Inside: Introversion is common among adolescents. Here’s how to parent an introverted teen so they feel validated for who they are.
In her immensely popular TED Talk, Susan Cain author of Quiet, The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking and Quiet Power, The Secret Strengths of Introverted Kids argues that today’s society is designed for extroverts and that there is a “deep societal bias” against introversion.
You may be surprised to learn that introverted tendencies occur on a spectrum and that there is a biological basis for these tendencies (and there is a genetic component). Simply put, the brains of introverts and extroverts are different. Introverts are more sensitive to dopamine, making them more easily overwhelmed by external stimuli. On the other hand, extroverts thrive on high energy personal interactions. (Check out the podcast Neuroscience Meets Social and Emotional Learning for more information on the science.)
This means introverts tend to be:
- Good listeners
- Observant of details
- Good problem solvers
- Deep thinkers
- Social – on their own terms
Extroverted parents often struggle to understand their introverted children. They may worry that their teens’ preference for solitary activities will hinder social and possibly even professional opportunities. They may question how simple social situations could possibly be stressful. They may even jump to conclusions and assume mental health issues that aren’t there. But being an introvert is perfectly normal. In fact, The Myers-Briggs Company reports that more than half of the world’s population prefers introversion.
So if this sounds like you (and your kid), here’s how to parent an introverted teen in a way that validates and supports them for who they are.
How to parent an introverted teen
1. Learn more about introversion
Don’t assume your teen is a social outcast or is unhappy being alone. Don’t assume they hate being around other people, are averse to signs of affection such as hugs, or that their need to step away is a sign of bad manners. While it may be disconcerting to watch, it is perfectly normal for introverts to be chatty with family or in small groups, yet freeze up with strangers or in large groups.
While an introvert may also be shy, the terms are not synonymous. Introverts gravitate to quiet environments with minimal stimulation. Social interactions drain their energy and they need time to recharge. But shy people withdraw because they fear being judged negatively. The website Introvert, Dear is one great resource for both introverts and those who love them. Unsure of where you are on the introvert/extrovert spectrum? Susan Cainoffers an introvert quiz to help you learn find out.
2. Accept your teen’s introverted tendencies
We shouldn’t expect our kids to be “mini-mes.” While we may have much in common with our offspring, it’s good to also embrace the differences. Start by reassuring them that they are not weird and respect their need for space, both physical and emotional. Run blocking for them in social situations: Allow them to say no to some social events. Don’t force them to socialize. Use positive language when speaking about them. Rather than standoffish, say reserved, instead of timid, contemplating. Advocate for their right to be unapologetically themselves.
3. Give your introverted teen space and time
Introverts spend their days navigating an extroverted world, one in which constant sensory stimulation is the norm. Schools have shifted from lecture-based instruction to more hands-on and collaborative instruction. While this is definitely an effective way to learn, experiencing this high level of stimulation class after class can be a nightmare for introverted students. Not to mention the added pressure of teachers assigning grades to class participation. After a full day of “being on,” introverts need a safe space to retreat and recharge.
Allow them to disappear for short times, even when family is visiting. Introverts need time alone to process and recharge. Don’t think of this as being anti-social. Encourage them to also find ways to recharge “on the go.” Things such as journaling, listening to music, walking or reading are all good options. Even a five-minute break after an especially overwhelming and exhausting class or activity can help get through the day.
4. Help them prepare for difficult scenarios
It’s impossible to avoid all overstimulating situations, but there are ways to make them more bearable. Arrive at events early or late to minimize awkward social interactions. Allow (even encourage) your teen to sit back and watch before jumping in. Role play new situations that may be uncomfortable (such as large, noisy events with lots of visual and auditory stimulation or unstructured events with group ice breakers) and make suggestions on how to prepare for them. Do “practice runs.” Visit new places in advance to familiarize them with what to expect. Practice being put on the spot – this will happen at some point: in school, interviews, or on the job. Help them anticipate the sort of questions that may be asked or conversations they may be asked to participate in.
5. Nudge them out of their comfort zone – selectively
While you don’t want to shove, many teens need encouragement to step out of their comfort zones and grow as individuals. With introverts, it’s especially important to take baby steps and be sensitive to their response. If they tend to hold back from social events, encourage them to go to a party for an hour (allow them to use you as an excuse) and, if they decide they are comfortable there, text you asking to stay longer. If they want to turn down an invitation, encourage them to explore the whys – is it because they need downtime, it’s too hard, or they are simply not interested in the event?
Encourage trying new things and acknowledge their successes (without being condescending). Express pride in them trying new things and recognition that doing so is difficult. If you too are an introvert, model this behavior – acknowledge your discomfort and do it anyway.
6. Limit teasing and avoid labels
Create an environment where your teen feels safe to express feelings without embarrassment. Resist the urge to criticize their low-key social life or their preference for “quiet” activities. Try to make corrections/criticisms in private. Introverts are more sensitive to criticism and are often more self-conscious, making it likely they will feel embarrassment more acutely than others.
7. Learn their interests and show interest in them
Joining groups is difficult for introverts. Clubs focused on specific interests may be a good option, even if it falls outside their age group. Look for volunteer service opportunities. Some teens may find it easier to join in if they feel needed. Providing a service, particularly for those who cannot do so themselves, may give them the energy boost they need to step up. Remember that leadership opportunities can be found anywhere, teens don’t have to be the team captain or class president to check a box on a college application.
8. Get comfortable with silence
Choose activities that don’t require conversation. Together time doesn’t have to involve conversation. Watch TV, do a jigsaw puzzle, read in the same room. If you are looking to be more active, go hiking, rock climbing or bike riding. These ways of quietly interacting are great ways to connect while allowing your introvert to mentally recharge. Remember to also plan downtime – resist the urge/pressure to over-schedule and remind your teen to do so as well.
9. Work on bully-proofing
Introverts are often targets of bullies who see their reluctance to speak out as an easy target. For this reason, these teens may need more help learning to be assertive. Ask about incidences of bullying in their school. Even if they are not targets, they are likely affected by witnessing cruel acts. If they are open to it, role-play situations and offer potential responses to common insults. Talk about boundaries and help them practice setting them.
10. Embrace technology as a tool
While some argue that technology overuse can stunt communication skills, some introverted teens may find it much easier to have a conversation via text, email, or through social media channels. In Susan Cains Quiet, The Power of Introverts podcast, Davis Nguyen points out one benefit: taking a break while communicating virtually isn’t seen as being rude — you can go back to the conversation at a later time. He also credits social media with helping him get accepted by both Harvard and Yale. He explains that the anonymity of social media gave him the courage to ask strangers for help.
Talk to your teen about social media. Point out that people tend to post their “highlight reel” — what they share is highly curated and doesn’t fully represent real life. Encourage your teen to focus on the social part of social media and use it as a communication tool. Emphasize the importance of not allowing screen time to interfere with real life, especially sleep.
While being an introvert isn’t celebrated in society, the contemplative nature of introversion has led to some amazing creative and scientific achievements. Introverts should know they are in good company.
Some famous introverts
- Albert Einstein
- Bill Gates
- Barbra Streisand
- Eleanor Roosevelt
- Rosa Parks
- Mahatma Gandhi
- Steve Wozniak
- Warren Buffet
- Barack Obama
- Emma Watson
- Stephen Spielberg
- Meryl Streep
- Dr. Seuss
For more resources and tips to guide you through these difficult years of raising teenagers, we recommend Loving Hard When They’re Hard to Love by Whitney Fleming. This book contains 55 relatable essays about raising tweens and teens in today’s modern and chaotic world.
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