Introvert vs. Extrovert

Figuring out whether your child is an extrovert or an introvert is not as clear-cut as you think.

Which Type Is Your Child?

When my son started kindergarten, I expected that he'd happily participate in the activities, just as he'd done in preschool. When I came to pick him up, however, the other kids were playing together in the center of the rug while Jamie sat contentedly on the edge, watching. After school, most kids ran around the playground, but he stayed on my lap. I tried to talk him into joining the others, but he said simply, "I don't want to, Mommy."

What had happened to my chatty, playful little boy? He'd shown me his true nature, that's what. My son, I discovered, is an introvert -- even though, like most introverts, he acts extroverted at home, with his close friends, and in situations that feel familiar to him.

Everyone is born with a predisposition toward a personality type. Extroverts are energized by interacting with others and the world around them, while introverts are drained by too much interaction, especially with a big group, and prefer to be with people they know well. Although all kids display traits of both types, they innately prefer one style over the other.

At 5 or 6, when your child is thrust into the new surroundings of kindergarten, his personality type will become more apparent than before, says parent educator Barbara Barron-Tieger, coauthor of Nurture by Nature: Understand Your Child's Personality Type -- and Become a Better Parent (Little Brown, 1997). It may even affect his performance in school. "Extroverts learn best when they're talking and interacting," Barron-Tieger says. "But they tend to get in trouble more than introverts do. They're the kids who are often poking their neighbors, whispering, or calling out the answer." Introverts learn by watching and reflecting. They get positive reinforcement from teachers for sitting quietly and not interrupting but may be overlooked in class.

Recognizing your child's type will not only help you understand her behavior but also make you less likely to worry. For instance, if your child holds back at first, the way my son did, you'll know that it's simply her nature to observe initially and that she'll join in when she's ready. Because you can't change your child's personality, the best way to help her develop lasting self-esteem is to accept who she is. Here are some tips to help your child thrive.

How to Handle Your Little Introvert or Extrovert

If your child is an introvert:

  • Talk to the teacher. At the start of each year, tell the teacher that your child will need time to get acclimated before he'll be ready to participate in class activities. This will help make sure he doesn't get overshadowed by his more outspoken classmates.
  • Give her time to answer. Introverts mull things over and won't speak until they've decided exactly what they want to say. Respect your child's slower pace, and don't finish her sentences.
  • Don't quiz him about his day. Asking an introvert questions makes him withdraw more because he'll need to reflect on each one. Talk to your child about your own day. If you pause frequently, he's likely to speak up too.
  • Respect her social preferences. If you ask your child whom to invite to her birthday party, she might name only two kids. If so, forget holding a traditional party and instead take her and her best friends to an activity they love, such as bowling or ice skating. When she's going to someone else's party, arrive early to give her time to adjust.

If your child is an extrovert:

  • Let her think out loud. "Words go out of an extrovert's mouth, into her ears, and then into her brain," says school psychologist Elizabeth Murphy, Ph.D. "Because your child talks about her ideas as she's forming them, you may think she's just rambling. But if you interrupt her, she'll lose her train of thought." It's best to encourage her to keep talking by saying "Uh-huh" or "I see" until she reaches her conclusion.
  • Teach him to wait his turn to speak. You can help your child practice patience by making dinner or car rides times when everyone takes turns sharing ideas, listening, and waiting for others to finish their sentences. After school, however, your extroverted child may be eager to tell you about his day. Indeed, talking with you helps him make sense of his experiences. If you're at work, set aside 15 minutes to talk to your child on the phone.
  • Understand that tall tales are normal. My son's classmate Isabella has told people that she has a baby sister, as well as a dog, a kitten, and a bird, and that she's allergic to various foods. None of this is true. Extroverts aren't trying to mislead anyone, says Barron-Tieger. They want to forge social connections and may blurt out the first thing that comes to their mind to bond with someone. If your child fibs in your presence, say, "You've got quite an imagination." This lets the other person know the statement is untrue without embarrassing your child. When you're alone, talk about the importance of honesty.
  • Accept that it's hard for him to do anything alone. "If you send your child to clean his room, for example, his energy will begin to drain away and he'll get offtrack," says Barron-Tieger. Either do it with him or stay nearby.
  • Each personality type has its merits. Because extroverted kids are so gregarious, they'll attract many people into their lives; introverts may have fewer but closer friendships. Just remember: Your child's style may differ from your own, but his chances for happiness and success are just as plentiful.

Copyright© 2004. Reprinted with permission from the February 2001 issue of Parents magazine.

All content here, including advice from doctors and other health professionals, should be considered as opinion only. Always seek the direct advice of your own doctor in connection with any questions or issues you may have regarding your own health or the health of others.

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