Understanding Your Teenager
For most of my life, I've felt hopelessly weird," said Heather, an introvert in her early thirties. "Like I don't really fit in. I've learned how to fool some of the people some of the time - there are those who swear I can't possibly be introverted - but I know better. Solitude and reading time are like oxygen for me; and too much time spent with other people (especially talkative sorts) is draining."
Heather struggled with being an introvert in her teen years and has been coming to terms with it more as a young adult. She's not alone. Being a teen can be stressful and even more so for introverts, who have to withstand all the social pressures of a typical high school day which are exhausting to introverts and of no intrinsic value.
For some of us, high school was a long time ago! We can understand the needs of introverted teens better and support them in growth on their own terms by going back for a moment to look at the high school years and the demands that are made on teens beyond the academic.
Most high schools are set up to please extroverts, who are the majority of the population 3:1. Introverts may find a typical day overcrowded, over stimulating, noisy, oppressive and stressful. The lunch room seems to be a particularly awful experience. Introverted teens suffer from an almost total lack of privacy as well.
We decided to ask a group of introverts how they felt about high school. Here are some replies.
- "High school was better than grade school because there was more individualness to the curriculum. I remember wanting to be alone at lunch time, even though I had friends to sit with, but there was no excuse to get away from people. Sometimes I'd go to the library to pretend to work on projects in the quiet, or I'd walk in the halls (I went to a huge school) and pretend I was walking somewhere, just for a moment alone."
- "Hated it. It was noisy and there always seemed to be an element of danger in the air. The teenage stage of human development is probably the most dangerous. If teens had access to nukes, we'd all be doomed! LOL."
- "Loved high school. Gave me a greater opportunity to be a nerd. Loved carting all those books around. Instead of getting my books from my locker as I needed them, I got all the books I'd need first thing in the morning and get rid of them as I no longer needed them. If there was homework assigned for a class, I carried that book all day, and usually got through all the homework before I actually had to take it home."
- "I liked studying and reading but I did not interact with my peers because by that age, everyone seemed to have made up their mind that I was much too different and weird so I remained alone."
- "I can't say that I did like it - it was really just a job to me. I needed to get great grades because there was no money for college. So I tracked myself into the academic side and wound up in Honors and AP classes. I became Editor of the newspaper which was a big deal since the paper had a tradition of winning a lot of regional and national journalism awards. I edited the literary magazine, helped with the yearbook, and did a lot of debate. Basically, if I thought it would look good for college I did it if it wasn't completely horrible like the Prom Committee. Teachers liked me. Other students just ignored me. I had some friends and I dated guys who went to other schools. Really any social life I had involved kids who were high academic achievers both in my own school and at other high schools. We all knew each other from debate, chess club, academic competitions or whatever. Frankly, probably more than half of these kids were introverts so there wasn't a lot of pressure to conform to a "peer group". A lot of the normal stuff of high school just flew under my radar. I couldn't get involved in the status dressing thing - no money. I couldn't get involved in the drink or drug until you puke thing - no money, looked stupid. I couldn't get involved in the high end sex thing - pregnancy would have absolutely ended my college ambitions. So I stayed out of trouble and had a fairly okay time."
- "High school was fine. I had a small group of friends, but preferred to be alone on the weekends. I was always "the quiet one" in the group."
- "I hated high school with a passion. I should have been home schooled. I was too sensitive and introverted to be thrown into the lions den. My elementary school never really prepared me for studies like geometry and I had parents that were busy and too permissive. So not having the help I needed to get over my math learning disability (discaculia) I rebelled with drugs to escape the pain of having to socialize and study."
- "I hated the immaturity of the other students. They made other student's business their business and I thought that was not only immature but antisocial and destructive. I hated high school because it didn't address the complete person. I wanted to know the map of the human psyche. I wanted to learn about human behavior and take it apart under a microscope."
