Whether we like it or not, our world is geared towards extroversion. Schools grade participation, workplaces encourage networking for current and future jobs, and small talk is expected in many western cultures. In America, bold and outspoken people tend to be perceived as confident and natural leaders. At home, we want children to be polite and greet relatives, and we want teens to have many friends. And when our children don’t meet these expectations, we worry it reflects poorly on our parenting skills.
What is Introversion?
At least 1/3 of the population are introverts, and science has shown that people are naturally born with predispositions for different temperaments and levels of introversion and extroversion. Biologically, introverts tend to be more sensitive to stimuli and dopamine, so a little goes a long way. Of course, being introverted doesn’t necessarily mean that person is antisocial or socially anxious, though they’re often falsely labeled as such. Introversion is considered a trait that describes how motivated to socialize you are; on the other hand, social anxiety refers to an outsized fear of social contexts where you might feel judged or self-conscious. Both introverts and extroverts can experience social anxiety. So unless your teen is expressing signs of social anxiety like intense fear of social situations, extreme self consciousness, continuous replay of interactions, and avoidance of social interaction that impact their life quality, your teen is likely not socially anxious!
What can be confusing for many, including parents, is that many introverts actually do enjoy (and are good at!) socializing. However, introverts need a lot of alone time to recharge and tend to focus their social energies on just a select few friends. When introverts are forced to socialize for longer than they are comfortable with, they have to manage their emotions and attitudes and engage in what the literature calls “emotional labor”. Over time, if an introvert isn’t intentional about protecting their energy and learning to manage this trait, they are more likely to face higher risks for depression and anxiety.
How do the holidays impact your introverted teen?
If you think you’ve got an introverted teen on your hands, the holidays are an especially important time to be mindful of their energy levels. Introverts are already more likely to feel burnt out and the busy schedules of the holidays are often their worst nightmares. When we spoke with introverted teens, here’s what they wished their families understood:
“I find it so stressful when you insist on celebrating with many different family friends and relatives in the same week. When I ask to stay home, it’s not because I don’t want to see them, it’s because I don’t want to hang out so much.” - teen boy, 16
“The holidays are the worst. I often feel like I’m expected to entertain adult relatives the whole time and then I get so annoyed that I just want to tell everyone to be quiet.” - teen girl, 19
“It really hurts my feelings when you say you wish I was ‘polite’ like your friends’ kids or cousins. It takes so much out of me to chat with strangers, so I try to stick with people I know I like spending time with.” - teen girl, 15
Once overwhelmed, your introverted teen may also resort to acting out to protect against stimuli overload. This could look like being very irritated and snapping at everyone or sleeping for excessive amounts. These are wonderful moments to extend compassion and mentalize to understand that your teen may be approaching burnout instead of assuming they’re being a grinch to ruin the holidays.
As you begin to plan for the holiday season, here are 9 ways to include your introverted teen in the festivities:
1. Honor their feelings
When your introverted teen lets you know that they don’t want to participate, respect that and avoid pressuring them to join in. Instead, let them know that you appreciate that they recognize their need to be mindful of their energy levels and need to recharge. Discuss their particular ways of showing they are approaching burnout, so that they can communicate to you that they need a break in a group situation.
2. Rehearse boundaries
It can help sooth your introverted teen’s anxiety about holiday activities by planning boundaries in advance. Help them come up with ways to say no that shows relatives they enjoy spending time with them, but also need time to recharge. This could be suggesting a different time to do a social activity, or suggesting an alternative, quieter activity. It also can be helpful to come up with conversation starters to help them engage with people they might not already know. With your teen, think of questions to ask family members, such as asking about their favorite parts of the holidays, or activities they have enjoyed during quarantine. This takes the attention off of your teen who may not feel comfortable talking about themselves or taking the lead in the conversation.
3. Plan schedules together
Plan your holiday schedules together, so your teen knows what to expect. Include scheduled downtime for them to recharge, and understand how energy intensive they think an activity may be for them. Understand that something that may not seem like a big deal to extroverts could deplete your introverted teen’s energy levels. In the weeks leading up to the holidays, plan for quiet time, so that your teen approaches group gatherings in the holiday season with energy to socialize.
4. Design an out
Come up with a code for how your teen can express to you they’re reaching their limit during a group situation. Agree beforehand on an exit strategy is: for example, they say they have homework and exit early to go home? Choose a designated person in your family who will accompany them home.
5. Arrive early
If you’re going somewhere for the holiday, arrive early before there is too much commotion to help them settle in. Find a quiet space for when things get loud, and meet people so they have people they feel safe and connected with right off the bat.
6. Bring an activity
Bring an activity or hobby your teen enjoys that they can do when they’re feeling overwhelmed. By having something they can reach to help find balance among overwhelm, your teen can channel their anxiety into an activity. This could be a video game, craft like knitting, a coloring book, a reading book.
7. Rely on the extroverts
If you know there are particularly extroverted family members, place them together and give them more “air time” with people like grandparents. By letting these people talk more, your introverted teen doesn’t have to engage in endless conversations and activities.
8. Loosen expectations
Many of us hold an image of what a perfect holiday looks like. That is often not the same as how it looks for your introverted teen. Consider how you can let go of your expectations for them to be perfectly polite to everyone they meet or how wonderful of a host they will be together with the rest of your family. If you agree beforehand you just need them to greet someone, figure out how they’d like to do that instead of forcing them to exchange pleasantries or hugs in the moment.
9. Sing their praise
Often, relatives can be critical of the quiet child who doesn’t want to join family festivities. You can help your introverted teen feel accepted by speaking up on their behalf. It could sound like, “I think X really knows how to take care of her own energy levels. She is someone who feels deeply so I trust her when she says she needs some quiet time to just read.”