A few years ago, I was in close proximity to a mixed- age group of children. The opportunity provided a spontaneous “ah ha,” as I observed the children’s unique reactions to the stimulation of loud music and the large event crowd. Enjoying this informal study, I noticed the interactions with their parents and the other children. This was the best kind of teaching — objectively seeing and listening to a “reality experience.”

Some of the children swayed to the music, while several danced with total abandon, and yet what fascinated me most was watching those who clearly were needing to exit. One young child of about 4 was at the “tipping point,” crying and pushing the child next to her. Another slightly older child started pacing a short distance from the group, starting to unravel. Soon came the full meltdown of the 4-year-old, sinking to the grass, limbs flailing, with audible sobs heard above the loud music. I moved closer to witness what became a painfully sad scenario. Some bits and pieces I overheard in their exchange:

Parent: “Get up. Stop acting like a baby.”

Daughter (about 4), crying and kicking: “Nooooooooooo! I want to go home.”

Parent: “We are NOT going home until later. If you don’t get up now, I’ll really give you something to cry about!”

Child continued squirming and crying. Her father was clearly frustrated and angry, growing increasingly impatient.

Mom intervening: “That’s it. You’re not getting any of the snacks we brought. I have gummy bears, chips, cheese crackers.”

Dad, calling the other kids over to them: “Who wants some special snacks?” The little girl rolled over, still crying, but saying she’s hungry and wants some.

Mom: “Nope. Babies can’t have snacks!”

Both parents then taunted her, chanting “Cry baby, whiny girl” repeatedly in response to their daughter’s asking for food.

Certainly not connective or effective parenting! Rather, everything a parent shouldn’t do. Although there are several issues worthy of comment here, this article’s focus is on the underlying cause of the behavior. Had I not observed this group of children for about an hour, while listening to the music and savoring this gorgeous summer day, I wouldn’t have noted the temperamental differences. What’s most striking, worth noting for all ages, is the impact of external stimulation on introverts. Having absorbed the noise, crowds and interactions for an extended period of time, some in this group would be energized, not requiring any “recovery” time after leaving. Yet, for this 4-year-old and several other children, the constant excitement and stimulation was draining, beyond what introverts can tolerate. This imposes such demands on their need for quiet, calming recovery space, that continued exposure to this environment is excruciating. This little girl was letting her parents know she needed to turn inward for recharging. She didn’t have the tools or the understanding of what was happening to communicate her needs any other way.

From the Quiet Revolution

One major difference between the brains of introverts and extroverts is the way we respond to the neurotransmitter dopamine. Dopamine is a chemical released in the brain that provides the motivation to seek external rewards like earning money, climbing the social ladder, attracting a mate, or getting selected for a high-profile project at work. When dopamine floods the brain, both introverts and extroverts become more talkative, alert to their surroundings, and motivated to take risks and explore the environment.

It’s not that introverts have less dopamine present in their brains than extroverts do. In fact, both have the same amount of dopamine available. The difference is in the activity of the dopamine reward network. It is more active in the brains of extroverts than in the brains of introverts.

As we grow older, we learn more about our need for either quiet or socializing, thereby identifying ourselves as introverts or extroverts. A young child simply cannot do this. Think about a time you were in a large, noisy crowd, at a party or social gathering, which either energized or depleted you. Did you have sufficient knowledge of your temperament to care for yourself? If you’re an extrovert, you would have enjoyed the simulation. However, as an introvert, you might leave to seek solitude. Many adults don’t recognize this in themselves until they’re older, chronically feeling something’s wrong with them, reacting to situations and people with frustration. This lack of understanding can lead to low self-esteem, relational difficulties and endless challenges. Imagine how enlightening and supportive parents and child care providers can be by identifying these differences in young children. Rather than labeling the introvert “shy,” or “standoffish,” trying to push him to be more outgoing, we must instead embrace his need for quiet, respecting his cues when he’s reached his saturation point. 

Asking adult introverts how they react to overstimulating situations, some describe “shutting down,” while others describe their reactions as “fight, flight, or freeze.” One woman said she becomes irritable, more annoyed with each minute of overstimulation after reaching her limit. She either leaves or withdraws. She qualified that by adding: “It’s important to understand introversion, so you don’t mistake us as being antisocial or rude. The way our introverted brains operate, after a few hours of socializing and stimulation, we need to get out. It doesn’t mean we dislike people; it means it takes considerably more effort to socialize, it’s much more exhausting than it is for extroverts. When we’re in a quiet, calm, familiar environment, it’s soothing and relaxing.” 

Thus, adults can adapt, learning how to care for themselves, knowing when to exit an environment or to keep on dancing. Yet, how do we teach that to our children? Helping them understand and communicate their needs before they react with “fight, flight, or freeze” will circumvent the meltdowns described earlier. We then can respond to the introverted, or “slow to warm,” child with positive feedback, unconditional acceptance and support. Our expectations of how our child should behave, what she should tolerate, by trying to force the “square peg into a round hole,” are unrealistic and disrespectful. If adults can seek solitude when they become overstimulated, we must allow the same for our overstimulated child, perhaps not a moment too soon.