I had a dream last night. I dreamt that we were at the beach (Dave, the boys and I) and a huge wave came. It was okay, though, because Dave, Elijah and I were on top of the rocks and safe from the wave. In my dream it took me a couple of minutes to realise that Joel wasn’t there. He was on the sand…under the water.
I discovered last night that my parental instincts are the same waking or sleeping. In the dream, I jumped straight in the water, knowing that if I didn’t get to him, Joel would drown. So, without a second thought I just did what I had to do to reach him and because it was a dream, I did reach him. He was just standing there, on the sand, under the water, holding his breath – not struggling, not drowning… just standing there. In my dream I grabbed him and pulled him from the water and yelled at him saying; “Why didn’t you swim? Why didn’t you tell me that you needed help?” He just shrugged and smiled and said; “I’m okay mummy” and then he extracted himself from my hands and jumped back into the water. I woke up, heart pounding and wanting to go and shake him awake. I didn’t of course, but only because by the time my feet hit the floor, logic was screaming at me “just a dream, just a dream”.
I know why I had this dream though…
I had this dream because I’ve been on a journey with Joel and it’s a journey that has at times left me feeling like I was in over my head, but it’s a journey I am so thankful for. It took me seven and a half years to realise that our little family of extroverts was actually a little family of extroverts with one introvert. I spent a lot of time worrying about Joel’s quietness, his tendency to spend large amounts of time alone in his room, his stress in loud and busy environments, his inability to make more than one or two friends at school and his dislike of big social events. I got it wrong with Joel (a lot) and by the time he was almost 8 it was taking a toll on him. Joel was often stressed and teary and I just kept coming up with ways to deal with it that appealed to my personality type. Not adjusting at school – I’ll throw a BIG birthday party to help him make friends (he spent the whole time ignoring the other kids and asking when we could go home from this “too loud” place). Joel shuts himself in his room with screams of “I just need some space” and I interpreted it as him needing to talk about it- so I would go in and invade his space to solve the problem. Nothing I tried worked, in fact it seemed to make things worse.
In so many ways, I felt like we were all standing on the rocks and Joel was somewhere else on the beach – alone. Then about a year or so ago I stumbled across this article and all of a sudden the lights came on (we extroverts are not always the sharpest tools in the emotional shed). There was nothing wrong with Joel, he’s just not the extrovert I had assumed he was.
I’m wired differently to Joel and so it took me a long time to realise that he wasn’t drowning in the silence – he was drinking it in (in fact, if he was drowning at all, it was in the constant noise that we surrounded him with). When we realised that Joel’s personality type was introverted, we set out on the best journey Dave and I have taken since we became parents. We set out to discover Joel. We took time to learn what makes Joel tick and how we can make our home a place that he can enjoy as much as we do. We read lots (particularly Susan Cain) and we found adult introverts and picked their brains but the best thing we did was to sit down with Joel and ask him what he needed from his family.
Here are some of the keys we have learnt so far…
- “Let me finish my sentences” – This is the first thing that Joel told us. There’s lots of banter in our home and it usually involves a fair bit of interrupting. Introverts aren’t always quick to speak up – they like to really think about a topic deeply, so it can take them a while to talk. It can be tempting to interrupt or just not wait for them to speak at all but when we do that, we end up shutting introverts down. In our home, we are learning patience and respect, there’s still banter but there’s also a rule that Joel is allowed to finish his sentences and the results have been amazing. I’ve discovered that my youngest son has a rich inner life and now he invites me to be a part of it – what an honour.
- Alone is okay. – In the case of introverts being alone is actually good (I’m not talking about sudden changes in personality and isolation or withdrawal that is out of character for your child). Alone in a safe, quiet, calm place of his choosing is how Joel (and most other introverts) recharges his batteries. Alone time for an introvert is crucial (just like social time for an extrovert is crucial). In the quiet place they gather the emotional resource and energy to deal with an often too noisy world. A few weeks ago, Joel and I had a quiet day (a day where we are home together but just do our own thing – no noise, no requirement to interact) at the end of the day Joel looked at me and said “You really love me mummy, I know because you gave me a quiet day with you”. If you want to give a gift to an introvert, give them the quiet.
- Introverted children need tools – There was a cycle in our home where we’d be busy socially for long periods. We would rush out and be social, rush home and be loud, rush around and get ready then rush out and be busy. We didn’t have down time and ¾ of our family liked it this way, but to Joel it was torture and he didn’t know how to tell us when he’d had enough (so usually he would scream at us when he got to snapping point). We realised that we needed to help him find tools to express his needs and to cope when we couldn’t avoid a stressful situation. We asked Joel how he felt when he’d had enough and he answered “overwhelmed” so we taught him to say “I feel overwhelmed” and we taught ourselves that hearing those words meant we needed to start thinking about leaving. When Joel says that he feels overwhelmed now, we make sure we communicate with him on the timeframe we are working to and we acknowledge his need for space. We also learned to take headphones with us when we are out so that if Joel needs calm and space, he can plug in, play music and cut down on the draining ambient noise in his environment. Joel now knows how to create an inner space for himself.
There are so many other things we are learning and if you have tips for us, we would love to hear them. Changing the way we do family has been great for us all and Joel is thriving at last (when home is a haven, everything else falls into place too). The last year and a half has been an amazing time for us. We have discovered Joel – this funny, intelligent, compassionate, connected little soul who is definitely, no longer, drowning.