- "Please tell me it gets better from here. I'm still in it, if that clarifies anything. I hate everyone here. No, I mean everyone. There's maybe a few people I don't altogether hate, but only a few. It's pretty depressing really, being surrounded by 2000 kids my own age and I can't make a single friend. Oh well, college will be better. Hopefully..."
- "I was a band geek and an AP English student. I think I ate in the cafeteria once for lunch the whole three years of high school, because I could never find anyone to sit with and it was easier to starve than go sit in there. Eventually I got to hang out in the band office during lunch. Did theater and speech team and French Club and the Literary magazine. Never had any really good friends though until the last year."
Now you've heard it from the horse's mouth. Introverted teens find little value in extraneous socializing. Homeroom, clubs, dances, prom committees and most of all the dreaded lunchroom are annoying and exhausting to introverts. When they get home, the favored activity is reading or other quiet pursuits.
The exception may be academic clubs which tend to contain more intelligent students. With a rise in intelligence, the ratio of introverts rises as well. Studies have shown that the proportions almost reverse themselves among Rhodes Scholars and Phi Beta Kappas. Many of the more academic groups and committees are run by and for introverts and can be satisfying to participate in.
Introverts also prefer private projects (art, creative, musical instrument) and will often choose to pursue these in their time off.
Some introverts are comfortable with their personality type even in high school. We were struck with those who made the best of it, humorously or otherwise, but we personally identified with those who walked the halls for a moment of privacy and who didn't eat because they couldn't handle the dynamics of the lunch room.
When your introverted teen gets home, he or she may need time alone to fill back up again. In fact, one of the greatest gifts we can give an introvert of any age is a room of their own with a door that closes!
Let's take a look at what some of the introverts on the survey said they liked to do when they got home from high school every day. Some of the answers may surprise you.
- "Eat or watch TV."
- "Every so often talk on the phone with a friend, but otherwise make my own dinner, watch some TV or listen to folk and protest music and/or teach myself to play the guitar, and do some homework."
- "Sort out my homework, then do some reading"
- "By this time my sister was more self-sufficient so I'd usually go to my bedroom, watch TV, write and daydream. I spent A LOT of my time inside my head.
- "I spent a lot of time by myself outside of the sport and school activities I tried to get people to be friends with."
- "I by then was very organized and fast at completing chores, so I had time to paint and write."
- "Babysit my little brother, make dinner... the usual."
- "I have been sleeping a lot after school. I'm an introverted kid, and I used to feel bad about wanting to sleep after school cause I was so tired, but now I feel better. I play the clarinet now, so I practice that and read."
- "Got a snack and took a nap. I DESPISED high school."
- "Cry, eat"
- "Practiced my saxophone. Drew pictures. Went overboard on any creative projects the teachers gave me. Like, we were supposed to do an introduction to an epic poem in rhyming couplets. Mine was ten pages, and a whole rhyming couplet version of what happened after the end of "the Phantom of the Opera." The book, not the musical. In history we made children's books, and I was the first one the teacher ever gave a perfect score to because mine was fully illustrated and had doors and windows that opened to pictures underneath."
- "Since I'm in high school that's easy, I go home and watch an hour of Sliders and then I usually read homework or my book for fun and go on the internet."
Please understand how stressful a high school day can be for your introverted teen. Give him or her the privacy and quiet time desired when they get home in the afternoon and, if possible, a room of their own with a door that closes!
Above all, appreciate the ability of the introverted teen to stand alone. In plain English, this means their ability to withstand the peer pressures of drugs, alcohol, smoking and premarital sex are practically ironclad.
This is what one introvert said, "I was the nerdiest goody two shoes in high school you could possibly imagine. I was so shy I don't think I spoke to anyone the whole four years. But in a way, boys like that kind of girl, thinking they can push you around I suppose. So I got asked out a lot. Anyway, I had one guy try to force me to take a drink of wine. He simply could not believe it when I said no and meant it. Since I didn't care what anyone thought about me anyway, it was easy. I thought he was pathetic to even try!"
