What's the best situation for my sensitive kid?
May 26, 2012 4:33 PM   Subscribe

My 8 year old daughter is a highly sensitive introvert who needs social skills. What kind of atmosphere or school or activities would benefit her?

My daughter has always been highly sensitive, anxious, emotional, and introverted. She cried a lot as a baby and had a lot of separation anxiety. She has always been more emotional than other kids (cries easily, at most movies), needing a lot of nurturing and closeness. As a preschooler, we had her evaluated for sensory integration. They found that she had poor fine motor and gross motor skills, difficulty with how she perceived her body in space, etc. She did a year of OT and managed kindergarten great.

My daughter goes to a large public school and has been pretty content there. Because the school is large, they mix up the classrooms every year so she has had a different "best friend" every year because she loses touch with the best friend from the previous years. She says she's a "one friend at a time kind of person." She's pretty shy and quiet at school and sometimes won't return other people's hellos, won't join a conversation in line or join a group of kids playing.

The reason I am asking my question is lately she's been asking to switch schools. I have a feeling it has to do with this year's "best friend." Let's call her Suzy. Suzy is alternately nice to my daughter and then will be controlling and negative. She will put her down calling her things "babyish" or "lame, no offense." She'll brag about herself and it irritates my daughter who feels competitive with her. Suzy gets into arguments with other girls on the playground and complains a lot about her "enemies." Even though my daughter complains, she still wants to invite her over to play every week. She's pretty rude when she comes over and I have to set a lot of limits with her. My daughter is scared to break up this friendship because she says "you don't want Suzy as an enemy."

Bottom line is I know my daughter needs better social skills. She seems attracted to girls like this and needs to know how to make better friends. She needs to be able to stand up for herself. We go over the different things she can say in response to rude remarks, how to stand up for herself, what a "good" friendship looks like, how no one can "make you" do anything. We talk about what it feels like to have a good friend, one that makes you feel happy and makes you laugh. All that stuff. I just am at a loss at how to really teach her this stuff.

The question is: I'm wondering if my daughter would benefit from a smaller school? Since it's a large school, they mix things up every year and my daughter is not staying connected. Perhaps a smaller school would be more nurturing and you'd really get to know the kids better? On the other hand she might find another Suzy at a small school too. I could go to administration and say that I want her separated from Suzy next year but there are no guarantees that they will honor this request or that they won't meet on the playground. I've investigated another school nearby with a more alternative philosophy (mixed grades, flexible curriculum, self-directed study) but it's much louder and more chaotic than her current school. I think they study in groups so I like the social part of it, but I'm worried about the noisy atmosphere. My daughter is doing fine academically at her traditional school where the classroom is quiet. We'd be choosing the alternative for the sweeter, community-oriented social aspects.

If the school switch is not the answer, what other activities or things can I put her in that would benefit her? What should I expose her to? We've tried sports and she doesn't seem to like it. Same with karate.

If you have a child like this, what has been good for her/him? Maybe you were a child like this--what was helpful to you?

PS. I don't want to bash Suzy--she's not a bad kid. I think her mom is lovely and Suzy is perhaps affected by a divorce plus needing some social skills herself. It's complicated. Just fyi.
posted by biscuits to Human Relations (44 answers total) 10 users marked this as a favorite
Art class? Theatre camp? Science club?
posted by Ausamor at 4:51 PM on May 26, 2012 [1 favorite]

A smaller school will probably give her the stability she needs to learn how to manage relationships like these ones. Even if she doesn't find another Suzy at a smaller school, she will encounter another Suzy (many of them) throughout her entire life.

Highly sensitive introverts will feel overwhelmed with too much noise, which will make it harder to focus on learning/applying things like boundaries. She knows who is she - "one friend at a time kind of person." - so putting her in an environment where she is forced to be more social kind of goes against that.

So I would suggest a smaller school and encouraging her to develop her boundaries herself - which is by and large what you're already doing:

We go over the different things she can say in response to rude remarks, how to stand up for herself, what a "good" friendship looks like, how no one can "make you" do anything. We talk about what it feels like to have a good friend, one that makes you feel happy and makes you laugh. All that stuff. I just am at a loss at how to really teach her this stuff.

I think you're already doing what you need to be doing.
posted by mleigh at 4:51 PM on May 26, 2012 [2 favorites]

Your kid reminds me a little of me when I was little. I got a lot out of nature, (including motor skills from climbing around). Would a nature group be possible? I don't know where you are, but we have a ton of them around here- all the wildlife rescues have them, for instance.

Also, I am very very grateful that my parents didn't allow TV. I LOOOVED it but it was overwhelming to me. I still have trouble with sensory overload but have since discovered earplugs and I have the option to avoid most situations that are overwhelming when I'm not up for them. I have to be pretty tanked up, energy-wise, to deal with crowds, clubs or parties.

