Teenagers are often misunderstood, but one group that is misunderstood more than many are teenagers who also happen to be introverts. In an international school where I was principal, we were used to students arriving from other countries and knew to keep an eye out to see they were settling in. Within a couple of weeks of their arrival, it became apparent that one particular student did not seem to be settling – the student rarely said anything in class, seemed to sit alone at lunchtime, could often be found on their own during breaks. A series of teachers and several students expressed concern. On talking with the student, I discovered (and their parents subsequently confirmed) that this was not a case of a homesick student who needed help, but a very introverted individual, who was very self-aware, comfortable with their introversion, and who had worked out how to find space within the busyness of a school day.
It is generally accepted that somewhere between a third and a half of people are introverts, the figure depending on the definition of introversion used. For the purposes of this article, I will assume an energy-focused definition (Susan Cain, Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking, Penguin, 2012, p.10). Introverts find the experience of being with others generally energy-draining and need time alone to recharge, whereas extroverts gain energy from socialising with others. There is considerable doubt whether anyone can be described as a complete introvert/extrovert, but we are all to be found on a spectrum somewhere between these two extremes, and the end of the spectrum to which we are closest leads to us being described as either introvert or extrovert.
It is important to be clear about the nature of introversion. It is not the same as shyness, which is more about fear of being judged negatively by others. Nor is it snobbery, which believes others to be of less value. It is certainly not an illness that can be cured, nor a failing that can be corrected. It is, rather, part of a person’s character; part of the way they are “wired”. Put simply, introverts value being alone as much as extroverts enjoy being the centre of attention. They are likely to avoid occasions involving many people, and perhaps maintain just a few close friendships rather than being part of bigger friendship circles. That’s just how they are.
The above holds true for people of all ages, and so includes teenagers. With a third to a half of teenagers being introverts, one might expect to find a ready supply of role models of introverts in entertainment, sport, politics, leadership positions in business and industry, etc., but a ready supply of such role models is lacking. There are a few exceptions, of course, but the vast majority of role models are extrovert in nature. The reason for the lack of introvert role models is not that introverts cannot be found in such areas, but that human society on the whole has unthinkingly bought into the idea that the extrovert role model is the model par excellence of what it means to be a successful human being. “Loudest is best”, or at least, loudest is easier to “sell” as the kind of model to which others can aspire. In short, one end of the spectrum has come to be viewed as the norm.
We are familiar with the idea of teenagers struggling to establish their own identity, but what about the effect on an introverted teenager when faced by a plethora of extrovert role models which they know deep-down they can never emulate? We are aware that teenagers live in a highly social environment, where it matters who belongs to the group and who does not, but where does that leave the introverted teenager who craves time alone in order to be able to cope with the social stresses of their daily environment? We accept that teenagers can sometimes be argumentative, rebellious, loud and boisterous, especially in groups, but what about the introverted teenager who does not fit the social stereotypes and who, by their very nature, seem to place themselves outside of the groups of which it seems to be the general expectation that they will want to be a part?
As parents and teachers, we aim to help teenagers find the adult they have the potential to become, but do introverted teenagers get the same opportunities as their extrovert contemporaries, or are they destined to have whatever is left once the extroverts have taken the best?
Advice for parents
Parents are well placed to know the character of their teenager, but they can also become frustrated at what they think they see. So, for example, the extrovert parent who does not understand their introvert teenager’s apparent preference for another quiet night in, rather than attending the party that is the talk of the town, might vent their frustration with a comment such as “It’s not normal!” or “What on earth is wrong with you?” To an introverted teenager, struggling to understand their own choices, such remarks can raise all manner of questions about the possibility of mental illness, questions the parent may not even have considered as they blurted out their instinctive question. Parental attempts to get their introverted teenager to talk might feel like an uphill struggle in the face of sullen defiance, but it could simply be that the teenager cannot find the words to express what they are feeling or know how to explore what the underlying reasons might be.
Acceptance. The most valuable support a parent can give their teenager is acceptance, especially in the case of an introverted teenager who may be struggling to understand why they do not fit comfortably into the social culture of their peers. Acceptance sends the message to the teenager that they are valued for who they are, regardless of the similarities to, or differences from, those around them. Acceptance provides a solid base from which the introverted teenager can explore ways to develop the social aspect of their life in a way that is manageable for them.
Challenge appropriately. Whilst the introverted teenager may crave time alone, they also need to develop the social skills that will enable them to survive, and hopefully thrive, as an adult. The key here for parents is to help their teenager find the right balance between time spent with others and time spent alone to recharge their energy. This may require some negotiation, perhaps agreeing to collect them at a pre-arranged time so that, if they go out, they are not faced with an open-ended social commitment. It may mean helping them to develop strategies to make social occasions more manageable. It may mean allowing them to opt out of some family times in order to find the solitude they need to prepare themselves for the next school day.
Watch for behaviour changes. Introversion is not a form of mental illness, but because the introvert will likely spend more time alone than others, the introversion can sometimes help mask the onset of a problem that needs to be addressed. It is important that parents keep an eye on their teenager’s behaviour, not so they can draw comparisons with other teenagers, but so they can look for changes in behaviour that represent a departure from what might be considered normal for their teenager. If there are concerns, talk with your teenager in the first instance, and if concerns persist, offer to go with them to seek professional advice.
Advice for teachers and schools
Question systems. Schools are busy places and teachers are busy people, so it is easy to overlook the impact on individuals of the way we do things, especially if those individuals are the quieter members of the group who might be less likely to make a fuss if things do not go their way. Schools often use group activities these days, enabling students to develop collaborative and teamwork skills. However, groups are not always the best approach, and even within larger group projects, it should be made known that students can sometimes work individually towards the group’s aims. When it comes to student government or other roles where elections might be held, having students address large groups, or even the entire school community, favours certain students. Technology is such today that students could be given the option of addressing students directly for a couple of minutes or making a video recording of the same length. This is such a simple measure that could level the playing field for some introverted students at a stroke.
Affirm introverted students. A question to the more introverted members of a class from time to time to establish that they are OK can have a lasting effect. Simply bothering to ask conveys the message to that person about their value in your eyes. Taking the opportunity of an informal chat about aspects of school life they find difficult, or asking about the strategies they have developed to make school life manageable, can be valuable for introverted students because it sends the message that you recognise some, at least, of the difficulties they face.
Create quiet spaces. Many introverts need space from others at times, even if only for a few minutes. Deliberately creating small areas for those who wish to be quiet, and helping them to maintain those areas as quiet places, could be a powerful way of helping introverted students manage their school day.