This week is Child Mental Health Awareness Week. So we’d like to take a quick look at one of the most important but most underlooked factors influencing how the world affects children: whether they are an introvert or an extrovert.
The things we experience as children have a huge influence on our mental health as adults. A lot of the time, parents get lumped with the sole responsibility for the way in which their children turn out. But this isn’t entirely fair. There are a huge number of factors involved in a child’s development, including their school, their peers, the media they’re exposed to - and their own intrinsic personalities. Today, we’d like to focus in on the latter. Specifically, we’d like to look at how your child’s intrinsic social style and needs can influence their current and future mental health.
It’s not about shyness or confidence - it’s about energy
There are two broad categories defining social styles - ‘introvert’ and ‘extrovert’.
In very basic terms: when introverts need to recharge, the seek solitude. They are energised by time spent alone. Extroverts, on the other hand, recharge and energise by meeting up with friends and socialising. It’s got nothing whatsoever to do with being shy or being confident - ‘introvert’ and ‘extrovert’ simply define what tires and what energises people. But these factors do influence the way you experience things.
It’s probably better to view the introvert/extrovert thing as a continuum rather than as two opposite categories. Few people are total introverts or extroverts. Most people exist somewhere along the scale. However, there are important differences between the two ends of the scale, and they can have quite an impact.
Sometimes, the way in which a child behaves can influence their personality and mental health. This is especially true where introversion and extraversion are concerned.
For example, while an extrovert child will thrive in a loud party, an introvert may enjoy the party but will also find it draining, energy-wise. They will probably try and conserve their energy by being quieter or more subdued than the extroverted children. This can lead people to consider them a bit standoffish or weak, which can in turn lead some children to tease, shun, or even bully them. Negative social experiences like this will make an introverted child more cautious when socialising in the future - effectively turning a perfectly sociable introvert into a child who is both introverted and shy. Shyness and associated lack of self confidence has a huge impact in the way they navigate social situations going forward, which can in turn make a major difference to the way their mental health develops.
On the other hand, an introvert child is likely to excel at quiet, thoughtful activities like studying. Meanwhile their extrovert peers may struggle with things like quiet reading time or exam conditions, leading them to appear less academically intelligent than they really are. Over time, teacher frustration and poor grades may cause them to believe that they’re unintelligent - which can have a huge impact in the way that they view themselves for the rest of their lives.
What can be done?
So, what can you do to help them navigate the world in a way that’s suited to their social temperament? Well, it helps if you, they, and their peers understand why they are the way they are. Many introverts grow up feeling socially inadequate because they can’t throw themselves as effortlessly into games and conversations as their extrovert friends. And many extroverts grow up feeling clownish and stupid because they struggle to study in the way that schools demand. Understanding and helping them to understand their needs will go a long way towards both reassuring them that they’re not deficient and helping them to live in a way that works for them.
- Will be at their most open and communicative one on one. Understand that group activities won’t bring out the best in them.
- Need alone-time to recharge. Don’t force them into after-school clubs and the like. Let them have time and space to do things like read and quietly think by themselves.
- Are highly self-aware. Introverts consider things deeply, which leads to a fantastic level of self-awareness. The flipside of this is that they can ruminate on their own faults, which is dangerous from a mental health point of view.
- Are often quiet at parties and playtimes. It’s not that they’re not enjoying themselves. It’s not that they lack confidence. They don’t need to be ‘brought out of their shell’. They’re just conserving their energy.
- Are deep thinkers. Introverts always turn inwards. If they’re presented with something interesting, they’ll want to ponder it rather than share or comment upon it. But, you can be sure that when they do share their thoughts, those thoughts will be deep and well-considered.
- May be overwhelmed in busy social settings. Busy social settings will drain their mental energy. So they’ll react as everyone does when they’re exhausted: upset, frustration, misery…They may also snap at extroverts who are draining too much of their energy. Explaining that the extroverts don’t mean to be annoying and teaching them how to gracefully decline social contact will help a lot.
- Are natural leaders. All of that social energy makes extroverts ideally placed to motivate and enthuse others.
- Are friendly - but may lack social finesse. For example, they may talk over other children, or pester others for attention.
- Are spontaneous. Extroverts always turn outwards. If they’re presented with something interesting, they’ll want to act upon it rather than think about it too deeply. In some circumstances this leads to brilliant spontaneity. In others, to recklessness.
- Thrive in social situations. Extroverts are ideally placed to enter a world which demands loud and active presences. They will always thrive when surrounded by others, and are unlikely to fade into the crowd.
- Love to share. All of that outwards energy means that extroverts have a lot to give.
- May struggle to understand internal differences. Extroverts are often highly intelligent, but they often don’t ponder things as deeply as their more introverted counterparts. This means that they can be bewildered by differences in personality. For example, they may get frustrated with introverts who don’t want to play or talk with them as much as they’d like. Some simple explanation of personal internal difference can clear things up for them easily, though!