How can an introvert survive?
September 28, 2006 7:53 AM   Subscribe

How does an introverted step-parent deal with an extroverted child?

I'll just preface by saying she's a good kid and I believe this is my problem.

She's 15, in high school and just chatters, chatters, chatters, usually small talk, inane stuff really, with a bit of teenage angst thrown it.

I can't listen to anymore of it really. It can go on for a couple of hours, constant chattering about whatever is in front of her. Not what I want to hear after a full day's work. I realize it's good that she talks, but it feels like it's sucking the life outta me, having to hear it, so I've been distant with her lately, which I'm sure she senses, so she attempts to fix it by chattering at me MORE, which just starts the cycle all over.

I don't do smalltalk at all, not even with adults. It's soul draining to me and I find I need a time to myself to recharge from it. Which leads to the decision to refrain from it usually.

What can I do to cope with this constant mindless chatter, so that the child is still getting some attention and I'm not losing my sanity? I feel like at my wit's end and dread coming home these days.
posted by anonpeon to Human Relations (26 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
Hijack the chatter with engaging conversation. Talk to her about things that interest you. Try to interest her in compelling but non-verbal activities—play her music you enjoy, hand off some good essays, etc. Channel some of that 15-year-old energy toward things that are a more effective compromise between her inclinations and your interests, and see if you can in such a way meet in the middle with her.

If she's reacting to inattentiveness with chatter, some focused attentiveness might just be a solution.
posted by cortex at 8:04 AM on September 28, 2006

Does she have access to a cell phone, house phone, or computer, so she can chatter with her friends?
posted by ThePinkSuperhero at 8:06 AM on September 28, 2006 [1 favorite]

You need to do stuff with her. Find common interests (or make one) so she'll have something to talk about instead of just talking. And then her interactions with you will be more satisfying, so she won't need to talk at you as much just to prove that you're getting along.

See if you can take a walk or play a card/board game with her for an hour instead of listening to her prate for two. She just wants to feel like you two click, and she's fifteen so you can't expect her to address the fact that she's exacerbating the tensions like that-- you said yourself she's doing it to compensate. Give her a reason to stop compensating. You might find that you like her more than you think you do!

(My mom's a chatterer, so I'm familiar with the talker/quiet person dynamic. Of course, I have the luxury of not living with her. But I always have things to do in my head when I get there to prevent this very situation.)
posted by Mayor Curley at 8:12 AM on September 28, 2006

I hear ya - I've got a wife and a daughter who love to chatter constantly. Now that the kid is four, she can keep up with her mom. There are times during car trips when they'll simply start talking over the top of one another.

It's exhausting, but you've just got to knuckle down and hear them out. They may talk for nearly an hour, but you've just got to sit there and take it. In a sense, they're telling you they care about you.

The thing that I've found that works is to distract them - for instance, I can usually talk the four year old into (20) games of Crazy 8's, which will derail the chatter while the games are going on. The key is to head them off before they build up a head of steam.
posted by unixrat at 8:13 AM on September 28, 2006

I think cortex has a good suggestion and that your observation that she chatters more when you are distant is a good one as well.

it is possible all that chatter is her making up for what she feels is uncomfortable silence.
posted by domino at 8:15 AM on September 28, 2006

Best answer: "Honey, I love that you want to talk to me, and I love you - but, sometimes I need to just chill out and be quiet for a little while, especially after a long day at work. Can we maybe just sit and read a book together or something else quiet, for a little while?"
posted by tristeza at 8:23 AM on September 28, 2006

I was that child (although I didn't have step-parents) and when I was just aimlessly chatting, it generally meant I needed some focused attention, and was feeling lonely and trying to convince myself everything was okay. Being distant with me was exactly the wrong approach for my parents.

If there are things you enjoy talking about, talk to her about them.