What really centered me was just playing around unsupervised for a few hours in the woods, but I realize that's not an option for most kids these days, unfortunately.
posted by small_ruminant at 4:55 PM on May 26, 2012

What about a consistent, smaller group activity like Girl Scouts? They reinforce the kind of values you're talking about here, and you could pick a troupe that would have the same group of girls year to year. My first bestie was in GS with me and we maintained our friendship despite classroom/school changes. Plus, meetings and events were a nice break from the girl drama at school and supported strengths and values beyond who sits next to who and why at the lunch table.
posted by rumposinc at 4:56 PM on May 26, 2012 [16 favorites]

Good lord, this was me. Right down to Suzy. (The Suzies get worse.)

I can't recommend schools, as I don't have kids and haven't dealt with any of that. I can only tell you the opinions I've formed in hindsight.

#1, I really wish I'd learned how to punch. I was the most gentle kid ever, but just knowing HOW to punch out a bully, having that as an option, would have changed my whole life. So if she doesn't like karate, try other self defense classes. Buy her a punching bag. Anything.

I know that doesn't answer your question, but it's my #1 regret.

2, theater. I started out as a tech, but moved up to acting. I couldn't even look anybody in the eye before that. It changed me into a completely different person. I feel like my life didn't even really start until theater.

3, gymnastics. I know she doesn't like sports. This isn't about sports. It might not even be gymnastics anymore, it might be something else. Enroll her in whatever she says all the other girls are doing. Like punching, I can't imagine how different my life would be now if my parents had just listened to my requests about gymnastics.
posted by heatherfl at 4:59 PM on May 26, 2012 [3 favorites]

As a bit of a side note, it is not at all uncommon at the school I teach at for students to be matched up with particular friends for the following school year. We also mix up the classrooms each year, but we will keep certain students together in situations similar to this one, or when we know that one student is having a positive influence on another student that is benefiting from it. If you end up staying at that school (or for another year at a different school), you should speak to the admin/couselor about letting your daughter be in the same class as some friends. I'm sure they will be receptive to the idea.
posted by Nightman at 4:59 PM on May 26, 2012

biscuits: "highly sensitive, anxious, emotional, and introverted."

I'm not good with parenting advice but, before you go further, please keep in mind these are four very different qualities. The former two are definitely things for you and your daughter to work on, but the latter two are at the very least neutral elements of who your daughter is and and the very best assets that will make her flourish later in life.

Your daughter may well need a new best friend, and a better set of coping skills. Beware of trying to change her beyond those things, though.
posted by Apropos of Something at 5:00 PM on May 26, 2012 [5 favorites]

"Maybe you were a child like this--what was helpful to you?"

Not exactly like this, but sort of in some ways, so I just wanted to respond to the two aspects of this that I have an opinion on.

Small v large school: I would absolutely go for large if they're otherwise equal-ish. Think of it like a big city
or a small town. In a big city it's so much easier to be yourself even if you're different, to find new friends if
your old friends decide they don't like you anymore or
you outgrow them, to find moments of solitude and
quiet in the craziness. Small towns have their
benefits, but they're very limiting, socially. Same with
schools. I used to hate going to school some days
because I knew I'd see x person at lunch or whatever. if there'd been 1000 kids in my grade, scary x person
would have been lost in the crowd. Big school = more
teachers, more classes, just more options all around.

On the activity front, have you tried anything like
dance or music, something where her feelings could be
creatively expressed but she wouldn't have to be
super outgoing to express them?
posted by DestinationUnknown at 5:06 PM on May 26, 2012 [3 favorites]

Does she enjoy art or crafts? I sucked at sports, couldn't make friends and wasn't academically gifted, so the development of my drawing and "making" skills gave me hope that I would some day have a place in this world.

It would be great if you could get her into any kind of evening classes that would expose her to examples of creativity that reside outside the parameters of her middle school curriculum. I only remember that the art education at my school was a bunch of terrible, dumbed down cut & paste exercises but I have pretty vivid memories of the few evening/summer art classes that I was able to attend.

Get her into anything that shows her that the world is bigger than her school.
posted by bonobothegreat at 5:08 PM on May 26, 2012

...I forgot to say that you sound like a thoughtful, wonderful parent.
posted by bonobothegreat at 5:09 PM on May 26, 2012 [8 favorites]

Why not ask her what activity she would like to try?
posted by St. Alia of the Bunnies at 5:11 PM on May 26, 2012 [3 favorites]

It's not free but a good Montessori encourages solo learning, has a calm and quiet class, and really good one explicity teach social skills. The problem is any school can use the name but if you're considering going private ask around.

For just a boost to thinking about introversion I can't recommend Susan Cain's Quiet enough - and I'm an extrovert.
posted by Zen_warrior at 5:12 PM on May 26, 2012 [2 favorites]

Seconding mleigh that it sounds like you're already having the key conversations to help your daughter build skills and learn to listen to her gut. If you're interested in working more in that realm, I'd recommend an excellent and practical guide, Little Girls Can Be Mean. Talks about types of friendships, power plays, bullying, etc and each segment includes case studies and quick/helpful things to do with your daughter to further illustrate each topic. I bought a copy after reading through our library's copy because I think it may come in handy. Good luck! I admire your sensitivity to your daughter and Suzy as well.
posted by dreamphone at 5:14 PM on May 26, 2012

What does she actually enjoy doing? Like, does she like chess, science, art, nature, what? What do her favorite characters in TV shows/books do?

