There’s already so much going on during the fragile years when a child transitions into adulthood that it’s important for parents and teachers to understand what’s happening inside a teenage introvert and respond in a nurturing way.
What’s going on is the same as what goes on in an adult introvert, says Susan Cain, who is making a loud statement about the gifts of introverts since her best-selling 2012 book, Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World that Can’t Stop Talking.
Teenage introverts who have the understanding and respect of adults who nurture the teens’ specific “way of being” can have an easier time navigating the adolescent years.
The Difference between Introverts and Extroverts
The difference is physical, said Cain in an NPR interview. It’s a neurobiological difference. She says introverts and extroverts actually have different nervous systems.
“Introverts have nervous systems that simply react more to everything that’s going on around them, and that means they feel more in their sweet spot when there’s less stuff happening,” said Cain. An introvert feels best and most alive when in a quiet, mellow environment. A child who is an introvert might prefer drawing quietly or playing, even a sport, with one or two other children.
“Extroverts have nervous systems that react less, which means that they don’t get to their sweet spot until there’s more stuff happening,” said Cain. An extroverted child would rather be part of a big gang and a big noisy birthday party. The extrovert child would not only not be fazed by it, but seem to really relish all that stimulation.
Understanding and recognizing these basic differences can help parents and teachers encourage and create situations that allow introverts to be at their best, and keep more introverted children and teenagers from feeling unworthy among extroverted peers.
Being An Introvert is Not the Same as Being Shy
“Shyness is much more about the fear of being judged,” said Cain. “It’s a kind of self-consciousness and not wanting people to look at you, and feeling easily embarrassed or easily shamed.”
Some introverted children and teens are shy, but many are not.
Even some extroverted children are shy, said Cain. When those young people begin to overcome their shyness and have less fear of being criticized, their extroverted nature becomes more apparent. Then they’ll show up in the middle of a crowd.
Nurturing Introverts in the Classroom
Teachers can encourage introverts to take small steps toward a goal like making presentations to the entire class. If the pressure of public speaking really causes too much anxiety, it can backfire and force an introvert to back even farther away. Here are some of Cain’s suggestions to nurture introverts and allow their talents to blossom:
- Small steps: If students in class are assigned to make a speech, don’t promise introverts that they will never be required to do that. Instead, make the assignment to write the speech, then suggest going over it with a friend, and then maybe a small group. This approach can minimize anxiety and move toward the goal of presenting the speech to the larger group.
- Build on the Energy of Passion: An introverted student who is interested in a subject, even passionate about it, will be excited about sharing the enthusiasm. Then a biochemical reaction can kick in. “When you tap into your body’s behavioral activation system by speaking about something you’re excited about, that can overcome the body’s inhibition system,” said Cain.
- Use Social Media and Technology: In an educational setting, an introverted teenager might be able to more easily express thoughts first on the computer, and then be encouraged to discuss the topic with other students. This can break the ice, especially in the adolescent years when being accepted by peers is so desired.
Value the Creativity of Introverts
In a culture where being social and outgoing is often prized above all else, Cain has brought to public awareness the idea that it can be difficult, even shameful, to be an introvert.
One-third to one-half the population of the U.S. is estimated to be introverted and should not be subjected to the bias they often face, said Cain.
Creativity that comes from times of quiet reflection is a valuable strength of introverts.
Leadership by introverts can also be successful, said Cain. They tend to let extroverts run with their ideas, but they are often thoughtful and understanding in their leadership style. Many introverts lead not out of pleasure of being looked at, but because they are driven to do what they think is right. Cain offers Gandhi as an example of an introvert driven to action by his sincere, passionate beliefs.
Cain continues to peel away the often unspoken preference for extroverts. She says introverts bring extraordinary talents and abilities to the world and should be encouraged and celebrated.
Solitude matters, said Cain. Most of the world’s major religions have been led by spiritual leaders who went off into the wilderness, had an epiphany and returned to society to lead.
In a complex time of global concerns, Cain said the more freedom we give introverts to be themselves, the more likely they are to come up with unique solutions to the world’s problems.
3 Steps to Unleashing the Power of Introverts
Cain’s calls to action are intended to create a more balanced type of collaboration in schools, workplaces and in society. She said even extroverts benefit from learning to work more on their own, the place where deep thought is experienced. Here are some of Cain’s suggestions:
- Stop the madness in the demand for constant group work: Encourage casual, spontaneous, café style interaction at work and school. This allows collaboration and creativity to flourish in a natural way.
- Go to the wilderness: Unplug from the 24/7 cycle of technology and media input now and then. It may not be to a mountaintop or the forest, but the silence of a quiet room will do.
- Have the courage to speak softly: Share what you know and be comfortable being who you are.
Respecting and nurturing introverts is best started when they’re young and can have immense benefits when continued with introverted teenagers and adults, said Cain.
“Introverts often are really amazing, talented, gifted, loving children and they feel like there’s something wrong with them,” said Cain. “Our mission is to make it so that the next generation of kids does not grow up feeling that way.”
Cain, Susan, “Susan Cain: The Power of Introverts,” TED Talk, February 2012.
Nadworny, Elissa, “How Parents and Teachers Can Nurture the ‘Quiet Power’ of Introverts,” NPR, Feb. 18, 2016