroverts.
Ann: Would you say it’s because they’re avoiding something else that may be painful?
Holley: I think that’s a question to ask: “Is this behavior avoidance?” I mean, it’s the same thing we’ve been talking about with introverts. If an introvert’s locking themselves in their room excessively, that’s avoidance.
Holley: If an extrovert’s choosing to be with people to the extent that they are avoiding something they know God has placed on their heart to deal with, then I would say that’s avoidance. I think any behavior—if we’re saying, “I’m doing this to avoid…” rather than as a proactive, healthy choice—that’s a red flag that we probably need to take a look at.
Bob: Some moms and dads will observe a child, who appears to be a friendly, outgoing child hit adolescence; and all of a sudden, it’s like something just changed. Should they be concerned about that? How can you tell the difference between something that is troubling and something that is just personality-based?
Holley: Knowing if that child is withdrawing and then reengaging. That’s the pattern of a healthy introvert—is withdrawal to refuel, then reengagement—look for that refuel/reengagement; refuel/reengagement. If you’re seeing that in your kiddo, where they need to go in their room, but then they come back out; and they’re a happier/more energetic person, that’s normal introvert. If they are refusing to ever engage with anyone—they’re isolating/they’re not talking to anyone in their lives—that’s a red flag, because that’s different than introversion. Extroverts can get to that place too.
Hopelessness in their speech would be a sign of depression, not introversion. Losing interest in activities they once loved—because introverts will still have activities they love, they just may be different activities than an extrovert kiddo does—so you want to see that capacity for joy is still there. That’s another red flag.
Really, it’s just looking at: “Is this pulling away a temporary thing that leads to something positive?” or “Is it a sudden change, associated with other things, like mood and things where you probably want to get a counselor involved?”
Dave: I’m thinking of a dad that is called to lead his family. If I’m an introvert, and I actually want to pull away, and yet I have to lead, you think, “Oh, that’s an extroverted function, so extroverts will be better at that.” But what if I’m an introvert?
I even think in the NFL—it’s really interesting—quarterbacks like me are usually extroverts; kickers are usually introverts. They’re, literally, on another field, kicking a ball while we’re all over here in a group. Then, when I think about leading my family, I think of a quarterback in a huddle: “Let’s go! Here we go, guys.” The kicker’s not going to do that; he’s going to walk in and say, “Just let me kick the ball and go back to my sideline.” That’s what he is really good at. How does an introvert—mom or dad—lead a group of people?
Holley: Yes, I think it’s recognizing that introverts and extroverts have different leadership styles. Both are equally effective. A ten-year leadership study actually found that introvert CEOs were a little more likely to surpass the expectations of their board and investors, which you wouldn’t expect.
Extrovert leadership often looks like, upfront, it’s a little more vocal and visible. Introvert leadership, I say, is leading from behind. An introvert will often get behind a person, or a project, or a team and champion them in ways that are often not as visible, but just as valuable.
Holley: In the leadership book, Good to Great, Jim Collins describes Level 5 leaders. He calls them humble, self-effacing, even shy—all these characteristics—I thought, “He’s talking about introvert leaders.”
A really beautiful scenario is when you get an extrovert leader paired up with an introvert leader. Author, Jennifer Kahnweiler, calls that “Genius of Opposites”; for example, Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak. If you think about marriages, where you have one introvert and one extrovert teaming up with those different styles of leadership, that can be really powerful.
What I say a lot to introvert leaders is: “Don’t focus on visibility; focus on the value that you’re adding.” That introvert dad maybe is not as vocal; but he’s great at listening to his kids, or taking them out to breakfast, one on one, instead of taking everybody in the car together somewhere. I think just saying: “What is my natural leadership style? How does that work for our family?” and “How do I team up with my spouse, where we both get to lead together?”
Dave: Yes, I was going to say, “Teaming up with your spouse, seeing the greatness and strengths in him or her.” You even mention, in the book, Moses, who had a partner.
Dave: You know, nobody would think—I didn’t think Moses would be classified more as an introvert, but look at how he responded to the call God had on his life. Talk about that.
Holley: Yes; obviously, Moses did not take a Meyers-Briggs [Laughter] with the burning bush; but from all indications in Scripture—God says, “I want you to go before Pharaoh,” —and he’s like, “I’m not a good public speaker.” He wants someone to go with him. He ends up with Aaron, his brother, who I think is an extrovert. They ended up as this introvert/extrovert pairing. Again, that’s an example of how that can be powerful.
I think a lot of biblical characters actually have introvert characteristics that we can learn from. Again, that goes back to just—it’s a complimentary pairing—that we need both in our world.
Bob: I’m thinking that extroverts like spotlights, and applause, and cheering; and introverts don’t. I’m wondering how we affirm and reward our kids, who are introverts, in such a way that they go, “I am valuable and appreciated,” if it’s not by turning the spotlight on them, or cheering for them, or having everybody sing, “For he’s a jolly good fellow”; right?
