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Introversion and the Teen Years

"Preference-for-solitude" is harder on young teens than on older kids.

A few months ago, I spoke to a group of teachers at a conference held at a local high school. Kids who volunteered at the conference were invited to sit in on sessions, and one serious-looking young lady listened attentively to my presentation. Afterwards, she dragged another girl over to the table where I was sitting, picked up a copy of my book and showed it to her friend. "I'm not weird." she said.

Introversion can be hard on kids.

People tend to be particularly uncomfortable about kids who spend time alone, fearing depression or other emotional trauma. And, in fact, research finds that social withdrawal can indicate a problem, especially if it is related to shyness, since those are kids who might want very much to be part of the gang but are too fearful to join in. This is especially hard on teens, for whom peer group is so important.

But in the article, “Preference-for-Solitude and Adjustment Difficulties in Early and Late Adolescence,” the researchers distinguish between shyness and “preference-for-solitude,” which includes avoidance (actively avoiding interaction) and unsociability (not seeking out interaction, but not running from it). “Although much is known about shyness,” the authors write, “little is known about preference-for-solitude; even less is known about its relations with adjustment across different periods of adolescence.”

Indeed and hoorah. Research is finally starting to go our way.

So—how about those teens? Is preference-for-solitude a problem?

According to this research on 8th and 12th graders, preference-for-solitude can be problematic in early adolescence, even after controlling for shyness (that is, looking only at the participants who aren’t shy). It seems that in 8th grade, preference-for-solitude was “associated with greater anxiety/depression and emotion dysregulation as well as lower self-esteem.” By 12th grade, these were no longer problems. (Note that the researchers did not follow the same students from 8th to 12th grade, it was two different groups of students.)

There may be all kinds of reasons for this difference. For one, younger kids can be cruel to people who are different from them, so loner kids might be hassled. This can be depressing, especially if they internalize the messages telling them they’re weirdos. By 12th grade, people have better things to do than taunt kids who are different.

Also, by the time you’re in 12th grade and have some autonomy and a driver’s license, it’s a lot easier to get space when you need it. Younger kids might have to withdraw in plain view, which might either make them look weird to other kids, or make the other kids feel rejected and cause them to lash out.

And, adds Jennifer Wang, one of the authors of this paper, " my opinion, preference-for-solitude may have been more problematic in early adolescence due to the importance of peers during this particular period. Early adolescence is when things like popularity and belonging in cliques are the most salient and important. Given the importance of peers during this period, it's not surprising that kids who prefer to be alone may 'stand out' and attract unwanted attention from bullies. These kids may also feel particularly different from the rest of their seemingly more sociable and popularity-driven classmates, thus adding to feelings of inadequacy. Fortunately, as time goes on, not only is solitude more acceptable, kids also become more appreciative of the many benefits that solitude brings."

In the article, the authors also report that, “Preference-for-solitude was more strongly associated with lower social competence in 8th grade relative to 12th grade.” But, they point out, both groups did feel lacking in social competence. This makes sense. Practice makes perfect and kids who don't socialize a lot don't get practice. However, the researchers used self-reports for this study, and it’s possible that kids are better at socializing than they think they are. After all, these are the self-conscious years. Who among us felt socially competent as a teenager?

This is a small study with limitations which are discussed in the article (as is usual in research papers). For one thing, the researchers didn’t differentiate between avoidance and unsociability; it seems likely that kids who avoid interaction might be dealing with different issues from kids who just don’t seek it out.

Nevertheless, the article has some worthy take-home messages.

  1. Research is finally acknowledging that not all solitude is the same.
  2. Kids who prefer solitude in junior high might need extra validation from parents to counteract negative peer messages. (How do you know if your child is shy or has a preference for solitude? Ask.)
  3. Kids might benefit from training in social skills—and that doesn’t mean just urging them to get out there and join the gang. For kids struggling with social skills, tossing them in the deep end might just exacerbate the problem. (I suspect some people are not taught how to hold up their end of a conversation. My parents insisted that we eat dinner together each night, and that we had conversation over dinner. Not only was this fun, but it taught me a lot about polite conversation. And sometimes not-so polite.)
  4. All kids could benefit from learning “solitude skills” to help them deal with and respect solitude.

Do you have a child who prefers solitude? What do you think about this research?


Look for my book, The Introvert's Way: Living a Quiet Life in a Noisy World. And come hang out on my Facebook page.

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