Dear Dr. Wes and Katie: My 16-year-old daughter is an introvert. I took her to a therapist last summer because she was having test anxiety. He fixed her anxiety, but when I asked if he could help her be more social, he said he couldn’t fix something she didn’t see as a problem. Makes sense of course, but I don’t know if there’s anything I should be doing.
Dr. Wes: Few psychological concepts take as unfair a rap as this one, when in fact introversion and extroversion are normally distributed in the population. Both are equally healthy patterns of social interaction.
Extroverts get energy from being around others. Most can handle being alone, but it wears them down. They gain back that energy by moving in the company of others. Introverts get energy from being alone. Most can handle and even enjoy social situations, but at the end of the day they’re ready to go home and hide out. There’s ample evidence that intro- and extroversion are traits and they may well have a genetic component. Neither is a disorder.
For teens, introversion only becomes a problem in three situations. The first is when it is so extreme that they can’t perform in school or work. But that’s equally true for extreme extroverts, who feel they can’t function without constant social contact.
The second problem is a mismatch between parent and child, which sounds like your situation. Extroverted parents confuse introversion for social anxiety, shyness or poor social skills. Many introverts are actually great at social interplay, while many extroverts have poor social skills. Conversely, many introverted parents struggle to raise extroverted teens who draw them into more social situations than they’d prefer.
The third problem arises in dating. Because late teens are at their lifetime peak of socialization, many introverts get into relationships with extroverts, who misperceive them as more social than they really are. In their 20s, those introverts revert to their natural state and become far less interested in socializing.
Parents and teens should think about this variable as they’re trying to get along. I had a young introvert go home once and give the Myers-Briggs Type Sorter to the rest of the family, all of whom scored up as extroverts. That helped everyone put things into perspective and improved their interactions.
Katie: Few cliches pinch my spine so painfully as the common teenage sentiment “I have no life,” in this case synonymous with “social life,” which implies partying, frequenting the best concert venues, or simply hanging out a lot with friends. Those of us who prefer solitude to socialization also have functioning pulses, active brains and, most importantly, happiness. We introverts feel just as fulfilled after a day spent alone or with a tiny group of friends as extroverts do after an exhilarating social event.
Unfortunately, because society misperceives introverts as “loners,” it’s difficult for introverted teenagers to feel confident in their natural inclinations. It sounds like your daughter and I share several qualities, and my best advice would be to help her feel comfortable with her own nature.
When I was in junior high, I spent more time on Facebook than I ever admitted, sorting through the photographic evidence of all the parties I missed and the large friend groups I didn’t have. I didn’t really want to be part of that scene, but I wanted to want to be a part of it. I became convinced that I was socially defective, like a Reese’s Peanut Butter Cup packaged inside out.
As with every other psychological quirk I’ve shared in Double Take, I owe my eventual understanding of introversion to my parents. They made our home an enjoyable place for me to study and relax, and throughout my adolescence, they’ve helped me manage imagined pressures to mix and mingle when all I want to do is hang out in my PJs with my rabbit.
As Wes notes, introverts don’t always want to be alone. Social involvement — such as clubs, sports and other activities — create positive teenage experiences, and amiability is vital for making the connections that build futures. Introverts aren’t hermits. We’re just content with socialization in moderation.