One of the most popular topics in the parenting course I run, is a subject very dear to my heart: introversion vs extraversion. This is because I believe having a basic understanding of this concept can be transformative for parents who are struggling to understand their children.
The introvert-extravert spectrum is a theory popularised by Carl Jung several decades ago. Since then, there’s been a great deal of research on this area and his theory has been found to be valid.
In a nutshell, the introvert-extravert spectrum is all about where you get your energy from. How you recharge your brain.
We probably all know someone who is a lone-wolf. They don’t have a lot of friends. They don’t need a lot of friends. And we probably all know someone who is the life of the party, who seems to have a large circle of friends, and who is loud and exuberant. A good friend of mine from university is very extraverted. I would turn up at her parties, meet a new person and say ‘How do you know A?’ It was not uncommon for them to reply ‘Oh, I met her at the bus stop today’! These two types sit at opposite ends of the spectrum, but most of us can be placed around the middle of the spectrum.
What the science points to is that introversion and extraversion seems to be hard-wired. We’re born that way. Introverts process things differently to extraverts. It is a spectrum, and depending on what happens to you in life, or the situation you find yourself in, you can go move along that spectrum. But how you recharge is unlikely to change; that is, you are unlikely to switch from being an introvert to an extravert (and vice versa).
Extraverts are energised by being around other people. They tend to be friendly, gregarious, happy-to-chat-to-anyone sort of people. They work well in groups and prefer activities that are social. They get bored easily when alone, and are usually undaunted by new situations and can be impulsive. They like novelty, and are often the first people in a group to give something a go.
Extraverts think by talking. This is very hard for introverts to understand as they would never speak without thinking it through. But this is the case. I’m an extravert, and when something happens to me or I am asked to express my opinion on something I haven’t articulated before, I often need to talk it through with others. Having to articulate my thoughts helps my processing become clearer. This is why some people flip-flop on an opinion during a conversation! They are probably an extravert who just needed a sounding board to think things through.
Introverts recharge by being alone. Being around others – especially large groups – is draining for an introvert. Going to a party where they know no one is exhausting. Introverts prefer small groups or one-one-one social interaction. They often have solitary hobbies, which allow them precious time to relax and unwind. Introverts have a deep need for alone time, and are analytical before they speak. They are not people who jump in boots and all into a new situation. They prefer to spend time sussing out the situation, and will join in when they feel comfortable. Where they fit on the spectrum will determine how long that may take.
Introversion is not shyness (which is fear of social encounters). Let me say that again – introversion is not shyness! Indeed, many introverts can be perfectly friendly and chatty, although they dislike small-talk. This is because trust is a big issue with introverts,and they tend to only open up to select people. Introverts are deep processors, and view small-talk as shallow, preferring more meaningful interactions with trusted others.
So, why is it good to know this stuff?
A couple of reasons. One, it’s important for parents to know where they fit on the spectrum in terms of their own self-care. Extraverted parents who are stuck at home with young children can get isolated and depressed, so it’s vital they have enough social interaction to meet their needs. Introverted parents need alone time, which can feel impossible to get. Carving out that alone time during the day is crucial, and might involve getting up an hour before their kids to sit quietly with a cup of coffee, or swapping childcare duties with a friend to get some free time.
Two, it’s important to know where your kid fits on the spectrum so you can care for them in a way that honours who they are – especially if you and your child differ. I see many parents pushing their introverted child to ‘join in!’, when little Johnny clearly doesn’t feel ready to join in. My daughter has a rather introverted boy in her ballet class. It took him FOUR classes before he would do anything for the teacher. In the meantime, his Mum was right beside him, moving his arms and legs in the hopes that he would ‘join in’. If she knew about introversion, she might have cut him some slack and realised that it would take her son time to warm up to new situations. And that this was perfectly okay.
Likewise, I see parents apologising for their child who rushes straight for the toys or play equipment, or for their child’s enthusiasm and loud exuberance. That kid is probably an extravert. I also hear parents say ‘I can’t understand it. Little Amy is a devil at home, but a perfect angel when we’re out and about’. Little Amy is probably an extravert who needs more stimulation from being around others.
While all children need to learn pro-social behaviour, if we do not honour their hard-wired nature we give them messages that who they are is not okay. This is particularly true for introverted children. Western society rewards extraverted behaviour. If you were to ask parents if they would like their child to be friendly, ‘confident’ and eager to try new things, most parents will say yes. Introverted children are never going to be the life and soul of the party (unless, of course, it’s a small party with their BFF’s), and shouldn’t be forced to be. In fact, coercion tends to make things worse. Introverts who are allowed to take time to settle into new situations, and are given the space that they need, learn that they are okay. This in turn, helps them to slide a little bit up the scale towards extraversion.
Finally, I’m going to leave you with these excellent infographics, which give tips on how to care for introverts and extraverts.
*Extravert is also sometimes spelled extrovert.