Introverts don't have the normal extroverted teen's craving to be part of the group. On some level, most of them know it isn't going in that direction anyway. Introverts are also well ahead of the game in knowing who they are. Some of those interviewed mentioned a focus on getting into college or making good grades and were not tempted to get off track by pursuing activities of less mature classmates.
Last but not least, your introverted teen may not be susceptible to peer pressure where things like drugs and sex are concerned. Next time you see him or her "hiding out" on the internet, you can thank your lucky stars for the introvert's innate self knowledge and self reliance.
Nurture the Introverted Teenager
Six girls sit around a table, talking and enjoying after-school snacks. One tells a story with great wit, and the others respond by laughing out loud until they have tears in their eyes. Their classmates at school would hardly recognize them. They consider these girls some of the quietest and most introverted students at the high school. Few know them well enough to strike up a conversation.
New brain research shows that the differences between introverted and extroverted temperaments are rooted deeply in the brain, and are strongly influenced by genetics. Marti Laney, Psy.D., in her book, The Hidden Gifts of the Introverted Child, states that "introversion and extroversion are among the most stable and heritable of the personality traits studied." In other words, it wouldn't work to try to change your introverted child into an extrovert. Yet, extroverts are about three times as common as introverts, and many parents feel their children would fit in better if they could become more extroverted. Laney's book shows the strengths of introverted children, and helps parents appreciate and nurture these children through the teenage years.
Identifying the Introverted Teen
Introverts typically draw their energy from within and frequently need quiet time to refuel, while extroverts draw energy from the outside world, larger social groups, and new experiences. Introverts tend to channel more of their attention to their rich inner lives and like to spend more time alone than extroverts, who prefer to expend their energy connecting with the world around them.
Introversion and extroversion are on a spectrum. Most people fall somewhere along the spectrum, with elements of both introversion and extroversion in their personalities. It can be difficult to identify introverted teens during the high school years since introverts may try to act more extroverted in an effort to fit in socially. Fortunately, by the teen years, you know your own child very well. The quick quiz below will help you decide whether your child is an introvert or an extrovert, if you don't already know.
Introvert or Extrovert?
Choose which activity you think your teenager would truly prefer, if given the choice:
- a) Reading a book she has been waiting for, or b) attending a large party with people she doesn't know well.
- a) Trying one or two activities and spending the rest of the day at home, or b) trying as many new activities as possible and staying out all day.
- a) Spending the afternoon with two close friends, or b) with twenty friends.
Identify which characteristic behaviors your teenager is most likely to exhibit:
- a) standing away from the crowd to observe at first, or b) jumping right in to socialize.
- a) talking more softly, looking at people when they are speaking, and not interrupting, but looking away more often when he speaks, or b) talking more loudly, possibly interrupting, and looking at people easily when he speaks.
- a) speaking hesitantly or appearing to search for words at times, or b) talking fluently and sounding as if he knows more about a subject than he really does.
- a) standing stiffly or with little physical expression when she first enters a new group of people, or b) standing close to people and using lots of expression and body language right away.
If you mostly answered "a," your teenager is more introverted than extroverted and may need some support from you to thrive in an extroverted world.
Brain Chemistry and Neural Pathways
The most important support you can offer to introverted teenagers is to accept them as they are and not try to force them to become extroverted. Recent research shows the brain chemistry of introverts and extroverts is different, and even leads to the use of different neural pathways. As parents and teachers begin to understand the brain biology differences between introverts and extroverts, they should be better able to resist the urge to change their introverts into extroverts or to discriminate against them for not behaving in more extroverted ways.
