Raising an introverted child in an extroverted world? We have a resource for you

Many of us living in westernized nations find ourselves in a mainstream culture that caters more to extroversion than introversion, as this NPR article points out about the U.S., despite that personality research reveals that the global population splits fairly evenly between a tendency toward introversion or extroversion.

Extroversion and introversion are two of many character traits that are inborn – meaning an individual’s brain is hard-wired to gravitate toward more stimuli (extroversion) or less stimuli (introversion) to contribute toward their well-being. These character traits tend to gain attention when one of these temperament types is prized by the mainstream culture and the other is misunderstood.

Sometimes, this NYT article points out, extroverts and introverts may find themselves in the same family. Misperception of the other temperament can create challenges in the family dynamic including in the quality of parent-child relationship.

Nurturing parenting means loving each of our children as individuals with unique character traits. This can be difficult to do in a mainstream culture that increasingly blames behavior on disorders and difficult temperament. “Difficult” and “different” are not synonymous with “disordered.”

Among API’s resources is an issue of the Attached Family magazine, “Loving Uniquely,” which celebrates the differences between children and how parenting is rarely one-size-fits-all even within the confines of a family. We delve into temperament and how it intersects with parenting and the development of attachment style, and we challenge the notion that every hard-to-handle child needs a diagnosis.

Gain online access to this print issue to read these features:

  • “What is a Spirited Child?” with Dr. Mary Sheedy Kurcinka, author of Raising Your Spirited Child
  • “The Orchid Child” with API’s Sheena Sommers looking at the research behind genetic susceptibility
  • “Differences, Not Disorders” with Dr. Barbara Probst, author of When the Labels Don’t Fit
  • “The New Gender Gap” with Drs. Betsy Gunzelman and Diane Connell discussing how boys are falling behind in our society
  • “Avoiding a Meltdown” with API’s Leyani Redditi reminding parents of the most overlooked causes of tantrums


  • API’s Art Yuen reviews the research at the intersection of parenting and infant temperament
  • Father of child temperament, Dr. Jerome Kagan, weighs in
  • A quiz to parents on whether your child of any age is spirited
  • API Leaders discuss how to handle a violent tantrum and the toddler who wants to touch everything
  • Quick tips on dealing with public tantrums
  • API’s Lisa Lord shares her personal story on raising a challenging child
  • API’s Rita Brhel offers insight to food texture issues
  • Results of API’s Reader Poll on child spiritedness
  • Additional resources from around the world on loving our children uniquely

Second child adjustments, and judgments

Effie2 (2)As I heard the voices grow louder and the confrontation was escalating, I approached my 9-year-old daughter’s room. She exclaimed at her younger brother: “Ugh… You are so annoying! How is it possible? How am I even related to you?” I was startled by the harsh words.

I understood her frustration. It seems as though her brother, almost three years her junior, has made it his mission in recent weeks to get under her skin. And he succeeded! But I was not pleased with her choice of words. I explained that I understand her frustration and suggested she use other words to express her feelings.

As I turned and walked away, I shook my head and chuckled. She did have a good point: My daughter and her brother were conceived from the same genetic pool and are raised in the same household, yet their personalities are so distinct. I was reminded of the realizations my second child blessed me with.

My daughter was a high-needs baby. Then, around the age of 2 1/2, her fussiness seemed dissipate as she blossomed into a content, independent and cooperative child.

In comparison, my son was an easy-going baby. I thought I had “conquered” parenthood and found the perfect balance between nurturing and discipline. But my son put a deep dent in my thoughts around the age of 2. While my daughter was a determined toddler with the typical tantrums, my son took determination and defiance to a whole new level. He was also physically aggressive. Communicating was not an issue as he used sign language by the age of 6 months and spoke at an early age, so I believe the difference was due to innate tendencies.

Nevertheless, I was not prepared. The parenting approaches that worked so well with my daughter were not effective with my son.

In response to my son’s aggressive manners, my sister said that if she didn’t know us, she would assume that we are aggressive, even physical, in our home. That comment turned on a light bulb for me and I wondered, Are these the kind of judgments people make about my family?

I wasn’t troubled by other people’s opinion of me or my family; I had already endured ample criticism about my parenting style. What bothered and embarrassed me was the notion that I may have been guilty of judging other parents. What I learned is that I ought to reserve assumptions and judgments of other parents. We are all facing challenges and have unique situations.

In nursery school, at a parent-teacher conference, I inquired with my son’s teacher if she witnessed any aggressive behavior. Her face displayed a sense of confusion as if she didn’t understand why this question was brought up. If I could read her mind, she may have thought: What child are you talking about? She responded that he was gentle and never showed aggression toward another child.

