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The Introverted Child and Down Time

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I’ve been there quite a few times. We’re in the middle of a party, a grocery run, a restaurant, and my child starts hanging on me, dragging me by the arm. “Please, can we go?” she asks me with pleading eyes. She’s ready to be done. She’s been ready for 30 minutes and I’m still talking. She’s stuck with me in the middle of this crowded room and she’s about to have a nervous breakdown.

I remember being that child. In general, my extended family is more introverted than I am, but I still know what that it feels like to need introvert time. My clothes feel scratchy, uncomfortable. The noise pounds on my head. The expectations of the people around me to interact are pressing in on my brain, their well-meaning smiles and questions grating on my soul.  I feel trapped. Uncharacteristically, I grow cynical, just wanting to go away where it’s quiet and everyone will leave me alone. Then I feel guilty for not enjoying the people at this gathering. I want to cry. Suddenly, the Dare Devil thing of floating in a tank of water to sleep sounds absurdly appealing.

Introverts are recharged by being alone. Even when it looks like we’re energized by people for a short period of time, (cue mysterious music) things aren’t always what they seem. When the day is over and we crash in bedraggled heaps on our beds and stay there until we’re physically dragged off, the reality sinks in: every minute we spend with people is like two or three minutes of our mental and physical energy draining away.

Introverts are often the writers, artists, thinkers, and innovators in a society. We need space in the day for our thoughts… our deep feelings… our introspection (notice the common root word). An introverted child needs regular time away from other children and in most cases, quiet. A quiet space provides the freedom for introverted children to process, create. They can fill the space with whatever they want: art, poetry, songs, story-telling, observing, sleeping… or in the case of my math-breathing nephew, mentally solving fifteen to the sixth power.

An introverted child that doesn’t have a rest built into the day is like a car that leaks oil. Eventually the oil runs out and the car catches fire.

Or it just—

tat tat tat tat tat…

dies on site.

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What does it look like when an introverted child runs out of gas? I’m sure you can use your imagination, but suffice to say there is usually crying involved. Or fighting. Most children won’t hide in a room with their hands over their ears, but it’s been known to happen. Sometimes they just zone out, unable to engage anymore.

(Note: I’m not excusing inappropriate or disrespectful behavior, I’m simply pointing out one issue that can cause difficulty in an introverted child’s life.)

I have a friend whose children are mostly extroverted. They rush from place to place all week visiting friends and doing activities, while their one little introverted child gets dragged along with them, frowning and grumpy, barely staying awake. One day I saw her curled up in her Mama’s lap, ready to just be in a safe place for a few hours, away from all the noise and people. Her Mom asked me once what she should do to help her little girl participate more. “She doesn’t ever want to do anything!” she told me. Granted, there are medical reasons that children are lethargic, but in this situation the answer seemed fairly apparent. “Do you ever give her down time?” I asked her. “Ohhhh,” my friend replied, understanding, “I hadn’t thought of that.”

All children run out of steam sometimes. But the introverted ones, the dear little souls, seem to need extra care in this way and sometimes in addition to a loving response, they need a loving prevention plan.

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Prevention plans can look different for different children. A plan may be as basic as thirty minutes of “room time” right after school, or it could mean two full hours of swinging in the back yard while singing songs to the grass.

In our family, due to my own leanings as an introverted mama of six, a prevention plan means a daily rest time. For everyone. Even the extroverts. Because they live in a family with introverts and the introverts need them to be quiet and still. This need is especially timely at our house because there are people everywhere. All. The. Time. (Don’t get me wrong, I love them to tears!)

The argument could also be made that all children need some amount of down time. According to this Huffington Post Article, kids need to be bored sometimes. They need a time in the day just for playing and processing.

With the application of the smart phone (and tablet) as a calendar, tv, music player, social-interaction device, teacher, entertainer, gps, and pretty-much-anything-else-you-want-to-use-the-thing-for, it’s easy for a child to be screened up quite literally all day long with no mental down time. Add to that well-meaning extroverted parents that drag their introverted children from activity to activity all week long, and it’s understandable that some of these children have extremely low tanks.

My grandmother, raised on a farm surrounded by plenty of space, frequently said that children need to learn to be okay with their “little selves,” to be comfortable all on their own. This simple wisdom from her own mothering experience has endured in my heart since the first time she held my oldest daughter in her arms. That little baby girl was about as introverted as an infant can be and my grandmother understood her immediately.

 

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As an introverted child myself, I spent many an afternoon rest time on my bed. My adventures included playing cards with my stuffed toys, chasing floating dust particles, soaking up sunlight, telling stories, and singing once-in-a-lifetime vocal arrangements. These moments, as small as they seemed to the outside world, fostered a quietness in me— a quietness that is worth more than gold to the introvert’s heart.

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Photo credit: Elizabeth Thomas

The restful moments of my childhood may not have been exciting to me at the time. (I remember trying to read the clock in the kitchen and running into my mom to see if rest time was over yet.) Still, the quiet places of my mind, the places used for thinking, storing up, creating, loving, were all developed under the tender love and wisdom of my mother, who understood that her children needed a daily rest time to thrive.

As parents, we’re constantly trying to meet the needs of our children. Even though we know it’s not possible to meet every single need of a particular child, we keep trying and pray that where we fall short, the God who called them into light will fill the empty spaces with Himself. 

I wrote this post to share with parents what may seem foreign to some: if it’s in your power to do so, give your young introvert some down time. Some day, when they’re writing their new math theorem, discovering what the universe is made of, or bursting with picture book ideas, they’ll thank you for the space you gave them to be themselves.

 

Curious about how I use my down time? Enjoy the rest of my website and watch for upcoming picture book updates!