The Challenges of Raising a Teen Who’s a Highly Sensitive Introvert (When You Are One, Too)

A mother comforts her highly sensitive introvert teenager

As a highly sensitive introvert myself, it’s hard for me not to absorb my teen’s restless energy or to jump in with constant help and advice.

As a number of writers have eloquently expressed on this website, being an introvert helps make you a wonderful parent. There are many reasons for this. Perhaps we introverts are better able to give our children our full and focused attention. We relish quiet time at home reading books, playing on the floor, or hanging out one-on-one at a park. And if you’re a highly sensitive introvert, you also likely understand your children deeply and instinctively. 

When my children were toddlers and preschoolers, I could tell instantly by the expression on their faces when they were ready to leave a playdate. Even in infancy, I understood — at a visceral level — when my kids were overstimulated by a gymnastics class or overwhelmed by the noise at a restaurant… because I often felt the same way. 

However, I’m finding these qualities, that I’ve come to see as superpowers rather than hindrances, are a double-edged sword as my kids reach their teenage years

Teaching Them Not to ‘Fake’ Extroversion

I feel fortunate to have been raised by thoughtful parents during a time when introversion was highly stigmatized. My parents understood me, and were introverted themselves to varying degrees. However, I didn’t give myself the label “introvert” until well into adulthood. 

I always had the vague sense that my preference for smaller groups and quieter activities was a shortcoming. I “faked it” through Friday night football games where teens intermingled and jockeyed for social position (the memory makes me shudder). Yet, in actuality, I’d long for the game to end when a small circle of friends would tuck in at someone’s house for the night. 

As evolved as they were, my father, very clearly an introvert, still seems to have trouble saying the word out loud. Often, it’s followed by, “but I have these other skills, which are crucial to professional success…” Unfortunately, this disclaimer (of sorts) doesn’t help normalize introversion. Plus, a lot of introverts have been highly successful — from U.S. Presidents (including Abraham Lincoln and Jimmy Carter) to female icons like Jill Biden and Oprah.

So, with my own kids, I try to encourage them to not “fake it” like I did…

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Finding the Balance Between Saying Yes vs. Staying In Their Comfort Zone

In my house, we’re trying to embrace and celebrate introversion. My son has a copy of Susan Cain’s book, Quiet, and we talk about different personality facets, including introversion. 

It’s a near-constant effort to have open discourse with my teenagers about situations that are stressful or uncomfortable for them, and how best to navigate those circumstances. But these conversations are necessary.

Also a frequent theme — choosing moments to push past your comfort zone and try new and scary things. It’s a balancing act. My son tried many of the obligatory elementary school activities: Boy Scouts, robotics club, soccer teams, violin lessons. Nothing really struck his fancy. He wanted to come home from school and play with his brother or dive into a book. We continue to nudge him toward saying yes to new things, but we also allow him to say no as often as he needs to. 

I’m also finding it’s a near-constant effort for me to help my son navigate the angst of these years without being buckled in next to him on the hormonal rollercoaster ride that is teenagerhood. I feel it deeply when he’s stressed out about a school presentation or anxious about the crowded lunchroom he faces every other day when none of his friends share his lunch block. As a highly sensitive introvert, I feel it to my core, and I relive similar scenarios from my teen years. 

For instance, a high school awards ceremony brought back a flood of memories. Every teacher picked a “student of the year” in each subject. Certain kids were awarded multiple awards by different teachers. I see a shadow of a frown on my son’s face as awards are presented, so I lean over and offer that introverts don’t always get recognized for awards like this. In my experience, teachers tend to choose extroverted kids, the class “leaders” who speak up frequently. However, his skills and talents as an introvert are just as valuable, even if they aren’t always publicly acknowledged.

This phenomenon looms large for my son because his younger brother is one of those easygoing extroverts who’s showered with awards and recognition. It makes me fondly remember the teachers I had who really saw me and the other quiet kids in my class. And it makes me eternally grateful for the teachers who have made my introvert son feel seen and understood

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Being a Teenager Is Hard Enough — But Being a Highly Sensitive (Teenage) Introvert Is Even Harder

In all of the above moments — and countless others that trigger my own teen memories — I have to remind myself: Does anyone really relish their teen years? Is it a particular kind of hell for an introvert, not to mention a highly sensitive one?

As a highly sensitive person myself, it’s hard not to absorb my teen’s restless energy when he puts down his book and starts pacing the house. I see his furrowed brow and will suggest he take the dog for a walk. Sometimes I send him a funny meme or an interesting article. Or I suggest he take a crack at a recipe in the kitchen. He has a sweet tooth and has mastered a lovely caramel sauce that he laps up with a spoon while his nose is buried in a book.

I also have to actively tell myself to keep some emotional distance from his teenage rollercoaster ride. As much as I want to jump in and help him, he has to navigate these waters himself. I subscribe to the potted plant theory: I try to stay proximate, but resist the urge to ask a million questions about his day. I’m here for unconditional love and support, and occasional advice in the moments when he’s receptive to it. 

I also cling to books, just like he does. Commonwealth, a beautiful novel by Ann Patchett, exquisitely captures teen angst: 

“His expression is one of simmering fury, but then it always is. He doesn’t want to be in Virginia, doesn’t want to be with his sisters… with his stepmother, with his grandparents. He doesn’t want to curry the horses, to be bitten by the flies and mosquitoes, to stand in the stink of shit and hay, but there is nothing better to do. That’s the trouble with being fifteen — all he can think of is what he doesn’t want.”

I take a deep breath and remind myself that these years are formative and necessary. I know he (and I) will come through on the other side, with the company of good books, empathetic adults, and a world that is blessedly more enlightened about introversion and sensitivity.

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