When youthful solitude is okay and when it may be problematic can be a complicated judgment call. For example, when should teenage solitude simply be accepted as normal and healthy, and when should it be cause for parental concern? It's easier to tell the difference after social violence has been comitted by a lone perpetrator than being able to recognize the risk before the destruction was done.
Consider six conditions for solitude during adolescent growth: for being alone, for being introverted, for being shy, for being outcast, for being withdrawn, and for being a loner. The first three are usually okay; the last three are often not. Take them one at a time.
BEING ALONE. Parents may wonder: “How can our teenager be so social with friends and so solitary at home? Does staying by herself in her room and not spending much time with family mean that something is wrong with her or in her relationship with us?” In most cases, I believe the answer is "no." First, there’s a lot of private self-reflection required to process all the personal change and challenge demanded by adolescent growth. And second, even the most outgoing and socially involved adolescents need some solitary down time, time to decompress by themselves because socializing with peers is often a strain and a drain.
Although socially connecting and belonging feels good, a significant expenditure of energy and attention is required. After all, watching what you say, being sensitive to what others say, being a good friend, staying in the know, keeping up appearances, looking and dressing okay, fitting in, maintaining social position, deciding when and when not to go along, can all take effort that can be wearing.
Socializing isn’t simply a matter of having fun. A good example is the adolescent party—a mixed experience of welcoming the invitation and enduring some awkward moments when you get there. After this, taking some time alone can provide welcome relief. And where better to take it than within the sanctuary of the family home? It’s not that the teenager doesn’t love her parents; it’s more that she’s asking them to let her alone to relax and decompress in her own company for a while, free from all social demands. Being solitary can feel self-restorative.
BEING INTROVERTED. Like the distinction between people who are more intrinsically motivated (by curiosity and interest, for example) and those who are more extrinsically motivated (by recognition and rewards, for example), the introversion/extraversion distinction is not a matter or either/or, but of which side is more pronounced. Introverted people tend to be more inwardly focused and thrive on time by themselves. Extraverted people tend to be more outgoing and thrive on social company. Of course, both solitary and social sides are of value, and the absence of either can create a hardship. An adolescent who can’t stand being alone or can’t stand being with other people risks being handicapped as they grow through life.
Introverts can benefit from their solitary side by enjoying their own company, from self-examination and understanding, and by developing self-contained ways to affirm themselves. Extraverts can benefit from their social side by speaking up and communicating, by connecting and creating relationships that can be relied on, and by joining in to gain what group membership has to offer. Sometimes extraverted parents will urge an introverted daughter or son to become more socially outgoing like them when what is really needed is their acceptance and appreciation of a more inward-directed adolescent. Just because they like being solitary doesn’t mean introverts are anti-social; they just like more time alone.
BEING SHY. Adolescence and shyness go hand in hand (see my 5/20/2011 blog.) Four fears that commonly contribute to adolescent shyness are: fear of attracting attention and being noticed, fear of doing or saying something stupid and being embarrassed, fear of reaching out and being rejected, and fear of becoming tongue-tied and acting speechless. Shyness is an anxious and insecure response to taking social risks.
Feeling shy only becomes a problem when it causes the teenager to act shy, making feeling shy feel worse. The teenager shies away from social contact that is both feared and missed. By their encouragement and coaching, however, parents can help the young person dare to act in more expressive, more responsive, more assertive, more outgoing ways that with practice become more comfortable and usually yield companionship that is much desired. Just because you feel shy doesn’t mean you have to act solitary.
BEING OUTCAST. Social cruelty (teasing, exclusion, bullying, rumoring, and ganging up) particularly during the middle school years when early and mid-adolescents are struggling for social belonging with peers, can cause recipients of this mistreatment to feel and actually be outcast. In these cases, the message often is: “There is something the matter with you,” “We don’t like you,” “We don’t want to be friends with you.” “We want to leave you alone.”