Try out some activities that you can do together - depending on her interests and yours, I don't know what that would be, but you could try photography, archery, chess, cooking, video games, teaching her something that you're good at and that might give her some cool points with her friends for knowing (can you play the guitar?). Try to meet her on her terms.

When you really need a break but can't politely get away, take the whole family out for a movie, or rent one. Tell her to invite a friend or two over to watch it with you, let her pick the movie or have a hand in picking it, make some popcorn. Then you have two hours of relative silence to enjoy, and something in common to talk about afterwards.
posted by joannemerriam at 8:24 AM on September 28, 2006

It's easy to talk and watch TV at the same time. Not that watching movies together isn't a great activity — I have fond memories of watching movies with my own parents as a teenager — but maybe you should try something that requires a little more concentration.

Another thought: is it easier for you to tell stories than it is to make small talk? She might feel more of a connection with you, and less need to chatter, if she gets to hear things you've done or seen. Anything from "When I was your age..." to "I read that in the Middle Ages..." to "Today on the bus..." might work.
posted by nebulawindphone at 8:38 AM on September 28, 2006

I understand where you're coming from being an introverted person myself. When my niece was younger, I would feel insane after visiting for a week. My niece (who I love dearly) NEVER stopped talking.

My suggestion would be that you're going to have to carve out some quiet time for yourself at home. In the evening, just say that Dad's going to go read or whatever for a while. Go to your room, shut the door and watch TV or whatever in peace and quiet. Explain to your wife.

I suspect that talking to the teenager about her motor mouth will cause nothing but trouble and hard feelings. Don't do it.

As for activites with your step-daughter, here's an odd suggestion. Is she athletic? The two of you could go to an indoor rock climbing gym. I promise you that when a person is busy trying not to fall off a wall, mindless chatter will cease. Good.

In general, my sympathies to you. Silence is golden. Unfortunately, some folks were vaccinated with a phonograph needle. :>
posted by bim at 8:46 AM on September 28, 2006

There's also the fact that it's a fifteen year old mind, which doesn't seem to say many interesting things (no knock on her, we were all that way).

Any chance you could revisit this idea, and, like, put it out of your mind completely? One thing that sucks about being young is that no one is interested in what you have to say- especially if you're smart (and I bet she is, right? At least she's not a moron?) and you have a lot to say. Nobody at school wants to listen (in fact, all they want you to do is shut up and do the busy work), it's possible friends aren't at that same level- so who does that leave you with? Your family. She is your child- you need to get interested in what she has to say, or get her into things you're interested in. With my family, it was theatre- my Dad, sisters and I would go to productions, volunteer at local community theatres, etc. We had a ball. I will always have those nice memories of the times we had together doing those things. I bet your daughter can pick up on your apathetic attitude toward her *life*, and she's trying her best to bridge the gap the only way she knows how. Don't leave her to do it all on her own.
posted by ThePinkSuperhero at 8:47 AM on September 28, 2006 [5 favorites]

She's 15 years old. Unless she's remarkably immature for her age, she's old enough for you to have a conversation with her about your need for a little quiet. I'd phrase it something like this:

"You know I love being a part of your life, and I love hearing about all the things that you're doing and thinking about. I'm glad that we're becoming so close. But I'm an introvert, which means that, like about 25 percent of the population, I need more time than an extrovert would to recharge my batteries by taking some alone, quiet time. Extroverts feel energized when they interact with other people and drained when they're alone. I'm the opposite, and so I may need more along time than you're used to so that I can really enjoy the time that we get to spend together."

You're not blaming her or telling her that she's wrong to be so chatty; you're just explaining that different people's minds work differently and that you have needs that are different from hers that you need her to consider in order to build a stronger relationship with you.

