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Understanding Your Child's Social Battery

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What is a social battery?

If you have an introverted child, they may struggle with what is called a "social battery." This is a metaphor for the amount of time and energy they are able to put into socializing until they feel mentally and sometimes physically drained. You may have experienced your child’s social battery running out in the form of them getting quiet, having a meltdown, becoming irritable, or getting anxious.

Your child is NOT being dramatic and acting out. They are completely drained, and the more they socialize on an empty battery, the more they could negatively impact their mental health. They may grow more and more anxious about socializing and not want to leave the house at all. 

This is NOT something that just younger children experience. People of any age can struggle with their social battery. 

Image by Jed Villejo

Start the conversation

  • If you suspect that your child may be struggling with their social battery, bring it up; chances are they may feel alone in this struggle. Ask them if they have ever felt like they have been “socialized out.” 

  • If you have a younger child, help them visualize their social battery. Tell them when they are feeling really social and they are really excited about being with their friends/families that means they have a full battery. As they spend time with other people, it starts to drain (just like a phone or tablet battery). 

  • Everyone experiences very different things when they feel their social battery runs out. Ask your child to explain what they feel so that you can be on the lookout. If they like the idea you could even come up with a safe word that they can say when they feel like they need a break from socializing. 

  • If you or your partner have ever struggled with your own social battery, model good behavior and talk about it. Be open with your child about your own struggles and anxiety and show them that it’s okay to feel this way.

How do you recharge a social battery?

  • Luckily, recharging your social battery is fairly easy. Offer your child space and alone time so that they can decompress and relax. Everybody has their own tricks for recharging their social batteries. Some examples include:

  • Extra screen time 

  • Binge-watching their favorite show 

  • Reading a book 

  • Playing with Legos 

  • Taking a bath 

  • Going for a bike ride/run/walk

  • Talk to your child about the things that help them to decompress and relax after a busy day or a hectic event.

Image by National Cancer Institute
Image by Nathan Dumlao

Plan ahead

  • Certain times of the year (like the holidays, for example) generally require a lot of commitment to socializing. It is okay to prioritize which events your child attends and which they don’t. Christmas at Grandma's house is more important than your office holiday party, so if it helps them have a better and more engaged time at Grandma’s then consider letting them skip the work holiday party. 

  • If you are the one planning the event, keep it shorter than you might normally. You would much rather everyone feel like they didn’t want to leave than feel like it’s never-ending.

  • Have a family discussion about your exit strategy. Get on the same page about what time you will be leaving. About halfway through the event check in with your child and ask if they are still okay with the exit plan. They may be having more fun than they expected and might want to stay longer. Or they may really be struggling, and the check-in could help them feel not as isolated. 

  • If you all agree to a time STICK TO IT. Don’t get caught up in conversations and miss the time you were supposed to leave. This will only make your child’s anxiety worse. They need to feel like you are on their side and that you stick to your word. Consider setting an alarm on your phone. It could even be the same as your ringtone. 

  • Consider driving yourself there or taking separate cars so you and your partner can divide and conquer if one child needs to leave but the rest of the family wants to stay. Be ready and armed with Uber, so you can peace out or help your adult child get safely home when the mood strikes. 

  • Schedule events to coincide with your child’s natural rhythms. If they’re a morning or evening person, keep this in mind when planning potentially taxing activities. Respect your child’s energy and body’s needs. If grabbing a nap in the afternoon helps them reset, plan that into your child’s day.

  • Have a frank conversation with your hosts/family about their expectations. It’s okay to set boundaries about the start and end times you’ll be following or any unique needs that can help your children have a pleasant time. This may include alcohol offerings for newly recovering family members or a place for a child to decompress.

  • Identify helpful/understanding people in advance who can act as natural support or run interference if needed.

  • Perhaps your child has an aunt or cousin whom they are very close to. Fill them in on the challenges your child has socializing and ask if they could be on the lookout too.

  • See if there’s a way to adapt social situations to your or your family’s needs. If your child does better if they can be active, see if events can be held in a more adaptable location or time. For instance, can you host birthday parties at the local park so your child can play on the playground? Or if certain family members are less tolerant of your child’s behaviors, consider suggesting a holiday breakfast when your child is less likely to melt down.

At the event

  • Scope out some possible spots where you or your child can go to regroup and have a moment alone if they feel like their battery is running low. This could be a living room that is not used often, a guest bedroom, or even your car.  

  • Keep a close eye on your child. If you start to notice that their battery may be running low, help them out, without embarrassing them. 

  • If they are older, ask if they wouldn’t mind running to the grocery store for something, or maybe the dog needs to be walked. They probably feel uncomfortable just getting up and leaving, so if you give them an out it will be much easier for them to grab a moment alone. 

  • If they are younger, give them a task or ask them to help you with something more age-appropriate, like grabbing something from the car, helping you take the trash out, or running something up to a bedroom. 

  • Fresh air is key! If there isn’t much of an opportunity for them to be alone, fresh air will help to ease their anxiety.

  • Be sure to discuss these strategies with them in advance so they don’t feel like they’re being excluded or punished. They may also have some ideas of their own to try.

  • Those small moments of alone time will be much more recharging if your child spends 5–15 minutes doing something they enjoy. Pack a book they are reading, let them play a game on your phone (or theirs), or even have them watch a silly YouTube video. These “short-term fixes'' should be short little blips of the things that recharge their batteries. 

  • Your extended family and friends may see your child is alone and think that they should go out and chat with them. Tell them that your child is okay and is just finishing something up and will be back in a moment. The last thing they need is to be interrupted by small talk.

  • If your child gets very quiet, grumpy, or irritable all of a sudden, it may get awkward for you and the other people at the event. Deflect the conversation to something other than the mood shift. DO NOT bring up the fact that your child’s mood has changed (even if it is in a joking way in an attempt to ease tension). This will embarrass them, and they may feel like they can’t go to you when they are feeling their battery get low.

Image by Samantha Gades
Image by Annie Spratt

Be flexible when they need it

  • Relax screen rules for necessary social situations and purchase "special" noise-canceling headphones so they can create some artificial alone time to take a break.

  • As your child grows, their energy levels and needs will change, so it’s important to have conversations and update plans regularly, perhaps spring and fall of each year, or more often if needed. What used to work may no longer, or perhaps you’ll be able to recycle ideas from last spring or from when they were younger. For instance teens may enjoy a well-timed nap that worked when they were toddlers.

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