Holley: Yes; I think it’s talking to that kiddo and saying, “What makes you feel good? What can I do that makes you feel that I’m proud of you?” and listening to that answer. It’s true, for introverts, attention is something to be endured. It’s a necessary part of doing what we are called to do at times, but it’s not something that feels rewarding.
Holley: Often, praising introvert kids in private—like writing them a note or saying, “Just you and I are going to go out to your favorite place for ice cream on Friday,”—give an introvert kid your full attention, and blocking everything else out for them—that’s huge. That shows them: “I matter, and you’re investing in me individually.” I think that can be a strategy.
Ann: Some of my favorite conversations in our home were with our son that’s the introvert. I think it’s because it felt like I was panning for gold. Introverts don’t necessarily give all their thoughts and feelings away to anybody; so when I would have those conversations with CJ—just the two of us, alone, looking eye to eye and just talking about, “Tell me what you think of this,” or “Tell me your thoughts about this,”—this conversation was slow; it was sweet, because he’s very mindful of his words. Yet I would walk away feeling like he gave me such a gift, because he doesn’t give those words and those thoughts and feelings to everyone.
I think that’s the sweetest thing about introverts, that when they give you their heart, it feels like something very sacred to me. It’s not something you just cast away or you think, “Oh, that’s no big deal”; because it was a big deal for him to open up and share.
Dave: I’ll just add this—and it’s really the subtitle of your book—one of the reasons CJ was able to do that with Ann was I know he felt loved and valued as an introvert. She let him be him: “You be you.” I could see it; he came alive, knowing, “She appreciates the way God made me.”
Ann: I always say, “That’s fascinating, the way you think. It’s so different than what I would even come up with. Your mind is fascinating.”
I think we could say that about each other, because anything that God creates is pretty magnificent; so for us to say that to our kids, and be fascinated with how God made them, is a gift that we can give to our kids and our spouses.
Holley: Absolutely; yes.
Bob: This is so helpful, I think, for all of us to think about the fearfully and wonderfully made differences in each of us, and to think about how we can stretch ourselves—if we are extroverts, how we can maybe get a little more solitude in our lives/a little more reflection in our lives—if we’re introverts, how we can stretch and learn to adapt to an environment a little better—how we can raise our kids. This is just so helpful.
Holley, I’m grateful that, in the book, you give us ways to do the diagnosis. You didn’t just write the ideas, but we can do some self-examination and exploration. Thank you for the conversation; thanks for writing the book.
Holley: Thanks for having me!
Bob: You can go to our website at FamilyLifeToday.com to find out more about Holley’s book, The Powerful Purpose of Introverts. I should mention, too, you have on your website a ten-question diagnostic tool to help people figure out: “Just how introverted or how extroverted am I?” We have a link to that on our website at FamilyLifeToday.com. Get a copy of Holley Gerth’s book and find out how you can take the diagnostic quiz that is available. You can also call us if you’d like to order Holley’s book; our number is 1-800-358-6329—that’s 1-800-“F” as in family, “L” as in life, and then the word, “TODAY.”
Now, as we are fully engaged in a brand-new year, we are excited about what God has prepared for us in 2021. David Robbins, who is the president of FamilyLife®, is here with us. David, I think everybody is hoping 2021 is going to be a very different kind of year than 2020 was.
David: [Laughter] I mean, who is not ready to turn the page on 2020?—and we’re glad that we are here. Yet some things feel a little too familiar to what 2020 felt like; but there is no doubt that there’s an expectancy of what this year may hold, and how it may be different. I’m expectant on the ways God wants to work in each one of our lives as we’ve had to walk through a bunch of struggle, and a bunch of waiting, and a bunch of pain. We’re in the thick of it still; yet, there is an expectancy that I am really encouraged by and hopeful in.
Part of my hopefulness really comes from many of you/many of you, who at the end of the year, partnered with FamilyLife—gave generously in order to set us up to do the ministry plans that we had ready to go in this coming year of 2021—but we wanted to be sure that we had the capacity and the resources in order to be able to pursue them. I’m so encouraged. The reality is it takes around two weeks, at the turn of the year, for all of the giving to get registered and to get the report of where we stand at the end of the year. We were very frank and honest about us needing your help, and I just want to say, again: “Thank you for coming through. Thank you for setting us up to fuel ministry when it comes to 2021 and the expectancy we have on what God wants to do in families.”
Bob: Well, and of course, we are grateful for your ongoing support throughout the coming year. Thanks, in advance, for your partnership with us. Thank you, David.
We hope you have a great weekend! Hope you and your family are able to worship together in your local church this weekend; and I hope you can join us back on Monday, when we’re going to talk about how important it is for us to understand the person God made each one of us to be, and how we live that out in our marriage and in our family. Jamie Ivey’s going to be here with us to talk about that; we hope you can be here as well.
I want to thank our engineer today, Keith Lynch, along with our entire broadcast production team. On behalf of our hosts, Dave and Ann Wilson, I’m Bob Lepine. We will see you back next time for another edition of FamilyLife Today.
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