Introverts aren’t shy, but they may need your help

About a dozen kids sitting in any classroom today would fit the current description of an introvert, and as a counselor you should be aware they could be the less likely to seek your help, though they may need your services as much or more than others.

Experts say that between 30 and 50 percent of adolescents are introverts, which doesn’t mean they are shy – a condition that involves real fear of social interaction and can be crippling.  Introverts fall into four categories, according to Jonathan Cheek, a psychology professor at Wellesley College who has studied the personality type:

  • Social:They prefer socializing with small groups instead of large ones – or no group, though anxiety doesn’t drive the preference for solitude. It’s just the environment in which they feel comfortable.
  • Thinking:A newer category for people who don’t avoid social events but are just introspective and thoughtful and can “get lost in a fantasy world”.
  • Anxious:They seek solitude because they are self-conscious around other people and because they’re not very confident with their own social skills and tend to mull over in their minds things that have gone wrong or could.
  • Restrained:These introverts have a slower pace and prefer to think before they speak or act and often take a while to get started in the morning or in new situation.

For counselors, these students may be less likely to seek help, less likely to be identified as needing assistance, won’t want to be involved in a group (which, as caseloads grow, are often used in counseling departments) and may not advocate for themselves with others – to get a grade changed, a recommendation from a teacher or geet notice from a college admissions office, for example.

So, how can counselors help?

First, according to John Zelenski, a psychology professor at Carleton College who has researched introversion, counselors should recognize that introverts may have good social skills and enjoy using them at times, so we shouldn’t rule out encouraging them to engage further than they might tend to.  Also, he notes, sometimes personalities change and a quieter student might miss out on opportunities they would enjoy undertaking and might later regret missing.

“Often introverts must act extroverted because situations demand it, but some research suggests it may even make them happy and satisfied,” he says. “They may benefit from learning how to handle such situations.”

But Susan Cain, the well known advocate for introverts, notes that they often don’t want or need to be “pushed” and most experts and introverts will tell you they are happy and satisfied doing things at their own pace. Her Quiet Revolution Web site has a lot of research and advice about working with children and adolescents.

Here are some tips if you want to help:

Explain it to them: Tell them about the different types of introverts, that it is common and, in fact, that often very successful people have been introverts. In fact, some say introverts are more likely to be successful, especially in creative endeavors. But also let them know the possible down side – missed opportunities and being misunderstood as detached or lazy, and sometimes overlooked.

Let them go slow. They may not want, or need, to be around a lot of friends or have a lot of social interaction in the cafeteria or on the bus, but be willing to engage sometimes and can benefit. Let them ease in to groups, stay on the outskirts and have an exit strategy. Provide opportunities for them to have information about  – or get acquainted with –  change in advance, a new school or new schedule or field trip. Give them time to think about answers.

Explain it to others. Be an advocate for introverts generally, or for a specific student you have identified, to teachers and even parents, if necessary. Remind them that they shouldn’t push or protect too much.

Look for opportunities. While they might not want to be student council president or captain of the football team, they might be a great editor of the school newspaper or literary magazine or robotics team star. Don’t pigeonhole them, though, because they might surprise you with what they can do and want to do. Perhaps give them some creative ideas for more engagement from time to time.

Help them with plans. It’s okay to push them a bit to think about college and careers since it may not immediately get their attention, but more importantly they may not advocate for themselves in a process that requires it. Even more importantly, this big transition may be very stressful at several stages, and it would be helpful to start it early.