If I may be forgiven a bit of motherly bragging, I’m quite proud of the mature way my daughter handled a recent social situation. As I mentioned in a previous post, she is a college freshman still adjusting to life away from home. Because she’d never had to share a room before, and her roommate hadn’t either, my husband and I expected that a few issues between the two of them would crop up; but we thought they would learn to get along with each other soon enough.
When the saga of the Roommate Wars began, the underlying dispute seemed fairly simple. Her roommate (whom I’ll call Roomie) was used to sleeping with the lights and TV on, whereas my daughter sleeps best in a dark and quiet room. At first, it seemed like an issue that could easily be resolved with a bit of compromise and accommodation from both parties. Daughter could wear a mask while sleeping, and Roomie could wear headphones.
Unfortunately, that solution didn’t work. Roomie complained that she couldn’t sleep with headphones on and that she shouldn’t be expected to do something that uncomfortable. She accused Daughter of being selfish, having abnormal sleeping habits, and being hard to get along with generally. After both of them vented about the situation to whatever friends would listen, their feud soon became a topic of dorm gossip, and others in the dorm started taking sides.
Daughter then suggested to Roomie that they should both go and talk with the resident director. Roomie refused, saying that if Daughter didn’t like the situation, she should go talk to the resident director by herself and ask to be moved to another room. That was followed by some rude remarks along the lines of “and hurry up and get out.”
By this time Daughter was feeling quite overwhelmed and exhausted from the stress and from not getting enough sleep. She complained to my husband and me that she felt like she couldn’t deal with things, that she was always tired and cranky, and that Roomie was always being rude to her. She failed a quiz in a subject that she knew well.
We took the afternoon off work, drove up to the campus (a few hours away), and took Daughter out to dinner at a nice restaurant. She was every bit as tired and cranky as she had told us, griping in the car all the way to the restaurant about the rude things Roomie had said to her, and wondering why Roomie was being so mean and always trying to upset her.
The first thing we told Daughter was that she needed to chill out. If Roomie wanted to upset her, then she shouldn’t let Roomie get away with it. What it looked like to me was a teenage version of the Prisoner’s Dilemma. If both cooperated, they’d get along reasonably well after they adjusted to sharing the room and made the necessary compromises; if they went on feuding all year, both would be miserable; but if one succeeded in making the other unhappy enough to move somewhere else, or perhaps to be overcome by stress and flunk out, then she would have the room all to herself.
What Daughter should do, we suggested, was not let it show that anything was bothering her. She agreed with that advice, and the next day she sent us a text message describing how Roomie had made a rude remark and Daughter had responded by smiling pleasantly and thanking Roomie for sharing her feelings. Not long after that, Roomie agreed to go with Daughter and meet with the resident director.
At the meeting, Daughter calmly described the different sleeping habits that she and Roomie had, saying that she didn’t have any other issues with Roomie and that she was perfectly willing to make reasonable compromises. In response to that, Roomie started blubbering about how much tension there was between them and how hard it was for her to endure it; but when pressed for details by the resident director, she didn’t have much of substance to say. The meeting ended with Roomie agreeing to move into a different dorm and share a room with one of her friends who hadn’t been assigned a roommate. She cleared out right away, leaving Daughter to enjoy having a double room all her own for the rest of the school year.
I believe there’s a valuable life lesson here, not just for my daughter and how to handle roommate problems, but with regard to different sensory needs and accommodations more generally. When people are used to having their environment arranged in a particular way, they get annoyed when someone tells them it’s too loud or bright. They don’t want to be put to the bother of changing the way they’ve always done things. It’s easier if they can just dismiss the other person as abnormal, declare that their preferred way of doing things is the only proper way, and react to anyone who disagrees with them by pointing a finger and shouting, “Selfish!”
When we find ourselves on the receiving end of such treatment, we shouldn’t get upset about it—or, worse yet, allow others to convince us that we really must be abnormal and in the wrong. The way to deal with it is to calmly stand our ground.