By Catherine H. Knott, Ph.D.

Six girls sit around a table, talking and enjoying after-school snacks. One tells a story with great wit, and the others respond by laughing out loud until they have tears in their eyes. Their classmates at school would hardly recognize them. They consider these girls some of the quietest and most introverted students at the high school. Few know them well enough to strike up a conversation.

New brain research shows that the differences between introverted and extroverted temperaments are rooted deeply in the brain, and are strongly influenced by genetics. Marti Laney, Psy.D., in her book, The Hidden Gifts of the Introverted Child, states that “introversion and extroversion are among the most stable and heritable of the personality traits studied.” In other words, it wouldn’t work to try to change your introverted child into an extrovert. Yet, extroverts are about three times as common as introverts, and many parents feel their children would fit in better if they could become more extroverted. Laney’s book shows the strengths of introverted children, and helps parents appreciate and nurture these children through the teenage years.

Identifying the Introverted Teen

Introverts typically draw their energy from within and frequently need quiet time to refuel, while extroverts draw energy from the outside world, larger social groups, and new experiences. Introverts tend to channel more of their attention to their rich inner lives and like to spend more time alone than extroverts, who prefer to expend their energy connecting with the world around them.

Introversion and extroversion are on a spectrum. Most people fall somewhere along the spectrum, with elements of both introversion and extroversion in their personalities. It can be difficult to identify introverted teens during the high school years since introverts may try to act more extroverted in an effort to fit in socially. Fortunately, by the teen years, you know your own child very well. The quick quiz below will help you decide whether your child is an introvert or an extrovert, if you don’t already know.

Introvert or Extrovert?

Choose which activity you think your teenager would truly prefer, if given the choice:

  1. a) Reading a book she has been waiting for, or b) attending a large party with people she doesn’t know well.
  2. a) Trying one or two activities and spending the rest of the day at home, or b) trying as many new activities as possible and staying out all day.
  3. a) Spending the afternoon with two close friends, or b) with twenty friends.

Identify which characteristic behaviors your teenager is most likely to exhibit:

  1. a) standing away from the crowd to observe at first, or b) jumping right in to socialize.
  2. a) talking more softly, looking at people when they are speaking, and not interrupting, but looking away more often when he speaks, or b) talking more loudly, possibly interrupting, and looking at people easily when he speaks.
  3. a) speaking hesitantly or appearing to search for words at times, or b) talking fluently and sounding as if he knows more about a subject than he really does.
  4. a) standing stiffly or with little physical expression when she first enters a new group of people, or b) standing close to people and using lots of expression and body language right away.

If you mostly answered “a,” your teenager is more introverted than extroverted and may need some support from you to thrive in an extroverted world.

Brain Chemistry and Neural Pathways

The most important support you can offer to introverted teenagers is to accept them as they are and not try to force them to become extroverted. Recent research shows the brain chemistry of introverts and extroverts is different, and even leads to the use of different neural pathways. As parents and teachers begin to understand the brain biology differences between introverts and extroverts, they should be better able to resist the urge to change their introverts into extroverts or to discriminate against them for not behaving in more extroverted ways.

The brain processes information, memory, and decision-making along different pathways, mediated by two major brain chemicals – acetylcholine and dopamine. Each of these neurotransmitters starts a different process in the brain, resulting in different behaviors and different rewards for those behaviors. Introverts rely much more on acetylcholine-mediated pathways, resulting in a longer circuit through the frontal lobes of the brain, a longer time in the planning and decision-making mode, and slower memory retrieval. However, they have greater synthesis of information from different parts of the brain. The brain receives chemical boosts or “rewards” for thinking, pondering, focusing on a particular item for study, and concentrating. Laney refers to this process as the “put on the brakes” pathway.

Extroverts rely more on the dopamine-mediated pathway, which takes a shorter circuit through the mid-regions of the brain, making more connections in sections that “start and stop speaking, trigger interest in others, shift attention quickly . . . focus on the outside world, pleasure, and what’s new and exciting.” Laney refers to this process as the “give it the gas” pathway. Dopamine pathways provide powerful rewards that can promote addiction. Findings published in the American Journal of Psychiatry showed that extroverts had more blood flow to the back of the brain, while introverts had “higher blood flow to the frontal lobes – home to the system that inhibits behavior and promotes planning and thinking before acting.”

Three Practical Ways to Support and Nurture Your Introverted Teen

It is important to translate your support into practical actions that can help your introverted teen in her everyday life. Here are three simple ways to offer support:

Rewrite the labels that other people use. Because introverts make up a minority of the population, and because many people have made extroverted behavior the standard every student should strive for, introverts can be labeled negatively. Sigmund Freud, himself an extrovert, created many negative labels for introverts after a protracted argument with prominent psychologist Carl Jung.

But parents can help rewrite these negative labels. For example, if other teenagers, teachers at school, or neighbors call your introverted teenager “aloof,” substitute the more positive word, “reserved.” If someone calls your child “timid,” substitute the word “quiet,” which doesn’t have such a negative connotation. Mary Sheedy’s book, Raising Your Spirited Child, does an excellent job deconstructing negative labels, and showing how parents can avoid labeling their children altogether.

It is equally if not more important for parents to stop using negative labels for introversion in their own minds. Your introverted child will sense and appreciate your acceptance of her temperament. If you can begin to see her as intriguing and intelligent, you will go a long way in improving your relationship with her.

Help your child find ways to resolve conflicts and avoid being bullied. Not all introverted children are bullied, but introverts make natural targets for bullies who seek them out because they are more likely to be alone, tend to be quiet, and prefer withdrawing to fighting. Because introverted children take longer to think things through, and may not find the words to express their feelings easily when they are under stress, introverted teens benefit from discussing and strategizing ahead of time about how they will handle conflict.

As a trusted adult, you can draw out their feelings of vulnerability, help them feel confident, and provide them with tools for coping. Having a stock phrase practiced in advance, such as “Don’t do that! I’ll report you if you don’t leave me alone!” may help them to stand strong in a conflict situation. For additional nonviolent communication techniques, take a look at Marshall B. Rosenberg’s Nonviolent Communication: A Language of Life, and Speak Peace in a World of Conflict.

Provide a nurturing environment for socializing with friends with similar temperaments. It is a relief for introverts to find other introverts with whom they share interests. They quickly understand each other’s needs, and don’t pressure each other to socialize or “party.” Many introverts begin dating much later than other teens. Some also wait to get their drivers’ licenses. Their cautious and introspective temperament slows their entry into these activities, delighting their parents, but paradoxically putting them at risk for social ostracism because they experience these teenage rites of passage later than their peers.

It was no accident that the six girls were laughing together around that table. They had a standing invitation every Friday afternoon, when the kind mother of one of the girls welcomed them all to her home, prepared snacks, and stayed out of their conversations. They felt safe among friends who understood them, which reinforced their self-confidence. At school, they might be labeled as quiet or unfriendly, but here, they could be themselves. Many years later, these girls are still introverts, but have achieved many life goals with confidence. One is a doctor, one a lawyer, one a science technician who chose to stay home to raise her children, two have Ph.Ds. One chose not to marry, but travels and works internationally, enjoying the freedom to live and think as her spirit moves her. All of them are still close friends.