Extroversion and Introversion – What to expect and how to deal with it

Published in ‘Parenting’ Magazine, Issue 30, Spring 2007

Introverted ChildrenInsights into how you child is ‘wired’ can really increase your communication and enjoyment of each other. Sue Blair gives some simple but profound advice on how to tailor your parenting to fit each child.

The fact that we are all different is not breaking news. We all know this. Our wiring is pre-determined. What we do about it is another story. If we can relate to our children in a way that supports their needs and not just our own, then we are truly parenting with wisdom.

Out of all the personality differences extraversion and introversion are probably the easiest to spot. Most of us understand the basic concepts of both sides of this particular coin although it is frequently misunderstood and misinterpreted. Extraversion vs. introversion is definitely not sociability vs. shyness. Whilst it may be true that extraverts tend to be outgoing, chatty expressive and thrive in a group situation; and introverts tend to be quiet, reflective and enjoy one-on-one conversations there is much more to add.

It is a question of where you get your energy from. Either you are energised by the world outside yourself i.e. people, activity, discussion; or you are energised by your inner personal world i.e. your thoughts, internal dialogues and interpretations. We all have an outer life and an inner life, one of these will receive more attention.

In addition, the gap between an extravert thinking something and speaking that thought is very short. An extravert thinks out loud. In a dialogue an extravert may well have changed their opinion from the beginning to the end of the conversation as it is the process of talking that helps them form their opinions. If there is a gap in the conversation they feel compelled to fill it. They will often interrupt as an idea comes into their head and it just has to come out!

In contrast, introverts will want to reflect on a thought and will only speak their mind once that thought has been processed. They think before they speak. Their internal ‘head-talk’ is an important part of their world and they rely on it to form their opinions, which will only be voiced when they are ready.

So each have their different needs and understanding them opens the door to good communication. But how does this affect our children and what should we do about it?

I met a mother recently who was a clear introvert with an extravert daughter. She related a story that may sound familiar to those of you in the same situation. She collected her daughter from school and had an errand to do that involved an hour long drive. “You’ll never believe it, but from the moment I picked her up my daughter talked non-stop for 45 minutes!!! I was exhausted!!!” The mother looked at me as if I would share her amazement but I chuckled a little and replied “You know, I would just love that.” My daughter is quite the opposite. Gorgeous, of course, but very different. When she has a bad day at school she goes straight to her room and finds a corner to snuggle into. At this point the temptation to do my ‘extravert mother thing’ is enormous. What I would love to do is follow her, ask what the problem is and hope for a lively exchange of information about her day that I can quickly sort out with my wealth of ideas and experience. “A problem shared is a problem halved”, and all that. This is not even slightly what she feels like doing.

What I am learning to do, much against my nature, is to give her some space for a few minutes and then slip into her room where I will sit or lie quietly for a while. And after a while I may say “I can see your day has not gone so well, would you like to talk about it now or hold on to it for a while?” Of course, she always wants to wait. This is her choice and her prerogative and I have to let it go. Sometimes it will take until much later in the evening for the story to unfold. When this happens I must frequently remind myself to listen quietly, ask if she needs some help with this and offer advice only when required. Very often she has spent her quiet time working out what to do and has come to a far better solution that suits her temperament more than any of my “Why don’t you”s would ever have accomplished.

So what are some basic guidelines that we can follow when combining these two different types? Please keep in my mind that there is likely to be quite a mix in any one household. It is a known fact that our partners tend to be opposite to us, so Mum and Dad are likely to have different needs to start with.

For extraverts of any age they will need an opportunity to talk, be heard, express themselves and ‘get it off their chest’. There are times when they may want some answers, there are times when they will form their own opinions by externalising their thoughts and then working it out for themselves. If they do have a question they would prefer an immediate response so that they feel you are involved and participating. They will also expect that you too are ‘thinking out loud’ and that what you say is not your final word but just your current thoughts which could change as more information is forth coming.

Children who are extraverts tend to say what they think, often with alarming volume. This is fine if what they are saying is complementary but not so attractive if it offends. It is also very tempting to believe that these children have a high self-confidence. It certainly appears that way, but may not be the case. It is equally possible that their nervousness in a social situation compels them to chatter feverishly about the first thing that comes to mind. Talking about these traits and giving your child some self-awareness is a great first step.

It is possible that your child is, in your view, an excessive talker and it’s becoming an issue. I suggest you make sure that this child has several times a day that they have your attention and time to talk. Certainly first thing in the morning and when they see you again after some time apart. Then, when you have to get on with the necessities of life they will know that another opportunity is not far away. One parent I spoke to called it their ‘talky time’.

For introverts of any age they will need their time and space, far from the madding crowds, where they can re-energise before returning to the hubbub of family life. It is vital that this time is made available. As a parent returning home after work, if your journey doesn’t allow you this opportunity, stop somewhere quiet for a few minutes before you arrive home. Regain your mental energy and arrive ready to be emotionally as well as physically present for your children. As a child, this time is equally important, especially if you live in a busy, noisy home.

Some parents become very concerned if their children appear anti-social, shy or happy to be on their own. It is important to value their introversion appropriately. Tell them that you think they are great company, that to think before you speak is a great asset in life and that having a few very close friends is a fine way to be. At the same time it may be necessary to teach them some social skills. Some children need to be taught how to start a conversation in the same way that they need to be taught colours, numbers or letters. Start from the beginning, give them the words they need and practice often. Unless parents do this, introverted children can become anxious about themselves, admire the popular, cool group and wish they were different.

Try not to label these children as shy, instead notice when they are being outgoing and comment on it so they are reminded that it is something they are able to do when they feel comfortable enough. Your introverted child may have many opinions but will need to be invited to speak and feel welcomed and encouraged when that happens. Also, if there is a time or place where your introverted child does enjoy talking then make this space available frequently. And for extravert parents, when your introverted child starts speaking, you stop!

The bottom line is – if you don’t know what an extravert is thinking you haven’t listened; if you don’t know what an introvert is thinking you haven’t asked!

An extravert to extravert dialogue is at best an enjoyable sharing of information and ideas and at worst is two people talking at and over each other without either one really listening.

An introvert to introvert dialogue is at best a meaningful discussion with each giving the other the space they need to think before responding and at worst is two people who are unwilling to say anything to each other at all.

An extravert to introvert dialogue at best involves a mutual understanding of preference which accepts a need to compromise a natural style of communication. At worst it can be a one way monologue with the extravert wondering if the introvert has an opinion and the introvert wondering if the extravert will ever shut up!

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