“How was your day?” is a common way many parents greet their children when they get home from school. For some children, this simple inquiry will open up a long conversation filled with details and antidotes. But other children may not give much information, especially kids who are more introverted. Instead of a long answer, they may respond with simple, “Fine,” or just a shoulder shrug.
How can parents better communicate with quieter children? We asked an expert to find out.
What is an introvert?
People are born with different temperaments, extroversion or introversion, and this generally remains unchanged as they grow up.
The website Introvert, Dear defines being introverted as, “Someone who prefers calm, minimally stimulating environments. Introverts tend to feel drained after socializing and regain their energy by spending time alone.” It is estimated that 2 out of 5 children are born with an introverted temperament.
Being introverted used to be seen as less desirable than an extroverted, more outgoing personality. But in recent years, thanks in part to Susan Cain’s book Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking, the many positive aspects of being introverted are more widely recognized and appreciated. Dr. Michele Borba, author of Unselfie: Why Empathetic Kids Succeed in Our All-About-Me World, tells SheKnows, “Introverts are cognitive. They tend to size situations up before reacting.”
The terms “introverted” and “shy” are sometimes used interchangeably but shouldn’t be. Introverted children may be slower to warm up than their extroverted peers and enjoy alone time. Shy children may not actually want to be alone but are more anxious in social situations. Borba cautions, “Labeling a child as 'shy' tends to have negative connotations. Parents want to boost their child’s confidence and self-esteem but labeling them has the opposite effect.”
So, how can you start a conversation with a kid who seems to hate conversations?
Ask the right questions
A question that can be answered with a “yes or no” tends not to yield a lot of information, especially from introverted children. Borba says, “Open-ended questions work best. Also, avoid predictable questions, such as, ‘How was your day?’ These questions tend to bore kids and make them less interested in responding.”
Borba suggests parents do some research and come up with better questions to ask. Read through their schedule, and if possible, see what topics or projects the class is working on. Parents can then ask more specific questions, such as, “Which character surprised you most in The Outsiders?” or “Which student climbed the rock wall fastest in gym today?” which may help open up more interesting conversation. Be sure it feels like you're interested in what they have to say and not prying or interrogating them.
Pick a good time to talk
There are certain times of day children will be more receptive to having a conversation. Parents need to tune into what works for their individual child. For many kids, discussing their day right when they return home is a good time. Their memories are fresh, and they may be happy to talk.
But for an introvert, right when they get home is probably one of the worst times to approach them with questions. After having been social all day, they may prefer to have some time alone before being ready to converse again. Borba found the best time to talk to her own son was at 5 p.m. She says, “I’d find him at the refrigerator eating a snack. He was more relaxed than when he first got home. He’d be eating, and we weren’t sitting right across from each other, so it was a less formal, less stressful conversation about his day.”
Give them time to warm up
After you ask an introverted child a question, wait for a response. Sounds simple, but it can be hard to do. Borba says, “What happens is the child doesn’t answer right away, so the parent will ask again or answer for them. Neither of these responses builds confidence.” Borba suggests parents wait and smile encouragingly. “It may seem like a long time, but by waiting, the parent gives the child a chance to formulate a response. If a lot of time passes, the parent can follow up with, ‘What do you think?’ but still don’t answer the question for the child.”
Getting children, especially introverted children, to open up may take time and patience. Borba explains, “Many children have not learned basic people skills. We’ve removed a lot of the play from their lives where they learned skills like ‘your turn -my turn’ and instead filled their days with scheduled activities. And all the technology has made kids more comfortable looking at their phones than looking someone in the eye.”
Insisting children respond for themselves will boost their confidence. Parents can help children to become better communicators by role-playing conversations with them. Borba says, “Having a parent show them how to respond and interact in these situations is much more effective than telling them what to say.”
Most important, when your child is speaking, really listen. Give the child your undivided attention; don’t check your phone or email or appear distracted. Echo back what the child said to ensure you are hearing them correctly. Many introverts struggle to express their feelings, so let them know you understand it can be hard to speak up and you appreciate them sharing their thoughts with you.