Look up synonyms for introverted, and you will find shy, cold, secretive, and withdrawn . Look, instead, for extroverted, and you will find words like friendly, gregarious, social, and personable .
These synonyms represent a list of attributes and behaviors that, at first glance, appear to be something we can choose, something we can change. Further, there is a definite positive and negative connotation to the words, reflecting Western culture’s favoring of extroversion. 1
But extroversion and introversion are more than a collection of attributes and behaviors that can be easily changed; these terms refer to our biological temperament. 2 And although the more challenging aspects of each trait can be balanced, human beings are predisposed to particular dispositions. It is part of our hardwiring.
Let’s take the most common synonym for introversion —shy— and compare it to everything it means to be introverted. Shyness, many will agree, refers to a specific behavioral trait that includes being reserved or hesitant in social situations. Most people think of the quiet child in the back of the classroom or on the fringes of the playground. Most people also believe that this is a child who needs to learn to be more comfortable in social situations; that exposure to group work, opportunities to speak, etc., will help that child “grow out” of the shyness. And this may be true: As a behavioral trait, it can be shaped and changed. 3
Introversion, on the other hand, is not merely a behavioral trait. While it is true that many introverts resemble that shy kid on the fringe of social arenas, especially when they are young, shyness is only one small aspect of introversion. 1
The introverted child is different from other children in how he or she utilizes energy, communicates, learns, and even which part of the nervous system he or she more frequently uses. With introverted children, the withdrawn and reserved behavior often described as shy is not only a behavioral characteristic; it has its roots in the actual neurology of the child.
Where extroverted children prefer to utilize the sympathetic nervous system, relying on the neurotransmitter dopamine and the shortened activation pathway, introverts rely on their parasympathetic nervous system and the neurotransmitter acetylcholine. This activation system is more extended than the dopamine-dominated system. The slow release results in deeper connections, slower processing for certain types of information, and the appearance of hesitation when faced with specific situations. 4
I mentioned that introverted children, as a result of differences in brain functioning, actually utilize energy differently. They are “slow burners,” utilizing solitude and quiet to renew their energy stores. Extroverts, by comparison, will burn through energy quickly and seek renewal in the form of social contact. Furthermore, introverted children communicate in ways that are deeper than their extroverted counterparts, often asking questions and wanting to know more about less information. Extroverts are the opposite, frequently talking in fast clips and wanting to know a little about a lot of things. All of these differences relate to differences in hardwiring that result in very different ways of interacting with the world. 2
Let’s get back to the shyness conversation: Where does the behavior of shyness come into play? Is it a "symptom" of introversion, related to the hardwiring described above? Or is it something else entirely? I would argue that shyness is unrelated to temperament (introversion or extroversion) and relates more to changeable behavioral traits influenced by our experiences and the environment.
Let me provide an example: When I was younger, I was a violist. Every year, I had to perform in a recital with my music teacher. Nothing terrified me more than these moments on stage, performing pieces that I had mastered. Although I knew I could do well with each piece, I was scared of the crowd, afraid of making a mistake, just plain scared. I was hesitant with every performance, often crying backstage before I had to perform. My teacher often said this was because I was so shy—afraid to try new things, afraid of new social situations.
Fast forward 10 years. Now I embraced every performance—dance, debate, speaking engagements, everything. I no longer worried about the audience but saw performing as a way to release my creative energy. The crowd now fed my soul, giving me the energy needed for the performance. My music teacher thought this was related to my shyness, or rather that I had grown out of “that” behavior. The truth was different: Yes, I was a shy child, often steering clear of new social scenarios, including performing. I was introverted, naturally reserved, and hesitant of new situations. I needed solitude to renew, and often appeared to be a reticent child. None of these traits made performing easy, no matter how I may have enjoyed it.
I spent the next 10 years performing often. With each performance, my shyness diminished. Soon, performing was as natural as breathing. So much so that no one could believe I had ever been shy. But what about the introversion? Did it go away with the practice of performing, too? Nope. I continued to require solitude, continued to appear quiet in many situations and was still reserved. After long days of performing, I needed solitude to feel okay. This need continues to this very day. It is part of who I am, part of what I need.
And it is not shyness. As I mentioned before, shyness is a behavior. It can happen to people of all temperaments. What I had, what I still have, is an introverted temperament. The shyness of my youth could be influenced by practice, changed over time, and environmentally depended. My introversion was not; it is an aspect of who I am. It will not change, no matter how comfortable I am with social situations.
This concept is likely surprising. As a culture, we have always included shyness as a synonym for introversion. In fact, when I ask a room full of adults to define introversion, it is usually the first word spoken.
I want to share one more story with you: This one is about an extroverted child. As defined previously, extroverted children need social connections. They are typically less inhibited than introverts and are often gregarious and talkative. The extroverted child in this story was definitely all of these things. As a very young child, she participated in a choir that performed all over her town. She loved being part of the choir, memorized all of her songs, and worked hard to make sure she was ready to perform. In her mind, she was prepared to take on the world, one song at a time.
That is, until the night of the performance. That night, she was shy—overwhelmingly shy. She cried and clung to her mom, unable to face the audience and sing. Needless to say, she missed the performance.
So, was she introverted at that moment? Or was she experiencing a moment of stage fright, of extreme shyness—a behavior ? I would say it was a behavior, not an aspect of her temperament. At that moment, the newness of the situation overwhelmed her and prevented her from being able to perform—not an unusual thing to happen to a young child. Since that time, this girl has gone on to perform in many venues, share her ideas, and participate in many activities that force her to be “out there” in front of a crowd. She is no longer intimidated by the audience, is no longer afraid. The behavior has changed. And yes, she continued to crave social contact and renewal through her social venues.
If shyness, then, can be experienced by people of all temperaments and does not belong in a list of descriptions for introversion, how can parents tell if their child has a more introverted temperament?
This list suggests some everyday things to look for:
- Your child may appear “intense” or be overwhelmed by the environment (noise, etc).
- Your child may crave solitude at the end of the day.
- Your child is typically quiet.
- Your child may want to learn a lot about a few topics, not a little about a lot of topics.
- Social skills (conversation skills, making small talk, self-advocacy) may be difficult for your child.
- Your child may appear withdrawn or edgy after a day at the playground or amusement park.
- Your child may not volunteer information in class, especially when learning something new.
These are just a few of the more common things that can differentiate introverted children from their extroverted counterparts. While some of these attributes may change over time as your child learns to interact in a predominantly noisy and extroverted world, most of these will not.
Introversion occurs in about 25-30 percent of the population. Knowing that introversion is not a factor of shyness, nor something that needs “fixing,” is a great way to assist introverted children in embracing the many gifts they have to offer, gifts that often include creativity, “deep” thinking, and innovation.
Introverts can seem like enigmas at times, presenting as shy when the truth is so much more complex and deep. Introverted children need space and solitude to renew and grow. These children have a unique and often misunderstood voice. It’s time we understand their gifts, provide a foundation in which they can thrive, and help them develop. Our world faces complex problems in need of complex solutions. Our introverted children may have the answers, but only if we abandon our preconceived ideas and help them find a way to share their unique view with the world.
1. Cain, S. (2012). Quiet: The power of introverts in a world that can’t stop talking. New York, NY: Broadway Books.
2. Fonseca, C. (2013). Quiet Kids: Help your introverted child succeed in an introverted world. Waco, TX: Prufrock Press.
3. Fonseca, C (2015). Raising the Shy Child: A parent’s guide to social anxiety. Waco, TX: Prufrock Press.
4. Laney, M. O. (2002). The introvert advantage: How to thrive in an extrovert world. New York, NY: Workman Publishing.