The key is probably going to be her being able to develop one-on-one friendships with multiple people that are stable over time: learning how to trust, how to take risks, how to cope with strange/unfortunate behavior, usually comes hand in hand with things that don't change, or change slowly over time. A thing to keep in mind about your daughter's typical interactions on a day to day basis, in school, is that they don't last very long, they are highly defined by adult expectations/setups but are almost entirely directed by kids who are developing at different rates and at times are acting like what we adults would consider to be complete sociopaths, and they are very much a performance art (as well as a form of individual communication - basically, there's always a big audience to play to.) They're also superficial - you're friends because you're spending time together, not because you have anything deeper in common.

Anyway, things that will help are:
  • Family-inclusive activities (church, SCA, nature events at local parks, etc.) where she is acting as part of a protective unit (her whole family) but is being exposed to social situations. This also helps because you are modeling how to pick friends and how you interact with other humans as equals.
  • Quiet activities that are structured socially and monitored by adults (chess, science club, read-a-thons and other charity events.)
  • Inviting noticeably socially mature/kind children to come to your home and interact with your daughter AND you for the afternoon. This is not the same as a play date or sleepover - those are really hard at first. This is "would Jane like to come to our house and bake cookies for the entire class this Saturday" kind of thing allows you to step in or out as needed, and give your daughter the chance to take just as many risks as she wants, in a very safe environment. Over time, she will find herself with many more friends than she has now.
  • Make a very serious effort at helping her maintain friendships that aren't easy to maintain (logistically.) I mean "people who you don't get locked in a room with for six hours a day for 180 days a year." Write letters, invite them to the park, send them birthday gifts, etc. Being introverted means intentionally holding onto existing relationships must take a higher priority if you're ever going to have a social circle of a healthy size. Yes, even keep in contact with Suzy. Over time she's going to recover from this stage, in all likelihood, and your daughter has invested a lot of effort into maintaining this relationship.
  • Help her make friends who aren't her same age/in her school. I mean kids in preschool, teenagers, and adults. Try to put her in situations where she can interact with them on a largely equal footing - not babysitting, but working together on a community garden. Make sure she sees a lot of the same collection of adults.
  • Regularly seek her input about the people she knows. Does she like spending time with them? What do they do that's annoying, helpful, frustrating, scary, encouraging? What does she want to emulate? Realizing that she can learn useful things from other people's behavior is very valuable, because that gives her something else to seek besides simple comfort/entertainment.

posted by SMPA at 5:18 PM on May 26, 2012 [6 favorites]

Oh, and big school versus little school doesn't matter as much as classroom environment, consistency/a culture of trust and stability, and long-term social cohesion, in my experience. I was in a big school, but I traveled with mostly the same core kids for most of the time (four of us were in the same class for 2nd through 6th grade, and we had a grand total of two teachers.) I was pretty OK with coping with this socially, given how very introverted I am. My only request, if I were to do it over, would be to halve the class size (we were usually around 30 at a time) and make recess/lunch periods spread out so that you never had 800 kids on the playground at once.
posted by SMPA at 5:24 PM on May 26, 2012

I was a lot like your daughter. Large public schools were my only option, and I don't know if something else would have been better for me or not. The best things for me were structured activities where I could interact with other people while we did a thing. In elementary school, I did gymnastics for several years--I wasn't any good at it, but I made some friends and gained some social skills. Girl scouts was very very important to me for many years. In addition to the weekly meetings, I loved girl scout camp, which was a great place for gaining social skills in a very supportive environment.

As I got older, musical activities took the place of those. Band nerds aren't just a stereotype. Marching band is mostly a high school thing, but there is no better place for introverts in my opinion. I also turned out to have a talent for running, and being a part of various running teams ended up being really important for me in high school. So, from my experience, what everybody is saying above is true--help her find things she's interested in or good at that she can do in structured environments.

One caution is of course that I am still a sensitive, anxious, introvert. However, I am also a politically and socially active person who somehow ended up being pretty darn good at pretending to be an extrovert while teaching college biology. Sensitive, anxious, and introverted may just be who she is. But you are right that her life can be easier or harder and you may be able help.
posted by hydropsyche at 5:33 PM on May 26, 2012 [3 favorites]

My daughter (also 8) is somewhat similar.

She has no "Suzy" in her life - but she is definitely the most introverted of some the girls in her class that she hangs out with.

I would second the advice above about Girl Scouts. I know it can vary quite a bit among troop leaders, but we've been lucky to really find a great bunch of girls and parents in our school Brownie troop. I was resistant to GS at first (I hate join-y/meeting-y things with a passion) but my daughter has really enjoyed it. There is a nice blend of activities that suit her interests (lots of stuff for introverts who like nature).

Also, I appreciate that the troop leader moms are very no-nonsense about cliquishness or any of that tween girl stuff that tends to go on. They talk A LOT about how to treat people and how to cooperate. I think it's important that my daughter hears this from someone besides me.

It sounds like you are doing a great job. I think your daughter will be fine where she is (there are Suzys everywhere) but make whatever choice that feels right.

