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Understanding the Teenage Desire for Solitude

Bright teens can benefit from time spent with their thoughts, in moderation.

Key points

  • Smart, sensitive, creative teenagers passionately crave their solitude.
  • This deep-seated need allows for thinking and creating—and also produces dangers.
  • Teens need to find a healthy balance between indwelling and relationships if they are to thrive during adolescence.
Jordan Steranka/Unsplash
Teens and Solitude
Source: Jordan Steranka/Unsplash

How can a straightforward line, like “I want to be alone” become iconic and world-famous? What mysterious something did Greta Garbo capture when she uttered that oh-so-ordinary line in the 1932 film Grand Hotel?

I’m pretty sure that it became iconic and world-famous because it spoke to the startling desire for solitude lurking in the heart of every person of a certain sort, the person who will go on to be a novelist, a monk, a research scientist, a sculptor, a game designer, a yogi, a professor of history. That line spoke volumes.

That desire for solitude is made up of several parts. First, there is the obsessive need to inwardly dwell: be in the room that is one’s mind. That is a need to dream up a story, to listen to music because music is brewing inside, to be reading, thinking, listening, to be living in one’s own heaven and hell. This is a need perhaps greater than any other need. We may well want to recalibrate any “hierarchy of needs” list and put "indwelling" in its rightful place.

Second, there is a wise wariness about “being with people.” If you do not see value in sitting among dull people and chatting about the abundance of rain or the lack of rain or anything about rain, if you experience that as not just a waste of time but existentially painful, then you have no reason on earth to be there. For many people, smart teens included, it can feel much more existentially rich and much more appropriate to be in one’s mind than to be in idle company.

Third, there is world-building going on in solitude, a learning energy, a creative energy, a building energy, as, for instance, a teen draws her peculiar cast of characters, posts them on social media, gets followers and likes, builds an audience, and creates a complete, vibrant world.

This world-building can only be done in solitude, which makes solitude as valuable to a smart person as water and air.

A teen’s permanently closed door, with its “Keep Out!” sign is a cliché. Like many clichés, it does reflects a truth, that teens want to listen to their music, wander the internet, fantasize, talk to their friends, crawl under the covers, and, well, just be left alone. They want their solitude so that they can indwell. They need it; and, at the same time, it can be a seriously dangerous place.

For parents

Your smart teen needs her alone time. At the same time, it is easy for that isolation, social distancing, and fierce demand for solitude to go too far. Indwelling is valuable, wonderful, and necessary. It is also a place of nightmares, unhealthy obsessions, and darkness. Therefore, you will want to coax your smart teen out into the light. She may not want to come, she may moan and groan, she may flat-out refuse. But be a little clever and a little adamant and see if you can tease your smart teen out into the world of people.

If, when you get her out, she is silent and distant, if she wants to sit on the sidelines and observe, if, in short, she wants to bring her solitude with her, as if she hadn’t really left her mindroom at all, be as engaging as you know how to be—which may be as much a stretch for you as it is for her. You may be exactly like her, craving your own solitude. Make it happen anyway. Give both of you the chance to stretch in the direction of relationships.

For teens

There is no formula for maintaining the right amount of solitude and relationships. What you can do, however, is put up a bright neon exit sign in your mindroom, one that reminds you that you can get out and that you ought to get out once in a while. You can add some cheerful internal musical alert, one that signals that it is time to think about whether to leave your mindroom. You don't want to make your solitude pervasive and uninterruptible.

Strict solitude—demanding to be alone at all costs—can lead to all sorts of negatives, among them grandiosity, painful cogitating, an inability to empathize, and deep staleness. Of course, you want some solitude: it is where you think, create, and dream. But be careful. If you do not come up for air and out for life, you will have transformed your mindroom into something resembling a prison cell. You do not want that to happen.

This post is excerpted from my latest book, Why Smart Teens Hurt.

References

Borda, Michele (2022). Thrivers. New York, NY: G. P. Putnam’s Sons.

Biswas-Diener, Robert & Todd Kashdan (2015). The Upside of Your Dark Side. New York, NY: Plume.

Cahalan, Susannah (2013). Brain on Fire. New York, NY: Simon & Schuster.

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