Julie just turned 16. She almost always seems happy and energetic. She participates in community theater, plays varsity basketball, is quick to volunteer for school projects, and manages to maintain a B average. She has lots of friends and seems to genuinely enjoy life. Her brother, Dylan, is 14 and about to finish middle school. Although his parents believe that Dylan is as capable as his sister, they are concerned because he seldom participates in school and community activities. Dylan usually comes straight home after school, watches TV and spends more time on his computer than his parents would like. Although Dylan maintains better grades than his sister and has a penchant for classical literature, his parents can't understand what they interpret as Dylan's complacency. His parents are glad Dylan has one good friend, but often find themselves pushing him to get more involved, a scenario that usually ends in an argument.
How can two kids growing up in the same family and only 1 1/2 years apart in age be so different? Is it just a difference of gender? Or is it more than that? What lies at the heart of the different ways Julie and Dylan see and react to the world is their fundamentally different temperaments.
What is Temperament?
The concept of temperament refers to physiologically innate characteristics that result in patterns of behavior and emotional reactivity that remain stable over a variety of situations and throughout an individual's lifetime. For example, Julie and Dylan's mother was aware even during her children's infancy that they were quite different. Julie was expressive, seemed to want to make contact with others, and to relate to things and people around her. Dylan, on the other hand, was quiet, calm, and seemed more inwardly focused. But their mom didn't understand that the different character traits she saw in her children were the result of inborn character differences; in this case, the differences of extraversion and introversion. Consequently she has always worried that Dylan is not quite measuring up.
Introversion and Extraversion
Introversion and extroversion are two of the basic aspects of temperament, and these are so important that they deserve special attention. Just what does it mean to be an introvert or an extrovert, and how do they differ? One of the key differences is how each acquires or maintains energy. Everything in life requires energy, and each individual must determine, even if only intuitively, how much he or she has and how to refill his or her tank, so to speak.
While character traits rarely exist in their true or extreme form, we will speak of introversion and extroversion as if they are distinct entities, asking the reader to keep in mind that in reality these traits manifest somewhere along a continuum.
Extroverts, like Julie, love to talk with others about their ideas. For her, energy is created in the process of talking with others. Introverts, on the other hand, like Dylan, spend energy talking with others. Extroverts enjoy action, jumping into conversations and activities without giving it a second thought. Extroverts are interested in many things, often able to balance several projects at once, drawing energy from each one. Because of their innate ability to multi-task, extroverts are often prone to cultivate breadth, while the introvert, as noted above, is more likely to limit experience and the expenditure of energy in order to cultivate depth. Introverts are likely to feel over-stimulated and drained by too much activity and excitement, while extroverts seek variety in order to stimulate themselves more.
Kids with temperaments like Dylan, on the other hand, obtain energy from their inner worlds. Theirs is the world of thoughts and ideas. However, if the introvert shares his idea prematurely with others, especially (ironically) if the listener becomes overly enthusiastic about the idea, the introvert may retreat. Think of a balloon filled with helium, ready to sore into the sky, but before it is launched, it is punctured by a tiny hole, letting the helium escape. Even if the balloon does become airborne, it will most likely fizzle and fall back to earth, devoid of energy and possibility.
The case of Samantha serves as an example:
Samantha entered high school determined to meet new people and get involved, overcoming the reticence of her middle school years. She knew that she was smart, well read, and could hold her own in most any conversation, but her reluctance to speak in groups got in her way. During the first week of school, Samantha decided to join the debate team, which she cautiously mentioned to her mother. Her mother, an extravert who often gives talks to groups of business people as a part of her work as a consultant, was excited that Samantha had made such a bold decision. She told Sam how good this decision would be for her, how important it would be in the future, and even how many new job opportunities the experience would open up for her. The next day, while visiting a bookstore, she bought 3 books on debating techniques and excitedly presented them to Samantha that evening. She also offered to practice simulated debate situations with Samantha as often as she would like. Two days later, Samantha's mother was very disappointed when Samantha told her that she had decided not to join the debate team after all, that the idea had been silly, and she really wasn't interested in spending time with a "bunch of nerds."
What happened? Sam's well meaning mother, who relates to the world through her extrovert lens, did not understand how to best support her introverted daughter. In fact, she pricked that small hole in Sam's balloon, a hole through which the air of enthusiasm quickly escaped. No one is at fault here. They were both relating to the idea in their own way, but the lack of synchronicity led to the unintended result, creating a familiar feeling of failure and disappointment on the part of both Sam and her mom.
What might Samantha's mother have done differently if she understood better how her daughter related to the world?