Good luck!
posted by pantarei70 at 5:34 PM on May 26, 2012 [1 favorite]

The school piece is complicated and it's possible that a smaller school would help; but if you wanted to keep her at her school, would they be amenable to keeping her grouped with some of the same kids?

As far as extracurriculars, how about horseback riding? There's a lot of truth about the bond between girls and their horses, and riding can be therapeutic.

One of my own kids had peer anxiety and she flourished at the barn where she made other horsey friends...she ended up buying her own horse at 16 and going into veterinary medicine.
posted by kinetic at 5:42 PM on May 26, 2012 [2 favorites]

Activities outside of school where she can make other friends are a good idea. Having a friend at Girl Scouts and a friend somewhere else means that she has at least three friends- which can help give her confidence in dealing with people like Suzy. Gymnastics, as suggested above, is excellent for fine and gross motor skills. It doesn't ever have to be competitive- I used to teach, and most kids do it just for fun.

Trying to avoid Suzy on the playground seems like overkill. There will always be people at school that your daughter may not want to interact with, but will need to anyway. It's unlikely you'll be able to move from school to school every time she has a falling out with someone. Having friends outside of school will help, as will gaining some confidence and coping skills. I don't know if a smaller school is the answer- everyone knows you, you know everyone, and if there's conflict between people everyone hears all the drama. On the other hand, a school that is explicitly about fostering independence, like a good Montessori school, might be an option. If you do change schools I would definitely talk to your daughter about how this can't always be the answer when she's not getting along with people, and that you and she need to figure out how to handle this sort of thing in the future.

PS: I was an introverted kid, but not anxious, and eventually couldn't wait to get out of my small private school because I was so tired of all the people there.
posted by oneirodynia at 5:51 PM on May 26, 2012 [1 favorite]

nthing Girl Scouts. I had a Suzy in my life when I was around your daughter's age and while my GS troop was not honestly a group of girls I had a ton in common with, it did me a great deal of good just to know that they were there, and (perhaps most importantly) they had no idea what was going on with me socially outside of Scouting. I could go to GS and become some entirely different person to who I was at school, someone who wasn't bullied. Plus, I liked camping, and a lot of the adults who led my troops turned out to be good role models for me.

I definitely knew a lot of kids who drew a lot of strength from their study of martial arts, or from team sports.

I asked my mom if I could change schools when I was little because of the bullying. My mom wasn't sure what was the best thing to do and ended up getting the principal involved. I know people always say to let your kids work it out and stuff, but I was very, very depressed and feeling really powerless, and I'm so glad my mom made the call to take it to the principal. The bullying stopped right away, and I didn't have to uproot my entire life. I knew other people at school and made new friends. I think having to start entirely fresh at a new school would have been very difficult for me, especially knowing that it was because I was such a total social failure that I had to switch. I had done enough beating myself up.
posted by town of cats at 6:00 PM on May 26, 2012

Thanks everyone--this is all very helpful and I will be reading and re-reading responses. Just to clarify:
* I'm not trying to change her. I'm an INFP myself, tried and true. I just see her struggling and stressed out.
* As a sensitive, anxious, introverted kid, I went to a big public school where I felt anonymous (not in a good way) and worried about the playground with a million kids running around. I made a best friend and clung to her. I switched to a small school where I met my best friend (still) and made a little group of friends and felt more comfortable, but I can't really say why that is. Went to a huge university where I floundered around trying to make and keep friends until I joined a small housing unit where I met lifelong friends. So for me, small circumstances seem better. But I hear you, @Destination Unknown, on the big vs small school benefits. I am trying to be open to more experiences than my own and so it's helpful to hear everyone's responses.
* She's interested in theater and dance and joins those activities. She barely moves when performing (too self conscious) but yet she keeps at it. I think she likes the practice. We're tried gymnastics but she isn't very coordinated and it gets competitive at this age.
posted by biscuits at 6:02 PM on May 26, 2012

Where I would start is more OT for sensory integration, or at least another eval, for sure. You say, e.g., that she has documented motor/proprioceptive issues and, a few years later, she barely moves when she's performing in theater and dance. I'd look into that before making bigger adjustments. Good luck.
posted by mahorn at 6:14 PM on May 26, 2012

To second DestinationUnknown, I also had a bad experience with a small school. Because I went through K-8 with the same group of 20 kids, when I became a target of bullying in grade 1 or 2, it lasted until grade 6. A small social group is great, unless you become THAT girl. This might not be such an issue in a nontraditional school, where hopefully teachers would be more likely to intervene, but I think it's something to consider. Getting mixed around into a new class every year would have changed my childhood enormously for the better.

I am not a huge introvert, but I am pretty quiet and was definitely very shy as a kid. For me, big schools and big groups of potential friends have always been best. In bigger groups, I feel able to melt away from the Suzies when I encounter them.

And Nthing Girl Guides.
posted by snorkmaiden at 6:19 PM on May 26, 2012

Check your MeMail - I wrote a novel there. But I also wanted to say that you're handling it all very well so far, and it sounds like you two have a very good relationship. That must be such a comfort to your daughter.
posted by peagood at 6:33 PM on May 26, 2012 [2 favorites]

Hmm... martial arts was one of the things I was going to suggest she might enjoy, but I see she's done karate and didn't fancy it. Anyway, the other thing I was thinking is that she might like wall/rock climbing. I don't think it'd be a way to gain social skills. But it's focused on individual accomplishment and isn't competitive (unless you enter a competition, obviously). Nor does it require traditional athletic ability. The big downside is that climbing gyms are often crazy expensive. (However, I grew up somewhere where there was climbing for kids through the park district that didn't cost an arm and a leg, so you might get lucky.)

