After a long overwhelming day would you rather have some time alone to process or immediately seek the company of others? This simple question gets to the heart of how each one of us recharges our mental and emotional energy. Are we an introvert or an extrovert? Where is our generator?
Understanding where we draw our energy from, self or others, is a critical component of self-regulation and wellbeing. More than 80 years ago Carl Jung popularized the idea of extroverted and introverted personalities. To simplify the concept, extroverted people draw and recharge their energy from being around others, while introverted people draw and recharge their energy from being with themselves. A third category, ambiversion, was later added and describes individuals who fall between being introverts and extroverts or who move between the two.
As parents it is important we identify if our child is introverted or extroverted because understanding where they get their energy to cope allows us to teach them how to resupply before becoming overwhelmed. It is also important for parents to recognize where they draw their energy. For an extroverted parent a phone call to a friend can alleviate a difficult day while for an introverted parent a few minutes of solace can accomplish the same thing. Also, if there is a mismatch between parent and child that difference can be managed constructively rather than becoming a source of conflict.
Although judgements abound on both sides around the idea of being an extrovert or an introvert, in reality there should be no judgements because we don’t get to choose if we are extroverted or introverted. These characteristics are biologically based with environment possibly affecting where we fall on the continuum. Several experiments have found differences in the brain structure, brain use, and nervous systems of extroverts and introverts. Several of these findings are listed at the end of the article.
Introverts: Draw their energy from within themselves. They need time alone to recharge.
– Need and enjoy time alone. Usually enjoy family, a few special friendships and small groups.
– In groups, especially those that are large or where they do not share special relationships, they may become over stimulated and thus grouchy, moody or for younger children, tantrum. In these situations, help your child understand they may need to seek quiet, solitary moments. Sometimes a few minutes alone can help them recharge so they can join the group again.
– They may zone out, shut down, watch TV, play video games or gone online to “escape”.
– Experience more challenges when integrating with groups or doing new things.
– Highly observant and tend to delve into areas that interest them.
– Prefer uninterrupted work time and may have difficulty switching gears when they are working/thinking.
– They tend to want to understand the world not necessarily change it.
– Introverts need time to process their thoughts, feelings, and ideas.
– They may choose to share their worries and concerns slowly; in bits and pieces; not at all; after they have figured out the solution; or only later once the issue has become a distant non-issue.
– According to expert Marti Olsen Laney, “introverts use a longer brain pathway that integrates unconscious and complex information. As a result processing information requires more time. But introverts are also able to incorporate more emotional and intellectual content relevant to the new data.” Introverts, “more often use their long-term memory than their short-term memory. This affords them a wealth of material, but it takes time to retrieve and reconstruct bits of memory from storage banks located all around the brain.”
– Protective of personal and physical space.
– Behaviors that seem harmless can actually be experienced as an invasion of personal space for introverts and particularly introverted children. For example, removing an article of clothing, spontaneous affection especially from those they are not close to, eating off of their plate, entering their room unannounced and more. Some young children may act out, hit or bite to reclaim their space. If this sounds familiar, help your child recognize their need for physical space and ask for it constructively. For example, if another child sits too close help them find the words such as “I need more space, could you please move your chair over.” Give forewarning before touching their things and explain why you are touching their things so they understand and don’t feel as though things are being done to them. For example, “it looks like you are done with your food. May I take your plate to the sink?” Also look for moments where your introvert is able to tolerate and expand their capacity. For example, “Since Grandma likes to kiss and you don’t like it, how about we stop her this time at 4 instead of 2.”
Extroverts: Draw their energy from others. They become depleted from too much quite or alone time.
– Need to be around others and enjoy big groups. They are social, outgoing and like to be involved.
– Some may have trouble understanding personal space and boundaries. They may stand too close, touch too much and forget to knock before entering. They may not recognize when others have had enough or become frustrated or despondent when others need a break. If this sounds familiar talk to your child about the difference between introverts and extroverts and how to allow space and times for others.
– Enjoy variety, action and achievement.
– Focus on the external world, people and things.
– Communicate openly and freely with little or no censure and while their ideas are fresh.
– Often talk before or while they are thinking.
– They often process their thoughts and ideas by talking aloud to others, so ideas flow freely, are flexible and may change. In school, some kids may raise their hand without worrying about if they have the answer or not.
– Tend to want to talk more than listen.
– They may get in trouble for interrupting. They may look to add commentary and share stories any chance they get. They may want to talk about their day the moment they see you or run to say hi when you enter the door.
– May be tied to social media, the phone and any other avenues to stay connected to others.
– Need approval, feedback and positive reinforcement to keep their energy high.
– Some parents may question their kid lacks self-esteem, but often for extroverted kids, approval, feedback and positive reinforcement are just avenues to refuel and satiate their “reward” centers.
Other things to remember:
1. Don’t confuse normal development with introversion or extroversion. For example, many one year olds have difficulty being held by strangers whether they are extroverted or introverted.
2. Introversion and extroversion exist on a continuum.
3. Supposedly extroverts outweigh introverts three to one in American society.
Differences in Biology Between Introverts and Extroverts:
– In a lab experiment the brains of introverts and extroverts were scanned to determine the most active parts. Three differences emerged. First, introverts had more blood flow to their brain than extroverts, which indicates more internal stimulation, which may explain why introverts are more easily over-stimulated and need less external stimulation. Second, introverts and extroverts used different brain pathways. Introverts were longer, more complicated and internal, which may explain why introverts generally need more time to process their feelings, but when they do, they tend to contain more nuanced, emotional and historical associations. Third, extroverts paid more attention to what was happening in the lab during the experiment while introverts paid more attention to their internal thoughts and feelings.
– Extroverts and introverts use different neurotransmitters. Extroverts tend to have lower sensitivity to dopamine (the “feel good” neurotransmitter) so they want more of it, while introverts have high sensitivity to dopamine so too much of it doesn’t feel good or is over stimulating.
– Extroverts are connected more to the sympathetic nervous system (dopamine/adrenaline), which is an energy-spending system. Introverts connected more to parasympathetic nervous system (acetylcholine), which is the energy-conserving system.
– One study discovered that introverts tended to have larger, thicker grey matter in their prefrontal cortex, a part of the brain linked to abstract thought and decision making. The researcher concluded this might be why introverts are more likely to ponder things thoroughly before making a decision, and why extroverts are more likely to live in the moment and take risks without fully thinking things through.