Another light bulb turned on: I understood that our parenting approach at home was not effective as his behavior at school and that we had to make changes to see a difference in my son’s behavior at home. We implemented different strategies at home, emphasizing more consistency, boundaries and encouragement. We are still trying to strike the “perfect” approach with our son.

This insight was valuable when my son started Kindergarten, where it was even more evident that my kids’ learning habits, skills and interests are as distinct as their personalities.

Today, when I disclose to my friends who know my son well that he was very physical as a toddler, they display a familiar confused face. This time, that expression puts a smile on my face. I treasure the realizations he led me to:

  1. As parents, we should know better than to cast judgments on other parents, as we are not aware of the situations and circumstances other families are facing nor do they really matter.
  2. As parents of multiple children, we need recognize and embrace that each child has his or her unique personality and needs to be engaged accordingly.

Whose kid was that?

Editor’s note: This post was originally published on Sept. 16, 2008, but serves as a great reminder for any parent who’s been faced with a tantrumming child in public.

“I’m a parent educator. I’m a mom of four. I am an advocate for all things Attachment Parenting. I should be able to handle this. So, what the heck am I doing wrong?”

These are the thoughts running through my head at the grocery store the other day.

breakfast-cereal-173044-mThe store is being remodeled. It is glaringly bright, noisy and busy. The aisles are a crazy maze of disorganization. I have little, 6-month-old T-Bird in a sling, while 5-year-old Bug is doing her best to keep up with me, behave and be curious. The inarticulate “wonk wonk wonk” of the store manager is blaring out of the announcement system and competing with the world’s most annoying music.

All of this is completely grinding on my very last nerve.

T-Bird is her usual, content self and smiles happily at every face she sees from her sling.

Bug, however, has always been less content in these situations. She is much more sensitive to light, sound and disorganization. Even as a very little baby, we recognized that Bug needed things to be a little more quiet, a bit more calm and a lot more toned down.

This was where practicing Attachment Parenting (AP) became invaluable to us.

Bug didn’t like to be close all of the time as a baby. So, we couldn’t depend on babywearing or breastfeeding to be a cure-all with her. But Bug did love being near us so that she could quietly observe us, then practice the skills she had observed.

It became clear to us that Bug absorbed all of the things happening around her equally and that the two most important jobs we had as parents were to help her discern important information from background noise and to model appropriate behaviors.

If we hadn’t been able to respond to her with patience, compassion and understanding, life with Bug would have been much more difficult and frustrating.

She was my third baby, so I was able to recognize that her needs were a little more…ahem…demanding than my first two babies. But I accepted that this was just Bug and her unique personality.

I often try to imagine what might have become of Bug if she had been born into a different family. These thoughts always make me terribly sad — not just because I would have missed out on a wild ride and knowing an incredibly creative kid, but because there is nothing that makes her more upset than being misunderstood. And without AP, Bug would certainly be misunderstood.

So, here I have just dragged Bug into a situation that I know is almost impossible for her to handle. She is skipping and singing loudly in the store in an attempt to compete with the noise and activity surrounding her. The chaos is getting to me as well.

I feel the tightness in my jaw and notice the snippy edge to my voice as I remind Bug to stay close. I could swear that the noise went up an decibel or two. We are winding around abandoned shopping carts, other shoppers and remodeling debris. Bug runs head-on into a woman’s legs. I apologize to her while trying to laugh it off and blame it on the “crazy construction.”

true-story-number-two-251-mI can read Bug’s face: She is embarrassed to have run into that lady and is worried that I am upset. I smile at her tell her that she is my favorite 5 year old. She groans out loud and starts to open and close the freezer door repeatedly in response.

Not good.

I decide that we have had enough and I need to get all of us out of there while we are still sane. I know that I can always come back later or send my hubby if we still need something. My first responsibility is to be a sensitive parent, and Bug needs me to be that parent now. I’m kicking myself for not getting out five minutes ago.

Bug closes the freezer door one last time and follows me as I begin heading to the check-out. She is lagging behind and practicing her best lazy-legged shuffle. This time, I make the effort to use my most friendly, cheerful voice to remind Bug to stay close. She stops dead in her tracks. Arms crossed.

Oh no.

Listen to me, Mom! I have had enough of you telling me what to do in this big, stupid store! she shouts. Really loudly.

The younger, less confident version of me would have been mortified as the other shoppers snapped out of their shopping daze to judge my parenting skills. My ego screams for me to prove to these onlookers that I don’t tolerate this sort of behavior. My knee-jerk response almost bursts out of me: words meant to strip my child of her dignity in order to restore the good opinion of a bunch of strangers.