I want to offer a word of caution about chess. I was by far the most sensitive and least competitive kid in the chess club. (Well, aside from my brother, who really didn't last long.) Contrary to stereotypes, my experience was that chess was not a supportive environment. Basically, we were little shits to each other at age 10 and it continued to be a venue for immaturity through high school. We were certainly friends, but I don't think it's an easy environment for a sensitive kid to make friends.
posted by hoyland at 6:38 PM on May 26, 2012

I was a lot like your daughter at that age, and I did better at larger schools, where it was easier to find my nerds and avoid the "mean" kids who chose sensitive kids to victimize. I generally did not feel lost in the crowd because I was a diligent student and connected with my teachers.

As for activities, I did a lot better in mixed-age activities, where there isn't so much status-jockeying because status is already predetermined by age (and if you go play dolls with the five-year-olds you're being generous, not a baby). I always felt a lot more comfortable in those settings, where there was less jockeying as peers and more older-teaching/helping/caring for-younger. (I still, to this day, feel like same-age classes are a little bit Lord of the Flies in their uncontrolled fight for power, so I think being in a "nothing-but-peers group" was very difficult for me!) Music was a good fit for me in terms of organized activities, but I think you just have to find something she likes and wants to do. (Horseback riding, community theater, those all sound promising.)

As for Suzy, I really just had to outgrow that. I see now, looking back, why my mom encouraged some of my friendships and made a Marge Simpson noise at others, and she was almost invariably right, but I didn't listen to her about it because she was my MOM and just didn't understand how COOL Suzy was and how hard her life was and how special I was for being her friend and blah blah blah. She did sometimes gently point out that Suzy #3 only wanted to play with me when we could use my Nintendo, or talk abstractly about friends who aren't very nice, but it took a long time to start sinking in.

One thing that helped me learn to manage relationships and understand other people and be comforted when friendships were shitty was reading novels. Little Women and Anne of Green Gables and Little House were big helps to me, because they have a lot about the internal lives of girls and girl-friendships, but removed enough from my personal environment that it wasn't preachy or TOO on-point or even threatening in its accuracy; I could draw the conclusions myself and apply them in my own time.
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 6:50 PM on May 26, 2012 [5 favorites]

We've tried sports and she doesn't seem to like it.

Which sports, specifically? A soccer team can be its own kind of hell, but have you considered solo sports, like golf, swimming and track/field?
posted by Cool Papa Bell at 7:53 PM on May 26, 2012

I wasn't introverted like your daughter, but otherwise had pretty much the same issues. The things i loved as a kid were arts and crafts (it was something i could spend time on alone at home, and it was also something i could be really good at at school, without necessarily needing to be social), and (when i was little) brownies/girl scouts, and then when i was a teenager, a non-religious youth group. The thing that brownies and youth group gave me was an alternate reality outside of school, with different kids and different social strata, and an opportunity to have a fresh start or a relief from school. (I also really really loved theater/drama, from about the age of 6 until i graduated high school. I was good at it, it was fun, it didn't have the same kinds of social hierarchies as school, and it was a real self-esteem boost. If your daughter enjoys it even if she's not good at it, have her keep at it - it could change who she is.)

My one regret from my childhood is that my parents didn't push me into sports or athletics more. (I was in t-ball and ballet in first grade, my parents said they didn't have me continue because 'i wasn't very good', even though i liked it.) I remain convinced that if i'd been more physically active that i'd have had more confidence and more friends growing up.
posted by Kololo at 7:54 PM on May 26, 2012 [1 favorite]

I think my daughter is similar to yours in some ways - your description of Suzy is very familiar. My daughter does tend to become friends with girls that are overbearing, negative, or bullying.

One thing that has helped a lot this year (3rd grade) is supporting what she is interested in, even when it seems like a waste of time and money. She got very interested in Pokemon, and so we bought a ton of Pokemon cards and assorted nonsense. This allowed her to get in with a group of kind, nerdy boys. Those friendships have given her some options other than her Suzy this year, which has made her more relaxed about her friendship situation. (Right now she's obsessed with Minecraft.)

She's in a noncompetitive drama group (DramaKids - I think it is a franchise, so there may be one in your area), and it has been good for her confidence. She also does Girl Scouts, and everybody who has recommended it is right on target. The leader makes all the difference, and we spent a year in a group that wasn't that great, but now we're in a terrific troop. She also does Lego robotics, which she loves. But she is (obviously) a huge nerd.

I had similar issues as a kid, but things started to come together for me in the 4th grade. I was complaining about my friend situation, and my mom asked me who I really wanted to be friends with. I told her about Alice, who was nice and pretty and interesting, and she told me I should talk to her and try to be her friend. It totally worked, and Alice became one of my dearest friends ever. Before that, I felt like the friends had to choose me, and I was stuck with whoever chose me. But after that I realized that I could influence things myself, and approach people I liked, and it could work out.

