MJ Kelly learned that it’s easy to devalue emotional sensitivity, until you see it in your child’s eyes.
I’ve always been just a little bit ashamed of my sensitive nature. I am not great with criticism, I tend to mull it over for longer than is strictly healthy, or so I am told. I read into things that people say, I register their reactions even when they don’t say anything…it’s exhausting, and it is often seen as a negative. I have often been told: “Don’t be so sensitive.”
I’ve tried all the fads to cure myself: Stiff upper lip, hold it inside, don’t let them see your pain, stoicism, thick-skin, water-off-a-ducks-back, sticks-and-stones mantra: but it keeps coming back, like weight that won’t stay off.
At what point do we just stop castigating ourselves and accept that we are sensitive and that is okay?
Apparently, it’s when you give birth to a highly sensitive child.
Talk about a perspective-changing experience. My son is perfect, of course. He also happens to be sensitive to many, many things. Here is a shortened list:
- Noise (Be it thunder, or just someone creeping past his bedroom door)
- Food (allergies and intolerances: he is physically sensitive too!)
- Facial Expressions
- Pain (like a tiny cut on the knee, you’d think he needed a freaking operation)
- Taste (Corn on the cob is TOTALLY different from frozen corn, apparently)
This was quite a frustrating first foray into parenting. And I am not one to pamper to fussy or spoilt little people. But this is not a child who can be convinced to walk in mud, or swim in a pool without his goggles to protect his eyes. He is not being fussy, he is genuinely distressed. Unfortunately, it took me a while to realise this, and maybe it is because, to his detriment, I was initially quite sensitive to parental criticism. Because what is the most commonly used word to describe kids like this?
But here’s the thing: he’s not. He is brave, once he knows his boundaries. He jumps off high things, plays tackle rugby, rides his bike as fast as he can. Goes boldly where no 4 year olds dare to go.
And I so LOVE some of his sensitivities, like the fact that he never took toys off other toddlers, because he understood that he didn’t like it when they took toys off him, or the fact that he wanted to understand racism and discrimination at an incredibly early age. So finally, when we were not changing his behaviour with the ‘toughen up’ approach, my husband and I agreed that we needed to try something different. We needed to see how he went if we respected his naturally sensitive nature, while also encouraging confidence in his choices and his abilities.
The first hurdle that we faced was our own conditioning towards sensitivities, the conditioning that leads to labels like ‘Wuss’ and ‘Wimp’. Living in colonially established countries like the USA, Australia, New Zealand or South Africa has its downsides, especially when it comes to sensitive men. These are countries that were built on the backs of hard, tough, men (and women), and these are traditionally the characteristics that are celebrated. Can you drink your mates under the table? Are you AWESOME at sport? Silent, brooding types rule: don’t discuss your emotions.
Women and their emotional enlightenment are often derided, and the worst thing you can be called is a girl, or a ‘Mommy’s Boy’. So there is a history of misunderstanding there.
In the older cultures, however, the established European or Eastern cultures, sensitivity is valued, and often it is holy. The Shaman is usually a man who has the abilities of foresight and empathy, both qualities of a sensitive soul. Philosophers, Artists, Writers, Diplomats, Peacemakers, Carpenters, Activists, Spiritual Advisors, Teachers, Medicine Men, Priests, Historians, Psychologists, Gardeners, Veterinarians; these gifted roles usually subscribe to a sensitive nature.
The next thing we did was find some advice. I was walking around a bookstore and found a book titled The Highly Sensitive Child by Elaine Aron. Well, I grabbed it with both hands, did a little happy dance, and purchased it immediately. The title alone affirmed that I was on the right path! It was such a wonderful eye-opener and it gave us a real sense of direction with our son, and also a sense of celebration. How lucky are we to have this beautiful little spirit in our house? And how can we best raise him to be strong and confident without losing one bit of this gift of sensitivity? Since 20% of people are naturally sensitive, it goes to show that this is not an evolutionary anomaly that is breeding out, but that the human race specifically requires a large portion of its population to be sensitive. Perhaps because of the peace-making ability, these are the people who lead us away from pride and war, and towards integration and forgiveness.
The book talks about a sensitive child as having heightened awareness of almost every situation. They will notice details, comment on your clothes or hair from a young age, notice if a piece of furniture has been removed from the room, or notice before anyone else if a favourite teacher is not at school. They will often be overwhelmed by this hypersensitivity. A strong criticism can often drive these kids into their shells for extended periods of time. The trick is to talk to them, not shout at them (unless of course it is deserved and they are being like any kid and deliberately misbehaving!)
You will notice that just the threat of discipline is often enough to control behaviour. They are goody-two-shoes because they do not like conflict, and they absolutely thrive in positive affirmation. In fact, positive affirmation of their actions is the key way in getting these kids to become more confident and assertive. And not the “you are so good at that” kind of stuff, but more the “you have done such a good job!” kind of stuff.
See the thing is, if you are willing to put in the effort now, you will avoid the two sad outcomes of an emotionally undernourished or bullied sensitive: Over-sensitivity (people who are so reactive that you feel like you need to walk on eggshells around them) and Insensitivity (noticeably bolshy, rude responses that get most people’s backs up). Both of these characteristics, I believe, stem from naturally sensitive children having had their self-esteems smashed and their natural inclinations criticised relentlessly by parents who believe that they should toughen up.
I was lucky enough to be raised by wonderfully loving and caring parents, but I have seen the impact on sensitive friends who were not so lucky, and those implications last a lifetime. There is a great deal of psychological damage done when someone who is sensitive to criticism is criticised their whole young life.
On a really positive note, my son has gone from a little boy who struggled to engage with people at all, to the point where we really worried about his behaviour, to being supremely confident and happy, in a very short space of time. He is still sensitive, but he talks himself through thunderstorms now, and is often just a regular naughty little boy. Can you believe it, but that is actually a relief for me?! It was as if he was old before his time, until we understood him, and now he feels free and unafraid to be little.
So if you think that you have a particularly sensitive child, I recommend that you take a step back from your culturally ingrained responses, and educate yourself. Especially if you are not particularly sensitive yourself. Think about what you want for your child when they are an adult.
I want my son to feel no need to apologise for his gifts of empathy and foresight. I want him to be free to use those gifts to succeed in his chosen field, as well as to succeed as a father if that is in store for him. And I want our society to celebrate these gifts too. Surely, we are a better world for these people? And I’m not just saying that because I’m his mum…
Photo of a boy in the dark courtesy of Shutterstock