The brain processes information, memory, and decision-making along different pathways, mediated by two major brain chemicals - acetylcholine and dopamine. Each of these neurotransmitters starts a different process in the brain, resulting in different behaviors and different rewards for those behaviors. Introverts rely much more on acetylcholine-mediated pathways, resulting in a longer circuit through the frontal lobes of the brain, a longer time in the planning and decision-making mode, and slower memory retrieval. However, they have greater synthesis of information from different parts of the brain. The brain receives chemical boosts or "rewards" for thinking, pondering, focusing on a particular item for study, and concentrating. Laney refers to this process as the "put on the brakes" pathway.
Extroverts rely more on the dopamine-mediated pathway, which takes a shorter circuit through the mid-regions of the brain, making more connections in sections that "start and stop speaking, trigger interest in others, shift attention quickly . . . focus on the outside world, pleasure, and what's new and exciting." Laney refers to this process as the "give it the gas" pathway. Dopamine pathways provide powerful rewards that can promote addiction. Findings published in the American Journal of Psychiatry showed that extroverts had more blood flow to the back of the brain, while introverts had "higher blood flow to the frontal lobes - home to the system that inhibits behavior and promotes planning and thinking before acting."
Three Practical Ways to Support and Nurture Your Introverted Teen
It is important to translate your support into practical actions that can help your introverted teen in her everyday life. Here are three simple ways to offer support:
Rewrite the labels that other people use. Because introverts make up a minority of the population, and because many people have made extroverted behavior the standard every student should strive for, introverts can be labeled negatively. Sigmund Freud, himself an extrovert, created many negative labels for introverts after a protracted argument with prominent psychologist Carl Jung.
But parents can help rewrite these negative labels. For example, if other teenagers, teachers at school, or neighbors call your introverted teenager "aloof," substitute the more positive word, "reserved." If someone calls your child "timid," substitute the word "quiet," which doesn't have such a negative connotation. Mary Sheedy's book, Raising Your Spirited Child, does an excellent job deconstructing negative labels, and showing how parents can avoid labeling their children altogether.
It is equally if not more important for parents to stop using negative labels for introversion in their own minds. Your introverted child will sense and appreciate your acceptance of her temperament. If you can begin to see her as intriguing and intelligent, you will go a long way in improving your relationship with her.
Help your child find ways to resolve conflicts and avoid being bullied. Not all introverted children are bullied, but introverts make natural targets for bullies who seek them out because they are more likely to be alone, tend to be quiet, and prefer withdrawing to fighting. Because introverted children take longer to think things through, and may not find the words to express their feelings easily when they are under stress, introverted teens benefit from discussing and strategizing ahead of time about how they will handle conflict.
As a trusted adult, you can draw out their feelings of vulnerability, help them feel confident, and provide them with tools for coping. Having a stock phrase practiced in advance, such as "Don't do that! I'll report you if you don't leave me alone!" may help them to stand strong in a conflict situation. For additional nonviolent communication techniques, take a look at Marshall B. Rosenberg's Nonviolent Communication: A Language of Life, and Speak Peace in a World of Conflict.
Provide a nurturing environment for socializing with friends with similar temperaments. It is a relief for introverts to find other introverts with whom they share interests. They quickly understand each other's needs, and don't pressure each other to socialize or "party." Many introverts begin dating much later than other teens. Some also wait to get their drivers' licenses. Their cautious and introspective temperament slows their entry into these activities, delighting their parents, but paradoxically putting them at risk for social ostracism because they experience these teenage rites of passage later than their peers.
It was no accident that the six girls were laughing together around that table. They had a standing invitation every Friday afternoon, when the kind mother of one of the girls welcomed them all to her home, prepared snacks, and stayed out of their conversations. They felt safe among friends who understood them, which reinforced their self-confidence. At school, they might be labeled as quiet or unfriendly, but here, they could be themselves. Many years later, these girls are still introverts, but have achieved many life goals with confidence. One is a doctor, one a lawyer, one a science technician who chose to stay home to raise her children, two have Ph.Ds. One chose not to marry, but travels and works internationally, enjoying the freedom to live and think as her spirit moves her. All of them are still close friends.
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