So activities are good (and can build the confidence it takes to put yourself out there), but it may also take a combination of maturity and prodding from my mother to break out of the cycle you're describing.
posted by jeoc at 8:46 PM on May 26, 2012 [1 favorite]

Since it hasn't been mentioned, your daughter is about the right age to start looking into Odyssey of the Mind (OM). If you have a group nearby, it's a great way to socialize and use creativity to solve problems, if Girl Scouts isn't an option or if you'd prefer something coed.
posted by juniperesque at 8:55 PM on May 26, 2012

@Mahorn--What would OT be like at this point with an 8 year old? At the time they did a lot of monkey bars, balancing activities, small motor like silly putty and clay. For the proprioceptive issue, I can't remember (jumprope?). I think it helped but it was REALLY expensive. I'm wondering if it's any better than gymnastics or more dance at this point? Or doing jump rope with friends?

As people have mentioned in their own lives, we are searching the THAT THING that she feels good doing. And maybe this goes back to the sensory issues as she feels timid and unsure during gymnastics, a bit uncoordinated during sports, and maybe still has some motor skill issues which hinders her from wanting to do art, or feeling like the art isn't what she wants it to be. (Don't get me wrong...she is a GREAT reader and loves it. I mean physical things or other hobbies).

Thanks everyone! Nature, rock climbing, horses, swimming, Girl Scouts, mixed ages and other non-competitive activities sound great. And I'm still listening for more experiences/opinions.
posted by biscuits at 8:56 PM on May 26, 2012

As an introvert at a very small school (about 40 kids in my graduating class!), it could be pretty rough. I had a friend who in some respects was like Suzie and there was really nowhere to hide when things went wrong.

I wish that for high school, if not sooner, I had gathered the momentum to switch to a larger place. I went to a small college as well--but the difference between 39 other kids and 399 is huge! I think the other recommendations for activities are great. What about an art class? Or getting involved with theater? I loooved technical theater though I would never dream of being an actor.
posted by mlle valentine at 8:59 PM on May 26, 2012

I haven't been involved in either of these things for a long time but Odyssey of the Mind and Destination Imagination are two very similar competitions that present a group of children with a long term problem to solve. They get to pick from a few different categories that range from theatrical to technical, and then must work on a solution and present it to judges at a regional competition. The solution is supposed to be arrived at with a bare minimum of adult help (That is to say, adults asking helpful questions and providing a basic structure for the activities.) There are also short creative thinking challenges and the team has to do one of those as well at the competition. It's generally a nice activity for a small group of somewhat geeky kids, although it's worth being aware that it is competitive in nature and that can be hard for some kids when they realize that they're at best going to make it to the state competitions. Probably her school would know about this and be able to provide you with better/more up to date information.

For me personally, Taekwondo was a great activity. Despite all the supposed fuss about belt ranks, I found it put less personal pressure on me than ballet did, and my youth class had a nice mix of girls and boy. The competitive sparring aspects were only for people who wanted to go that route. And with the belt ranks there was a nice feeling of steady progress and improvement. Of course the single most important thing is the teacher, because that makes all the difference in the classes. I know you said she was uncoordinated, so probably this isn't the best route, especially if you already tried karate, but it worked for me and seems on par with gymnastics in terms of physical demands.
posted by CheshireCat at 9:04 PM on May 26, 2012 [2 favorites]

I sent you a MeMail before coming back. I am not an OT. I think there are protocols for sensory cases up through the teen years, but that the younger the case, the speedier the impact. Their interventions look to the outsider like play, even random playground activities, like you mentioned. (By the way, does she still jump rope, play with putty, and climb monkey bars regularly? Because it sounds like that worked. Does she balance on curbs for fun?) Maybe those identical things would be prescribed by an OT at this age, or things very different from them, I don't know.

In any case, it's basically the opposite of gymnastics/rock climbing/etc., in that the activity is NOT the goal. A dance concert is about presenting choreography to an audience. Movement activities plotted by a therapist may look like dance but the operative concern is only the dancer herself, specifically the dancer's long-term, unrelated goals.

It's a weird field that seems a little like voodoo, with pretty scarce experimental pedigree, but it has a clinical history of almost a century. And to my ears, this is right in their domain. It couldn't hurt to do a check-up with an OT, at least.

I can't dive into a pool. I was never taught. (I probably have vestibular issues myself, but no one knew about OT when I was a kid.) I can swim, but getting into the pool? Always embarrassing, everyone else slipping gracefully in, except for clumsy me. Thank god for the jackknife. If I couldn't do grace and speed, at least I could do fun. But so many people, over so many years, would show me, over and over, their way of doing it. "Look, do it like this." "Do it like this." "No, like this." "Maybe get a running start?" "Just buck up." "Do it faster?" Some of the more patient ones would improvise sorts of tips, like "Start from your knees." That's kind of how I imagine all of these activities impact a bookish type who just wants to be nice and unharassed. Either leave me to my books or help me figure out my issues, but don't sign me up for the diving team.

