Helping an Introvert Survive Public High School

Kiki has been miserable since the first day of high school. The second day of school ended with her in overwhelmed tears. This was not particularly alarming or unexpected. So I began actively helping her manage her homework load. We got it all done. She finished every assignment on time. She got As. But by the end of the next week she was in tears again. She still felt overwhelmed. More than that, she was depressed. Everything seemed leached of joy and she cried at the thought of having to get up and go to school in the morning. I believed that this was merely an adapting stage, that she just needed to become accustomed to the new routine. Kiki, brave soul that she is, nodded and did not fight me when I told her to keep going. But by the end of the third week things were not noticeably better. And Kiki still felt hopeless. And I was beginning to feel hopeless about helping her. My “muscle through it” plan was not working.

So we both took a step back. She and I sat down and made a list of all the positive things in her life and all of the negative ones. We looked at each of her classes individually and picked apart the things she liked and did not like. We also looked at the school as a whole. We talked about lunch time and school administration. We talked about locker location and friends. We decided that our family situation is a stable point for her and did not need to be considered or changed. (Yay!) All of this was considered without judgment and only referencing how she felt, not how she ought to feel, or what could be changed. Once the list was complete, we took a close look at the negatives to see what could be fixed.

I was not thinking about introversion during our process, but in hindsight I can see it so clearly. Kiki is an introvert. She requires time to shut down and recharge. She simply was not getting any. Her classrooms were full. Lunch time was a mass of crowds, chaos, and noise. Then she came home to a house full of siblings and a mother who required her to focus on work. Even bedtime required her to vacate her room so I could put a younger sibling to bed. Kiki was trying to be good about all of this, but ended up wanting to hide in a closet to be away from people. No wonder she was feeling so bleak about everything.

We had Kiki pick one class to drop. The administrator was puzzled why we wanted to, since Kiki could obviously handle the coursework. She warned us that Kiki would have to make up the credit somehow or she will not graduate with her class. The administrator did shake my confidence some, but we did it anyway. Now Kiki will have an extra hour at home every other day. It will be a quiet hour with no siblings in the house. Kiki already has plans for how to handle the make up credit. More importantly, she has power over her schedule and knows that things can be shifted when life becomes unbearable.

We also decided to start fixing a lunch instead of having her buy school lunch. Previous to this she had been forced to stand in a chaotic and confusing line to obtain food. With a home lunch she can avoid the crowded commons area and she doesn’t have to make choices between foods she dislikes.

When I look at it, all the changes we arrived at were ones which created pockets of peace, quiet, and solitude into Kiki’s schedule. Today she came home from school happy for the first time since school began. Her friends commented on her happiness at lunch time. The notice of her friends had a doubling effect on her happiness, because one of the negatives she was worried about was the stability of her friendships. She was feeling little closeness with them due to her emotional shut down.

These two little fixes will not solve all the troubles. But I think that when we do another listing of positive and negative in two weeks (as we’ve agreed to do) we will discover that the balance has shifted. If it has not shifted enough, we will change something else.

Seeing Kiki’s depression as “introvert starved of solitude” has made me look differently at some things in my own past. My sophomore year was measurably the most emotionally turbulent of my teenage years. My journals are full of bleakness, sadness, and feelings of worthlessness. It was also a period in my life when I had a strong and active social group. I did stuff with friends constantly. My emotional roller coaster calmed dramatically when I hit summer and I had long stretches of time alone. The friends were an amazingly good thing in my life, but I had too much of a good thing and it drained me.

I still see the same effect now. My life is full of good people and things to do. When I fill all the spaces, I start feeling bleak about my life. As soon as I have time to be alone, I can feel happy again. Alone all the time is not good, but neither is social all the time. As Kiki and I continue to adapt and build a schedule she can manage by herself, we need to be making sure she has the quiet spaces she needs to recharge.

In fact I remember that during my Junior and Senior years in high school, I started eating lunch out doors. I dropped out of the cross country and track teams due to an injury and thus had more free time. These were all little things which helped me have the quiet I needed in a public high school. So now I am on the look out for other ways to create quiet spaces, not just in high school, but in all the public schools where my kids attend. We are a family of introverts and we need our spaces.

Kiki has approved the above post, but only on the condition that I also post the following note: This is Kiki. I love my mom very much and feel bad about being high maintenance again. But I’m glad that she’s there to help me muddle through. I love my mom and I’m lucky to have her around.