It sounds like you're relatively new to this family. The first few years of any stepfamily situation involve a lot of figuring out how to interact with one another. I think that, assuming your relationship with your stepdaughter is otherwise healthy, it will be even stronger if you talk with her openly and honestly about it and let her ask questions and figure out what's going on with you. Plus, this will be a valuable teaching moment for her to start thinking about the fact that other people have different needs than she does and that she can interact more positively with others by asking them or figuring out what they need.
posted by decathecting at 8:56 AM on September 28, 2006 [1 favorite]

I've generally found that extroverted chatterers do ramp up this behavior when they feel insecure about something and specifically they ramp it up when they feel insecure because the person they are talking to is withdrawing or otherwise indicating negative reaction to the chatter. It's a feedback loop: 'i need to talk something's bothering me talk talk talk she's not figuring out that something's bothering me oh man i don't know what to do TALK TALK TALK she's still not getting it i'm getting really anxious TALK TALK TALK TALK TALK'.

See joannemerriam's comment.

I think the way to defeat this feedback loop is to have an actual conversation with the young person wherein you explain that you are introverted and have trouble with small talk and that any perceived annoyance on her part is not because you don't care or don't want to help but because you are wired differently than her. If you start this kind of conversation and explain that you want to help but that you both need to come up with a way to do it together because the current way isn't working, maybe you can both understand each other and eliminate the issue. Or at least have a foundation for further discussion of it. Otherwise, it's left to the kid to try to interpret your state of mind and probably she is making assumptions that are not true that are feeding her need to talk.
posted by spicynuts at 8:59 AM on September 28, 2006

Is there a way for you to schedule some kind of activity that requires you to have some alone time (like, taking a shower) to occur immediately upon your return home from work? That way you can recharge your batteries from the day, and when you're done, maybe be more ready to expend energy in interacting with your step-daughter? Maybe combine this with some of the above advice about talking to her to help her interpret your behavior or the responses she may be seeing in you.
posted by tentacle at 9:12 AM on September 28, 2006 [1 favorite]

Fundamentally the into/extro vert differeance is about how we process our understanding of the world. Introverts do this process internally, and extroverts need to verbalize, or externalize before assimulating it. Of course, there is no such thing as a 100% intovert, or extrovert, it is all a matter of where you fall on the scale.

Simply put, you, as a parent, need to do one thing. Schedule your time.
As a parent you need to engage your daughter, this may be by talking to her, or doing any of the multiple things that others have suggested (personally I would advise active activties rather than passive). While doing this you need to be focused on this. Her communication may or may not be superficial, but not only is 1) the content importaint to her, and 2) the process is impotrtaint to her. So, in a very real way what she is doing should not be just dismissed as unimportaint 15 YO chatter.
In addition, you most certianlly need to have down time, in addition to being active with your daughter you need to be quiet with yourself.
Set boundries and make sure you are addressing both needs. The fact that she wants to engage you in her life is significant, this is the foundation to how she will react to you the rest of your life.

good luck
posted by edgeways at 9:29 AM on September 28, 2006

In case you aren't familiar with it, the book The Introvert Advantage (link is to Amazon) addresses dealing with an extroverted child as an introverted parent. I found some good suggestions in there, many of which have been listed here as well. I think the most important one is to have a frank conversation with her, without implying that either of you are at fault in some way. You're just different, and even a 15-year-old can learn to appreciate and and respect that.

Another suggestion is to give her an outlet for her need to talk, to take the load off you as the listener for a short time. This could be something like a journal where she keeps her thoughts, or a letter she writes to you, or even a tape recorder if the physical act of speaking is the important thing to her. Something like that might help her scratch that need-to-express herself itch long enough for you to get recharged in order to interact with her yourself.
posted by SuperSquirrel at 10:05 AM on September 28, 2006

Start a medium-term project that you and she work on. Science fair project, garden, plans for re-doing her room, trip somewhere, community theater, build her a computer, fixing up a bike, both of you learn to cook, whatever. Then you have something to talk about with her, and something to pay attention to while she's talking, and being reminded of your special joint project will make her feel more secure in your (new?) relationship.
posted by LobsterMitten at 10:18 AM on September 28, 2006

Whether she's introverted or extroverted (though it may be true) is not exactly the point. The endless chatter of the type you describe is a phase, and it is her way of looking for attention from you. She's waiting for you to react to something that she says, and she's looking for validation from an adult that she has something to say. (It's having the opposite effect because she's too inexperienced to do this a parent, you can help teach this.)