One power of unpopularity at this insecure age is how it can build upon itself. The more unpopular you are the less people may want to have anything to do with you because unpopularity is often treated like a disease caught through social association. One is known by the company one keeps. Popular people have popular friends. Be the friend of an unpopular person, however, and other people may not want to be a friend with you.
Should parents discover that their son or daughter is solitary as a function of being socially outcast, they need to combat two damaging misunderstandings to which the young person may now be prone. One is: “I am treated this way because there is something wrong with me.” Parents need to correct that false assumption: “No, when you are mistreated there is nothing wrong with you, but there is in other people who have decided to be mean to you.”
And the second is: “There’s nowhere I will fit in because everyone dislikes me.” Parents need to correct that false assumption: “No, there are other students at school who are not part of the mistreatment who might like to be your friend, and there are other social circles outside of school we can find in which you will be positively valued.” Don’t let social cruelty cause you to live on outcast, outsider, solitary terms.
BEING WITHDRAWN. Two common sources of social withdrawal in adolescence are extreme unhappiness from adversity, and need for secrecy to prevent social discovery. Parents should be sensitive to both solitary motivations.
When adversity is severe enough, pain from betrayal, violation, discouragement, disappointment, failure, rejection, loss, guilt, shame, or anxiety can all cause an adolescent to withdraw into the refuge of depression where helplessness and hopelessness hold sway, and where energy to relate and communicate with others can be consumed by emotional suffering.
When there is a powerful need to secrete activities, like significant substance use or illegal dealings, withdrawal from normal social contact can be used to conceal what is going on. In either case, the teenager becomes more solitary, less forthcoming from either being less expressive or available to interact with. Parents do need to hold their teenager to sufficient interactive account, expecting the teenager to adequately engage with them.
If adversity is depressing the capacity to communicate about it, get the adolescent to some psychological help. If the young person is becoming increasingly fugitive (from secrecy and deceit) as increasingly harmful decisions are being made, assessing the possibility of substance use may be in order. Withdrawal into solitary living can connote problems of the emotionally unhappy or drug using kind.
BEING A LONER. There’s nothing wrong with being someone who by inclination and comfort is not particularly social, someone who mostly prefers to be left to their own company a lot of the time. However, it is important to be social enough to have the relational skills to broker basic needs in the world, to feel socially connected with that world, with enough capacity for association to create some social companionship along the way. Adolescence is when these skills and this capacity are usually practiced and put in place. When chosen solitude precludes any social company, isolation is what results, and in adolescence isolation can have a damaging, even a dangerous side.
There are multiple problems with being a social loner in adolescence. There can be no capacity for community and the trust, reliance, and camaraderie that come with it. There can be no social and empathetic support in times of need. There can be no communication with others to provide perceptual checks and balances to verify the reality of one’s own views. There can be a heightened risk of distortion that comes with dialoguing with one’s own imagination. There can be the sense of having no good social way to fit in and being an outsider.
And there can be the sense that life is an estrangement between oneself and an ignorant, insensitive, and perhaps hostile world. To set oneself apart from all company and belonging is usually not a healthy way to live because of the disconnection and distortion that is encouraged by social isolation. In the dangerous extreme, you can have the lone individual who broods on real or imagined injuries, building anger into rage to strike back at enemies who he believes threaten harm or have done him wrong.
When parents see a practice and preference for social isolation, the building blocks of becoming a loner, I believe it’s better for them to err on the side of paying too much attention than too little. As a general rule: when in doubt, check it out. Knock on solitude’s door and don’t go away until the door is at least cracked open enough to provide a satisfactory answer. Couch your question as a statement of caring: “You’ve been spending so much time alone lately, I’ve been wondering if anything is the matter? If so, I would be willing to listen and even try to be of help. If not, a little explanation would help to ease my concern.” And then see if increased social exposure, interaction, and involvement can be encouraged. Having no option but solitude, is not a healthy choice.
I welcome questions and suggestions for future blogs.
Next week’s entry: Adolescence and Coming Home for Christmas