Wait, did you just say she "still has some motor skill issues"? Don't you think instead of finding the elusive perfect activity ("THAT THING") that it'd be easier to address the underlying issues? In any event, I say save your money from tuition at the "chaotic" school. That's a bad idea at this point. Having a better friend or two (which you hope the progressive school can provide) won't make karate any easier, but being comfortable trying physical activities will make it easier to make friends, no matter how big your class.

Fearlessness comes from your body as much as from your psyche.

(Obviously my not knowing you or your kid should dump grains of salt over all my strident advice above. Good luck.)
posted by mahorn at 9:54 PM on May 26, 2012

I'm an INFP too, and she sounds like me a a kid as well.

I went to a pretty large public school for elementary school, and loved it. But I think that was because there were some excellent teachers, and because the school didn't feel large- we stayed with the same class every year. The teachers did lots of creative projects with us and were very encouraging. But it sounds like your daughter's school is a little different. I think a smaller school is an option to be looked into, but not necessarily necessary. For my part, I am really grateful for having gone to public schools because I was able to interact with a wide range of people.

As for activities, I never like competitive sports as a kid but I loved dance, which she is involved in, so great. I think staying active is important for anxiety. I also loved non-competitive swimming. Is there any such thing as yoga for kids?

I'm sure she'd like arts or acting classes. She might be a talented musician as well. My main thing as a kid was that I felt pressured and nervous in competitive environments, so it might be good to get her into something supportive and non-competitive.

Good luck.
posted by bearette at 10:56 PM on May 26, 2012

I am very introverted and, frankly, hated being a child because I could not understand the social stuff that was going on around me--it took years and years of observation in order for me to just operate within it. I think, as a result, I had very few female friends because I understood the boys' pecking order much sooner than the girls' (I am female, btw). I really had only one female friend from age 6 until college.

I am still not good at making friends in new situations (especially female), but I became very good at working within highly structured settings and becoming familiar to people (90% of life is showing up, right?)--I never had friends on my sports teams, but everyone always knew me and I always spent time getting good at whatever the task was that the structure was devised around. I ended up being a person that people often tried to become friends with as a result--I think because I seemed interesting or knowledgeable.

If your area does Odyssey of the Mind (also mentioned above), that was really a great place for me as a kid (that, then later my middle school and high school math teams), as it was highly structured, but also required a lot of goofing around and lateral thinking, which tends to be a situation where friendships come much easier for me.
posted by chiefthe at 12:59 AM on May 27, 2012 [1 favorite]

I'm introverted and anxious. My best friend is introverted, anxious, sensitive, and highly emotional.

We both do best at events where we don't need to necessarily work in a group, but can depend on others. Something solo, like tennis or badminton. Also something where you don't feel like you're pulling someone else down or being the best out of everything.

I really enjoyed martial arts -- I got to work with different people daily, but my martial arts was non competitive (aikido), so I never felt any pressure.

I hate any sort of group sport -- it makes me feel anxious that I'm the worst on the group and everyone else has to make up for my poor performance. Any thing where someone's singled out or can be singled out for bad performance is a no no. (This happened to me with dance!)
posted by Ms. Moonlight at 2:20 AM on May 27, 2012 [1 favorite]

I guess I'll stick out like a sore thumb here and suggest that she could possibly be best in a group with like-minded kids like her (and her extreme anxiousness almost suggests that she could benefit from therapy, especially when she's asking you about switching schools. Something I wish my parents had done when I was very, very similar to your daughter. I remained with my "Suzy" all the way up through high school and she emotionally abused me constantly). If theater and dance are her favorite interests, I'd encourage her to do what feels comfortable now. There'll be plenty of time for her to look into other things and it feels like what she needs most is something where she feels comfortable and not just another thing to feel anxious about.
posted by Wuggie Norple at 6:08 AM on May 27, 2012

OT is expensive as hell -- trust me, I know -- but for my family continuing it has been worth it. My son who has Sensory Processing Disorder and a global motor skills delay is 8 and he's still in OT, and they're helping him now with things 8-year-olds do, like handwriting, bike riding, etc. One thing you could try to reduce the cost is to have an OT visit only once per month, and ask the OT to give you instructions for OT exercises you can do with your daughter at home. A lot of OTs are really sympathetic to the idea of training parents to do a little OT themselves, because OTs know they are expensive and they know insurance sucks at covering OT.

For a lower-cost source of advice, if you haven't already, you might want to buy the book The Out of Sync Child Has Fun, which is full of activity ideas for sensory sensitive kids of all ages.

On the social front: are you still in touch with some of your daughter's previous "one at a time" friends' parents? Could you arrange for your daughter to have regular social interaction with one or two of those old friends outside of school? Say, playdates at a park every other week, or meetups at the house to play board or video games? Alternatively, are there nice kids in your own neighborhood she could spend occasional one-on-one time with?