If you don't find something interesting about which to chat about with her, she'll likely settle for negative attention, if necessary. (You think this chatter is inane? Wait till she starts baiting you to get you to lose your temper.)

I'm not saying that you should bend over backwards and go insane trying to discuss the importance of what color iPod her bestest friend just bought because if you don't, she'll OMG! Run of with an old-man sleazebag and it'll be your fault! I'm suggesting that you ask her about something more interesting to both of you -- not smalltalk. Current events, school policies, local scandal, books, movies, etc. When she drifts into babbling, steer her back around with focused questions. (Note: You might get rejected a few times before this works.)

If you have interesting discussions with her on a regular basis, it's okay to sometimes ask for some quiet time. But it's just lousy and disappointing when that's the only reaction someone ever provides. Even if they "mean to get around to that interesting discussion sometime."

-- Former talkative-yet-somewhat-introverted teenage girl and quasi-aunt to a motormouth 13-year-old girl with an endless appetite for attention.
posted by desuetude at 10:20 AM on September 28, 2006

Meant to say "Whether you're introverted and she's extroverted or not..."
posted by desuetude at 10:21 AM on September 28, 2006

Good advice here about talking to her about it, and scheduling "me time" and "visit time". I won't repeat those parts ad nauseum.

One thing I want to add though:

Do make a point to actually listen and interact with her for a concentrated period of time. Spicynuts' description of how an ignorned chatterbox is only encouraged to chatter is completely accurate. I was once a 16 year old chatterbox with a new step-parent, so I can relate to what she might be feeling.

Try and find a way to care about at least some of what she talks about. If you don't care about the fight that Lizzie and Tonya are having over James, then ask her more about the things that you are interested in - like what she's learning in history class, or how her soccer game was yesterday.

The things she's chattering away about are important to her, and you can only complain about it. Perhaps you're only blowing off steam, but you haven't said anything about redeeming about her or anything she talks about. It sounds like you don't like her. Maybe that's not accurate, but if that's how you feel it's going to make living together challenging. She'll be picking up on your "I can't stand another moment of this" cues and it doesn't feel good to her. You've married her mother and come into her home and life and she wants you to like her. Try.

(also, what ThePinkSuperhero said)
posted by raedyn at 10:30 AM on September 28, 2006

Response by poster: but you haven't said anything about redeeming about her or anything she talks about.

Please note the first two paragraphs of the original post.
posted by anonpeon at 11:00 AM on September 28, 2006

I was an introverted teen myself, and I definitely overcomensated for not really talking at school by talking my poor mother's ears off when I got home. As a result, I was on the receiving end of the statement you marked as your best answer. I have to say, as an overly sensitive teenager, hearing that hurt. On an intellectual level I knew that my mother was right - it was pretty unreasonable for me to expect her to do nothing but listen to me all evening, when she had worked all day and had things to do around the house - but on an emotional level I felt like my mother was pushing me away. All I heard was, "I can't stand to listen to you." After a few more discussions on this point our conversations eventually recovered, but for a long time I was too hurt to tell her anything at all.

I hope you can try some of these other strategies (e.g. engaging her in an actual conversation rather than chatter, getting her involved in a non-talking activity with you) before you actually tell her to stop talking. She might not ever want to start again.
posted by CtrlAltDelete at 11:01 AM on September 28, 2006 [1 favorite]

Maybe you & her mom should look into whether everything is ok at school. I went through a period of being a chatterbox and annoying the hell out of my parents & siblings (which included a stepmom & 2 step-siblings) by never shutting up. It was because I was stuck in a snobby Catholic school with no friends and truly evil teachers. I didn't get a chance to talk to anybody at school, because my teachers were jerks and I didn't have any friends to talk to. So where did all of my energy go? Talking to my family after school.

