Sunday, November 11, 2012

Coping tips for a young introvert

 From a recent Dear Prudence chat:
Hi Prudie, My family is rather large (45 people on average for Thanksgiving) and my husband's parents are divorced and we try to see both of them at some point over the weekend. Our kids are 13, 11, and eight and in the past have seemed to enjoy spending the holiday weekend this way. Yesterday my 11-year-old daughter told me that she wants a "quiet" holiday. We have noticed that she is getting increasingly introverted over the past year or so, more likely to read by herself than play with her brothers and cousins. She told me that there are "too many people and too much driving." My husband and I are party-loving extroverts, so house hopping and driving six+ hours over the weekend is no big deal to us. But my daughter doesn't complain often and I know if she brings something up it is legitimately important to her. In small groups, and especially one-on-one, my daughter is a delight: creative, funny, and very smart. But in big groups she just fades into the background, possibly counting down the minutes until she can read by herself again. How do I balance my daughter's request that we tone things down with a) reasonable expectations from family to see us, b) the rest of my immediate family's love of going all-out, and c) not making the holiday all about her. My daughter's personality is so different from the rest of us that I don't know how to meet everybody's needs at once. Any advice? Any introverts want to chime in?

In addition to Prudie's answer, I have some ideas:

- First of all, don't worry about the fact that she's fading into the background!  That's not a problem.  She doesn't need to be the star.  She's there, she's doing her duty, she's not being rude to anyone, that's sufficient.  Work with her on managing the situation so she doesn't get overly drained and melt down, work on giving her options for respites and recharging, protect and advocate for her within the family, but don't worry that she isn't the star of the family dinner table.  Civil and emotionally neutral is sufficient.

- In terms of specific strategies, is there a job she could do that would take her away from everyone else?  A dog that needs walking?  A sleeping baby that needs to be checked on?  Something that needs to be fetched from the garage?

- Is it possible for her to spend a small amount of time (like 10 minutes) in the car alone while everyone else is in the house?  You could have a code "I need to get something out of the car", give her the keys, and let her get in the back and decompress.  If anyone comes out to check on her, she could be rummaging through a bag that's in the car.  (Besides, anyone who catches an 11-year-old girl secretively getting something out of the car is just going to assume that she got her period.)

- Set a schedule, tell her what it is, and stick to it.  "We're going to Auntie Em's for dinner at 6, and we'll leave by 10."  It's much more bearable when you know when it's going to end.

- If the house is big enough to have multiple bathrooms, when she needs a break she could use the upstairs bathroom.  The two-storey suburban houses in my family have a small powder room downstairs, and a full bathroom upstairs that's the family's primary bathroom (for showering, brushing teeth, etc.) but isn't in any of the bedrooms.  (There's often also an ensuite in the master bedroom.)  Usually guests use the downstairs bathroom, but when there's a lot of people in the house and it's family, you might use the upstairs bathroom if the downstairs bathroom is occupied.  This would be quieter and give you a moment alone.  You can pretty much stay in there until you hear someone coming up the stairs, and then you have the excuse "Oh, the downstairs bathroom was occupied and I couldn't wait." (Again, they'll just assume that she got her period.)

- If there is an unoccupied "public" room of the house (i.e. not someone's bedroom), she could go hang out there and, if someone comes and asks her what she's doing, she could say "Oh, I was just admiring this picture on the wall.  What's the story behind it?"  Practise plausible scripts with her, so she can turn being "caught" being alone into a pleasant sociable conversation-starter.

- If the trip involves overnight stays, can you stay in a hotel rather than with relatives?  Since the letter mentions the introvert daughter as having "brothers", that would mean she's the only girl, so she should at least be able to get her own bed.  If you can manage a suite instead of a room, maybe she could get her own room (girls going through puberty do start needing privacy from their brothers, after all), or sleep alone in the living-room area of the suite.  If you have to stay with relatives, think about how to give her her own space to sleep. Maybe she'd prefer sleeping on the couch in the den rather than on her cousin's floor?

- Can you host, maybe every other year or so?  That would spare your daughter the driving time and give her the option of retreating to her own room.

- Does she have a smartphone?  (Or will she within the next couple of years?) Since she likes to read, maybe she could put an ebook reader app on her phone, and, when she gets a chance to duck into a quiet room, read that way.  It gives the appearance that she's  just sending a quick text or something, whereas sitting with an actual book implies that you've settled in for a while.  People might still think she's rude for ducking into another room and texting during a family event, but I think if she can give the impression that she's just finishing up when someone notices her, it shouldn't go over too badly.

- Try to give her at least one day off during the weekend.  I always find going straight from an action-packed weekend to a full week of work (or, worse, school) is practically unbearable.  I need at least one day to sleep in and lounge around at home doing nothing.  If it's not possible to have a day off during the weekend, maybe let her stay home "sick" on the first day back.  (You could tell her brothers she really is sick if they're likely to want a free sick day too.  Again, they'll just assume she has her period.)

- Depending on the personalities involved, you might consider strategically outing her as an introvert to key family members.   Don't make it a big "We need to talk" with undertones of shamefulness.  Break the news with enthusiasm for the revelation and sympathy for your daughter.  "I was just reading this book, and I realized that Daughter is an introvert.  You know how we love seeing the whole family over the holidays and get energized and recharged from it?  Turns out all this time this has been draining to her, poor kid!"  If one key member of each household you're visiting is aware of her needs (and isn't going to use this information to give her shit), maybe they can help with things like letting her walk the dog or giving her more private sleeping arrangements, or at the very least not meddle and nag if they ever spot her catching a moment's privacy.

- Prudie recommends the book Quiet by Susan Cain.  It is useful, bit I found Introvert Advantage by Marti Olsen Laney even more useful. It includes a technical (but understandable) description of the neurology behind introversion, and specific strategies for introverts in extroverted families.


laura k said...

Very nice post. Your coping strategies are important even for people who don't consider themselves introverts - like me. I would HATE the situation the mom is describing, it's way too social for me. I would need get-away space, some designated tasks, etc., just as you describe. A parent who was hip to those needs would be awesome.

I thought the mom's description

was very perceptive and accepting. It describes me as a young person - and only doesn't describe me now because I seldom do anything that puts me in those situations.

laura k said...

Uh... that space was supposed to quote the mom: my daughter doesn't complain often and I know if she brings something up it is legitimately important to her. In small groups, and especially one-on-one, my daughter is a delight: creative, funny, and very smart.

How weird that it appeared to paste in the comment box but didn't!