- First, she might have restrained her enthusiasm, an act that is both difficult and counterintuitive for an extrovert. She might have reacted to the pronouncement of her daughter with a statement such as, “"Wow, that's cool. What gave you the idea to do that?" and, then simply listened to Samantha's response (or accepted her lack of response).
- Secondly, she would not have expanded Samantha’s idea immediately into how it would affect her future life, which constitutes over-stimulation and a feeling of pressure for an introvert.
- Third, she would not have purchased the books, but let her daughter discover them on her own [or find out about them from her debate team coach, who would have more likely presented the information in a more neutral and less intimidating (to Sam) fashion - it's hard to fathom for an extrovert, but enthusiasm can be overwhelming to an introvert.
- Finally, she would not have offered so quickly to practice debating with her daughter, especially knowing that she herself is already a skilled public speaker.
Again, Samantha's mother did nothing wrong; she simply reacted to her daughter's announcement in a way that was natural for her, rather than from her daughter's perspective. Some individuals might be tempted to pathologize Samantha's response. To an extrovert, Samantha's interest, then lack of interest, then giving up on the idea altogether, may seem to indicate that she can't follow through on a good idea, that she becomes afraid too quickly, that she is a quitter and will never make anything of her life.
As Samantha's case illustrates, it is important for parents to understand temperament in order to interact in the most helpful ways with their children. It is often helpful to parents to know that their children's physiological makeup greatly influences their temperament traits. What is currently known about the biochemical aspects of introversion and extroversion is outlined in a very readable fashion in Chapter Three of The Introvert Advantage, listed in the reference section below. It's important to keep in mind that while innate, biologically influenced character traits will not change dramatically regardless of how much pressure is applied, a child's innate nature can be expanded. However, the child's total personality must first be appreciated, nurtured, and enjoyed.
We could, of course, have presented a case in which the child was extroverted and the parent introverted. The extroverted child thrives on conversation and interaction. He or she looks for approval and agreement, and wants to share enthusiasm. The introverted parent is less likely to show his or her feelings through facial expressions and strong reactions. The introverted parent who does not understand temperament differences, and therefore does not practice matching their son or daughter's response to life, may appear to be aloof and disinterested, which can be disheartening and even devastating to the extroverted child. The introverted parent may not readily offer his or her ideas, and may even lose sight of what their enthusiastic offspring is saying. Such responses may feel debilitating to the energetic child, and she may feel that her parent(s) does not approve of her actions. For a parent to match and support a child’'s (or spouse's) different temperament requires both understanding and practice.
Responding Positively To Your Teen's Temperament
There are a number of positive ways parents can respond to and support their children's normal extroversion and introversion traits:
- To begin with, parents can inform themselves of the different characteristics of temperament, especially introversion and extroversion. The Introvert Advantage, referenced below, is a great place to start.
- Learn the advantages and disadvantages of both introversion and extroversion, and don’t fall into the trap of pathologizing one or the other. Usually, with extroverts outnumbering introverts by 3:1, the tendency is to think that extroverted behavior is normal and introverted behavior is abnormal. They are both normal.
- Try to see the world through the eyes of your son or daughter if they are of a different temperament than you.
- Help your sons and daughters value their innate characteristics, while at the same time encouraging them to stretch themselves into areas of behavior where they may not be completely comfortable.
- Keep in mind that while temperament does create initial propensities, it does not limit ultimate possibilities.
- As a parent, remind yourself that:
- Exploring fewer aspects of the world in depth is no better nor worse than exploring many aspects and enjoying breadth. They are merely different.
- Introverts are generally drained by (over) stimulation. Extroverts are energized by stimulation.
- Introverts enjoy people too, but in smaller quantities than extroverts.
- Introverts generally think before they speak, whereas extroverts are comfortable thinking as they speak.
- Extroverts have to learn to slow conversations down and make room for introverts.
- Introverts have to learn to mix with others, to make small talk, and to enjoy the ordinary aspects of relationships.
- Shame, guilt, social phobia, excessive shyness, and avoidant personality disorder are all psychological problems that require therapeutic treatment. They are not the same as introversion.
- Introverts and extroverts may collide rather than expand each other’s thinking if they do not understand their basic differences.
- And finally, in the words of Jess Lair, as quoted by Marti Olsen Laney, author of The Introvert Advantage, remember that
"Children are not things to be molded, but are people to be unfolded"
So, relax, learn about and enjoy your children’s differences from each other and from you, and help them enjoy themselves, their strengths, and their possibilities.
10 Best Gifts for Your Teen: Raising Teens With Love and Understanding
The Seven Cries of Today's Teens: Hearing Their Hearts; Making the Connection