Parenting when you're an introvert

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Melissa Khalinsky, 37, has always found socialising exhausting and recharges by spending time alone. In other words, says psychologist Lara Winten, she's an introvert.

"Introverts are thoughtful, self-aware, private with their emotions, quiet and reserved in large groups of people," explains Winten.

"They have a preference for spending time alone or with people they know well, and can feel drained by interactions with large groups of people."  

Extroverts, on the other hand, feel energised from time spent with others, Winten says.

Melissa is far from alone, with approximately 25 per cent of Australians classifying themselves as true introverts.

While she's always struggled with finding time out from the hectic demands of life, Melissa didn't realise the impact parenthood would have on her need to have time alone. When her children were small, she found the constant pressure to interact and play with them exhausting.

However, over time, she developed strategies to give herself some much-needed alone time. She enrolled her children in family daycare because she needed to work, but also, she says, because she "needed a break".

She seized other chances for a break, too. "There were times I would put my kids in front of ABC Kids to get some peace and quiet," she says. "I also took long showers as an opportunity to 'recharge'".

Socialising with other parents was equally exhausting, with playgroup being especially challenging. "I would grit my teeth and bear it, though it would often mean I was grumpy because I hadn't had enough time out," Melissa admits.

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Reading about parenting made her feel worse. "I thought I was doing things wrong. Some articles even said that I could do damage to the kids if I didn't play with them all the time," she says.

It wasn't until she stumbled upon a book about parenting by your personality type that she realised she was an introvert. "For the first time I felt I was doing things right," she says.   

Dr Cate Cole understands the importance of discovering your personality type. "I was always told by my family I was antisocial," she says. It wasn't until she became a mother that she, too, realised she was an introvert.

Nowadays, Cole works as a coach with introverted mothers. She says these parents face many unique challenges, including finding time alone, dealing with extroverted children (or partners), and managing constant demands when they crave time alone.

"I talk to [introverted] clients about their need to 'plug in', using the analogy of an iPad," she says. "There is a finite amount of 'me', for example, until I recharge. I have learnt to manage that, but there is a time that I will need to recharge or I will begin to display symptoms of a 'low battery'."

Melissa's grateful that now that her boys are older (they're 11 and 13) she gets more alone time than before. She says she found life with small children overwhelming, but reassures, "It does get easier as the kids get older and more independent".

Other ways to make life easier, says Cole, is by talking to your significant other about your needs, so they can help you have the time alone you need. She also recommends not answering the phone just because it rings, and encourages mums to stop trying to 'do everything'.

When out with others, she suggests using a short mantra to help ground yourself, or going for short walks or using 'getting a drink' as an excuse for a few minutes alone. She also advises "saying no straight up" when needed.

Winten says that developing strategies to avoid committing to long social interactions are also important.

"This may mean you smile and make eye contact with other mums at the school gate, and provide a polite and respectful response to excuse yourself from ongoing conversation," she says.  

You also need to create space each day to "reflect and reground", says Winten. "Psychologists often call these 'full stops' or 'mindful pauses'. In mindfulness, the key here is to be fully present in the moment of stillness and self-reflection, be it for 60 seconds or 30 minutes."

Another huge challenge introverted parents face is managing the guilt that often accompanies their need for time alone. "Mother guilt is a hard thing, and I think for introverted mothers, it can be even harder," Melissa explains.

But being an introvert is nothing to be ashamed of, says Winten. And as children need space to independently explore their environment, "you can take the pressure off feeling as though you, as an introverted mother, need to be constantly switched on".

Melissa couldn't agree more. "Needing time out doesn't make me, or anyone else, a bad mum. If anything, knowing yourself and what you need makes you the best mum you can be."

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