When you’re trying to figure out what makes your child tick, it’s tempting to label him as a blanket-loving Linus or a bouncy, full-of-fun-fun-fun Tigger. And as soon as you typecast him, the concerns start. (Is it OK for Introvert Bert to spend so much time holed up in his room? Will Extrovert Ernie ever learn the beauty of blessed silence?)
To put your mind at ease: First of all, “introvert” and “extrovert” aren’t definitive diagnoses, like blood types, says Jerome Kagan, a professor emeritus of psychology at Harvard University, who has extensively researched temperament. Most kids (and adults) contain a little of both, and they reveal different aspects of themselves in different situations—which is why the child who hangs on to your skirt at a birthday party might do naked cartwheels at a family reunion. And “not all 4-year-olds who appear introverted or extroverted will be that way 20 years later,” says Kagan.
Also, the terms are often misunderstood, says Laurie Helgoe, Ph.D., a psychologist and a clinical assistant professor at the West Virginia University School of Medicine, in Charleston, and the author of Introvert Power: Why Your Inner Life Is Your Hidden Strength ($16, amazon.com). They don’t indicate whether a person is antisocial or a motormouth but whether she finds the company of others draining or energizing. “An introvert refuels by spending time alone,” says Helgoe. “An extrovert draws energy from interaction.”
Whichever type you have, here’s how to help him survive and thrive. (So you can worry a little less.)
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If You Have an Introvert…
Your kid is probably quiet, cautious, and thoughtful—less an extreme skateboarder and more an extreme Harry Potter reader. (By the way, author J. K. Rowling once said in an interview that she was an introvert as a child.) He may nurture a couple of close relationships rather than making a million friends. And that’s OK—even in America, where we tend to prize sociability, says Kenneth Rubin, Ph.D., a professor of human development at the University of Maryland, in College Park, and a coeditor of The Development of Shyness and Social Withdrawal ($55, amazon.com). “We want our kids to be the most outgoing kids in the world,” says Rubin, “but if we go to Beijing, the typical response to a reserved preschooler is that he’s fantastic. Culture defines what’s appropriate.”
Your introvert probably dislikes new, noisy, or crowded situations, and there’s evidence to suggest he’s wired that way. According to Kagan, several studies have shown that some introverts secrete cortisol, a hormone released during times of stress, when they interact with people they don’t know.
Introverted kids are more likely to stay on the sidelines; they look before they leap, which can be a huge asset. “An introverted child is more likely to stay out of trouble and less likely to be rambunctious at school,” says Kagan.
Introverts tend to be good listeners, loyal friends, and deep thinkers. Also, researchers have found some correlation between introversion and giftedness when it comes to qualities such as reflectiveness and independence of thought.
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Respect his need for alone time. Resist the urge to overschedule him or sign him up for group activities that you think will hone his people skills, says Marti Olsen Laney, Psy.D., a psychologist in Portland, Oregon, and the author of The Introvert Advantage: How to Thrive in an Extrovert World ($15, amazon.com).
Get to large gatherings early. That way, your child can adjust as the noise and the crowd build, says Bernardo J. Carducci, a professor of psychology and the director of the Shyness Research Institute at Indiana University Southeast, in New Albany.
Talk through social situations beforehand. “Be upbeat and say, ‘We’re going to the swim party. You might know some people there, and you might not know others. You can stand by me and go play when you’re ready,’ ” says Betsy Brown Braun, a child-development and behavior specialist in Pacific Palisades, California, and the author of You’re Not the Boss of Me: Brat-Proofing Your Four- to Twelve-Year-Old Child ($16, amazon.com). “If he winds up joining in, on the way home say, ‘I know it took you a while to warm up, but you seemed to have fun. You must feel good about that.’ Don’t say, ‘I’m so proud of you.’ It’s not about you—it’s about your child.”
Help him take a break. On the other hand, if he’s getting drained at a gathering, advises Laney, “Say something like ‘You look pooped. Let’s stroll down the block.’ ”
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If You Have an Extrovert…
So, you have a social kid who loves parties and team sports. No problem, right? Well, not until you get a call from school that she’s “sharing” too much in class, or she entertains you with news bulletins like “Mom, Mom, my booger’s the shape of Lake Erie!” Extroverts’ zeal for interaction may mean they like to talk. A lot.
This doesn’t mean they’re uncontemplative gasbags; talking aloud is how they think and process. They’re natural leaders, and “in many ways our world is set up for extroverts—for individualism and assertively putting forth one’s opinions,” says Lawrence J. Cohen, Ph.D., a psychologist in Brookline, Massachusetts, and a coauthor of The Art of Roughhousing ($15, amazon.com). You never have to worry they’ll be overwhelmed by the school bus or Lord of the Flies–style sleepaway camp.
Extroverts thrive on stimulation—they’re always up for inviting someone over or finding something new to do. In fact, some researchers believe extroverts may be more responsive to dopamine, a chemical secreted by the brain when we anticipate something fun or novel. When faced with a new situation, an extrovert is apt to focus on the potential rewards: She gets invited to a water-gun shoot-out extravaganza and thinks, This will be a blast! (An introvert might think, Water guns might be fun. But then you have to sit around all wet. I hope no one squirts me in the eyes.)
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Acknowledge her need to talk. “Let your child know that you understand she wants to share her thoughts,” says Braun. Of course, kids also need to learn that other people want to speak. Practice around the dinner table: Everyone takes a turn, and if your extrovert interrupts, say, “Hold that thought. I promise I’ll come back to you.” That acknowledgment makes it easier for him to wait.
Schedule downtime. “Even very extroverted children can do too much,” says Laney. Make sure he spends some time (even just an hour) quietly listening to music or reading. “Help him notice the benefits of private time,” she says. “Say, ‘You look a little more relaxed after your reading break. How does your body feel?’ ”
Know your limits. An extrovert’s desire for chat and connection can be overwhelming at times, especially if you’re an introvert. But, Cohen says, don’t wait until you’re so frustrated that you burst out with a “Stop yammering already!” If you need a break, Braun suggests telling a little kid, “I need some quiet time, but I do want to hear what you have to say. Right now my ears are full. Maybe you’d like to tell that story to your stuffed-animal friends.” For an older child, try letting him get his thoughts into a tape recorder. “He has to be able to put them somewhere,” says Braun. “And kids love to record themselves.”
Give positive reinforcement. Extroverts may be inclined to act impulsively. When they demonstrate self-restraint, says Laney, say something like “I noticed you waited quietly, even though I know you were so excited to get up from the table.”
Encourage their interests. Good advice for any kid, of course, but especially for an extrovert, because it can help her entertain herself well into the teen years, says Laney, when it’s easy for extroverts to get caught up in going along with the crowd.
One point that all the experts agree on: Whoever your kid is, he’s fine. “Love your children for who they are, not how outgoing you want them to be,” says Carducci. In the words of that ultimate authority, Big Bird: “I guess it’s better to be who you are. Turns out people like you best that way, anyway.”