My son has also been drawn into frenemy sorts of situations at school -- I think that "one best friend at a time" sorts of people often can't help but crave intensity in that one relationship, as if they were trying to pack several sorts of interaction into a single friendship. But we are very lucky in that my son is also friends with the quiet, imaginative, slightly older boy next door -- who does not go to the same school. Since he isn't in the same class as my son every day, the neighbor kid is totally removed from my son's classroom drama, and my son is totally removed from his. So the two of them can have regular playtime together without worrying about what other people think about their friendship, or the games they choose to play. It's a big help.
posted by BlueJae at 9:50 AM on May 27, 2012

Hi. I was basically your daughter when I was 8 (as, it seems, a lot of other female MeFites were.) I'm still anxious and hella introverted, and around that age, I was also drawn to friends who were at best manipulative and at worst downright cruel.

What really helped me (and was actually around age 8!) was developing a close friendship with two sisters who were in their early 20s. I was a weird child, and meeting two cool, college-age women who understood why I would want to wake up at 5 am to watch TV shows in foreign languages and thought video games were the coolest things ever and made science experiments in their kitchen and knew just why certain books were so great changed my life. I spent all summer hanging out at their house, and they sort of adopted me as a little kid sister. Seeing grown, cool women who acted the way I did and weren't bullied but real people with jobs and relationships and friends did a lot for 8 year old HLY12V, who had none of those things.

It also worked really well because I was painfully shy and anxious, and only having to strike up a friendship with two older people who understand you is a lot easier than trying to seem "normal" in your Girl Scout troop (didn't work out well!) or trying to play sports when you don't have an athletic bone in your body.

I would suggest trying to find some sort of older, cooler mentor for you daughter. I'm not sure if you can just go to Big Brothers/Big Sisters and explain the situation, or just find a babysitter who is a genuinely good match.
posted by Hot Like Your 12V Wire at 10:18 AM on May 27, 2012 [2 favorites]

Books with strong heroes and heroines who triumph through adversity could help build confidence.
posted by meepmeow at 1:35 PM on May 27, 2012

I was a child very much this, in a very small school (30 kids per grade) and it was absolute hell. My social world being limited to basically 14 other girls at those ages when the genders didn't mingle much meant that all my social problems felt magnified under a microscope. Everyone got to watch me being hideously awkward, everyone knew that I was an easy target for picking on and picked on me accordingly, and it wasn't like I at least had that one friend I could see at lunch because it was only me and the seven other girls in my class, year in and year out, for ten years.

Which isn't to say it might not be a great thing in a different school, or with a different group of kids - just to say that small schools aren't magically an answer and it might be better to start with some small class/group activities outside of school. Once I started art lessons and met some kindred spirits there, getting through school got a lot easier.
posted by Stacey at 3:10 PM on May 27, 2012

That was definitely me when I was eight. I agree with [someone above]--in some ways, I just had to grow out of it over time. My family definitely tried, but there is only so much you can do.

One thing I had a lot of problems with was learning how to fight back. Not physically so much, but with words. These days if someone says "your hair looks funny" I probably say "bite me"/"screw you", and they back down and become much nicer. When I was eight and someone said my hair looked funny I burst into tears and then they laughed. Now obviously you can't tell your daughter to say "screw you" on the playground, but most of the kids seemed to learn this stuff from older siblings/cousins. Do you know anyone who could fill this role in her life? (NOT an adult, btw, just an older child. All adults ever taught eight-year-old me was how to act like an adult who's around kids... Best behaviour stuff, not actually useful stuff.)

The other big, big thing was that I am nearsighted enough that sports and things that required following what someone else was doing were a big problem. I was always a couple of steps behind because I was trying to squint and see what everyone else around me was doing. I kept up OK in class because I could listen instead of reading the board, but anything with a physical demonstration was not on. Hopefully the sensory evaluation would have caught this, but just throwing it out there for you.

Horseback riding: Expensive, but if you have the money it's good times. Eight is a great age to start so she won't be behind. Two things to look for in a barn, one: actually teaching proper horsemanship, and two: having students socialize around the barn. The barn I learned at was great with one, but not really with two... we came, we rode, we went home. If there's Pony Club in your area, look into that. (Or 4-H, although around here 4-H is not particularly integrated with riding... If I had been more self-directed, I'm sure I could have done a ton of stuff, but as it was I did almost no riding for 4-H... My family would point out that I did learn a lot about horses, but Pony Club also teaches and they ride. Anyway, Pony Club was where the cool kids went, 4-H was where the kids who's parents were too cheap to shell out for Pony Club dues went. Just sayin'.)

I didn't like Odyssey of the Mind. For one thing, I never knew what to do. For another, only a certain number of people from our team (four, maybe?) were allowed to go in to present our solution at the competition. I got to sit out in the hallway and wait while the rest of my team competed.

The happy news is that I did eventually sort all of this out on my own, and managed to end up as a well-adjusted adult.
posted by anaelith at 4:16 PM on May 27, 2012

I am very late to arrive here but am currently reading Susan Cain's Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World that Can't Stop Talking to be very eye opening in explaining my toddler's and my own psyche to me. It's not our fault that we feel overstimulated in large groups or need time to recover afterwards, or that I do my best work alone rather than in the group workshops that are so popular today. I am only partway through the book but I really think it is changing my life, and how I see myself and my daughter. I really recommend it if you have not read it already. Good luck!
posted by onlyconnect at 10:09 AM on December 21, 2012

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