But I, the parent educator, the mother of four, the advocate for all things AP, can ignore the silent accusations and do what I need to do: be the parent Bug needs me to be. I take a deep breath and mentally flip through Pam Leo’s book Connection Parenting. I remind myself that Bug needs to feel a connection with me right now, not endure a lecture on how she should be behaving.

Whose kid is that?I gasp dramatically, while feigning a look of worry.Where is my precious Bug? What have you done with her? I came here with Bug and now there is only this poor, tired kid who speaks so disrespectfully.”

Bug giggles at my silliness. I make a show of looking all around. I pick her up and look under her as she giggles some more. I manage to slip in a bit of a hug while I pretend to look behind her.

With T-Bird in the sling on my chest, I squat down to make eye contact with Bug. Here comes my Oscar for Best Supporting Mom in a Grocery Store…

Oh! My little girl is back! Thank goodness! I was so worried while you were gone. This poor, tired kid showed up and said awful things to me! I sure hope that kid finds her parents and gets a hug.”

I get a big smile in response. I never even look around to see what all of those people think. I have to live with my children and the consequences of my parenting. My fellow shoppers are a blip in my day. My children are depending on me to be consistent and on their side.

We get out of there and go home to tell her Daddy all about the dramatic kid-mixing-up incident.

Liking My Spirited Child

I was browsing– okay, I fess up–I was googling the term “spirited child.” I immediately came up with some book advertisements and then with a few pages that explained what a spirited child was. My son is a “textbook” spirited child. The next few pages I came across were things like “taming your spirited child” and how to “cope” with having a spirited child, how to “survive.”

I am not big on always using positive words. I am actually somewhat of a self-proclaimed pessimist and don’t mind that I look at the glass and see it as half empty. I have had troubles with that before. Wishing I was more “positive” and “upbeat” but the truth is this is the way I am and if I am to embrace the way my son is and teach him how to embrace himself I will need to start by embracing myself. Fairly basic priniciple but easier said that done.

Now I understand how difficult it can be to have a spirited child. Though in some ways every child has their rough points. It is difficult to be a parent period. My son has had me in tears of frustration and exhaustion wondering if I was going to make it until bedtime only to find no relief because he wouldn’t sleep. If you have a spirited child, I don’t have to explain this to you.  You are already nodding your head and going through your own personal lists.

I in no way think that I need to “tame” my child. He is not going to change. He is going to be spirited for the rest of his life. Thank goodness! He is never going to be boring! He is going to be a creative and passionate person. I would not want to take that away from him. I don’t need to survive raising him. We both have to find a way to embrace our life today and all the tomorrows that are coming.

Here are just a few things that I have learned about my spirited child and that have helped me to embrace him and have helped him to organize himself.

  1. My son needs time to organize himself, I need to make that space and time for him. Since he is so disorganized he has had to learn discipline early, he has to discipline his mind and body, I can’t do that for him, but because of his age I have to help him identify his times of overload and help create the space he needs to organize himself.
  2. It works best if I let him know everything that we will be doing and where everyone is. This is no small feat sometimes considering we live in a community and there are 13 people here. He doesn’t feel “right” when he doesn’t know or understand what is going on, it creates confusion.
  3. My son can be loud and mean on occasion. This has to do with being a toddler but also has to do with him being spirited because he does not easily identify that he has hurt someone. This is not okay because no one wants to be around a child that is inconsiderate. I don’t want to be around a child that is inconsiderate! Appropriate discipline should be decided on before something happens because it is easy to become angry or frustrated with a spirited child. Discipline needs to happen immediately as a spirited child does not have a great attention span.
  4. A spirited child definitely changes a household (all children do) but they do not need to rule the household. Adjusting schedules so that they get a good amount of sleep and are not too distracted to eat is important but it is also important to be able to flex a schedule a bit without having your child freak out and ruin your time. Planning favorite stops, or for us, favorite snacks or activities along the way works great, something along the lines of “We are going to the coffee shop. They have toys there. Won’t that be fun?” We limit our time there so that we don’t push him too far and then suggest that we head to Target and while we are there we will get a chocolate milk. We do not bend to demands but calmly repeat exactly what we said we would do before, “No book today honey. I told you we were getting a chocolate milk remember? We’re going to do that now.”

None of this guarantees that we won’t be pulling our hair out at the end of the night but they are a few things that I have found that work for us. I also have found that it is very important that I get a little “me” time, especially if we have had a rough week. It doesn’t have to be much but it is extremely necessary.

In conclusion, why is it important that we discuss our spirited children? Because we want to do more than love our little ones, we want to like them and want them to become likeable people.

Any other spirited children out there? What do you all do to handle difficult situations? How about everyday life?