Eventually this settled down when I switched into the public school system and made friends and had activities to do on my own.

If your stepdaughter is having trouble with making friends, maybe you can encourage her to sign up for some activities that aren't school related - music lessons, volunteer work, babysitting. The benefit to this is that when she's out doing her thing, you get to be home recharging your batteries.

Another thought is maybe you can set aside a 30 minute "buffer" when you get in the house. By the time my stepsister & I were in high school, and my stepmom was working and going to college part time, we were all getting pissed off at each other because no one would shut up when the other person needed to unwind. If the kid was stressed out the parent wanted to hear about a math test or to nag her about cleaning her room. If the parent was stressed out, the kid wanted to borrow $10 or to know if it would be ok to spend the weekend at her friends' house without any supervision. Thus, every person coming in the door had an automatic 30 minute buffer. All they had to say was, "I need 30 minutes to relax" and other people would leave them alone. Then everyone would have to do their part to get dinner on the table (we all had different chores that we rotated) and then while eating we'd talk about things.

Also, the rule was no talking during tv shows except for commercials and no bugging people if they were reading.
posted by tastybrains at 1:29 PM on September 28, 2006

I was on the receiving end of the statement you marked as your best answer. I have to say, as an overly sensitive teenager, hearing that hurt.

Me too. I still remember that trying-too-hard-to not-to-sound-condescending tone of voice. And, of course, when I was reading a book and my folks wanted me to do a chore/clean my room/talk about school, I was "in trouble" if I didn't jump right away.

(Do I think that the above is horrible mistreatment? Uh, no. But it is beneficial to practice what you preach when possible and practical.)
posted by desuetude at 3:14 PM on September 28, 2006 [1 favorite]

I will agree with CtrlAltDel here. You're dealing with a fifteen-year-old; no matter how mature she is, the "best answer" is going to hurt like the beejeezus. Especially since you're her step-dad, and she may really be trying to connect with you. I would suck it up and talk a bit with her--get her engaged in topics you like to talk about as well.

There are very few feelings worse than the feeling your parent is not interested in you or what you have to say.
posted by Anonymous at 6:29 PM on September 28, 2006

I just wanted to echo what ThePinkSuperhero said up above. When you're fifteen (like I was um, a year ago) it feels like everything you think is important. Because it's all new. Suddenly you have new ideas and interests that maybe the people at school don't want to talk about, especially if you're smart. If you're like me, you want to share share share these exciting new things. I also have a tendency (I don't know if your step daughter is like this) to want to talk about my day to anyone who will listen, which usually ends up being my mom, sort of the opposite of the teenger who communicates only in grunts. Sometimes she tells me more or less what you marked as best answer, usually sounding a little worn out. This works pretty well, because I'm not totally self absorbed. I would also encourage her to get a blog, because you can share share share stupid stories and random new and exciting stuff with the internet all you want and it will never get tired. Unlike step dads :). Plus, setting up a website and learning HTML is an excellent project to work on together, which may make her feel like you're taking more of an interest in her life.
posted by MadamM at 6:30 PM on September 28, 2006

You're dealing with a fifteen-year-old; no matter how mature she is, the "best answer" is going to hurt like the beejeezus.

OK, so I'm maybe biased because it was my comment he highlighted, but...this just goes to show how much YMMV on anything like this, depending on the individual. When I was 15, having someone say this to me would not have hurt one iota, wouldn't have bruised my feelings or made me feel bad in any way. It really, really depends on the kid, I guess.

It would have been a very effective way to get me to shut up for a few minutes without making me feel dumb.
posted by tristeza at 2:47 PM on September 29, 2006

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