Some people are just sensitive. The barrier between them and the world is particularly thin, and it allows a lot more ‘stuff’ in.
My boy doesn’t want to go to school. Every morning I greet the same tight jaw and deep, bracing eyes as he builds a kind of psychic armor—a shield of stoicism and a helmet of indifference. But then at night, when the armor is gone, and the shield and helmet are stowed—I find a very different boy. He looks thin, a little pale, a little worn out.
I used to ask him about the specifics. “What’s troubling you? The teacher? The kids? What did they say? What did she do?” He did his best to answer, but inevitably he would cry, confused, and say, “I don’t know”.
Finally, I paid attention. Close attention. And I realized the source of his sadness is not a thing, an event or a circumstance. It’s his fundamental relationship with the world. I have a sensitive boy.
Some people are just sensitive. The barrier between them and the world is particularly thin, and it allows a lot more ‘stuff’ in. Sensitive people hear more, see more, feel more, sense more. They pick up on subtle things – a twitch in the teacher’s left eye, a distant squeaking sound of a bike wheel, the feeling of a clothing tag on their hip—even the sense that someone is feeling lonely. They pick it all up. And for children, this can be a burden.
Imagine sensing that your uncle no longer wants to be married to your aunt—and you are 4 years old. Imagine having to pay attention in 2nd grade while the hum of the air conditioner sounds like a scream. Imagine trying to hit a baseball while seeing every bird fly by, every hand wave in the stands, every flap of every flag—not to mention hearing the conversation behind you. It is distracting, to say the least. Most of the time it is painful. I know first hand because I was a sensitive boy. And I went to school. And I hated it too.
But I managed. I did what many sensitive people do—I distracted myself, I numbed myself and I kept most people at a distance. I became entertaining, busy and a little manic. But then two things happened that changed my perspective: I became a teacher, and I became a dad.
As a teacher it became my job to pay attention and notice how my charges were doing. Were they thriving? Were they quiet? Why were they quiet? Why were they distracted? Why did they hate school? And then I needed to figure out what to do.
I read books, I asked colleagues, I tried lots and lots of tactics. In the end, there was one gesture that proved far more effective than any other: to hold the child.
With my own child, that was straightforward. I held him in my arms. I held him tightly and for a long time. Sometimes I even wrapped him in a blanket and then held him – giving him that much more snugness – that much more surface area being held. This helped him, I believe, find out where he was. Helped him know where his boundaries were, and helped him, at least for a moment, pay attention only to that. When I held him, he could let go of the sounds, the sights, the feelings and just attend to his skin, his boundaries. And this was clearly an immense relief. It calmed him, restored him and even strengthened him. Now we have a variety of ways to give him what he needs. We wrestle, we play games on the floor, I wrap him up like a mummy and carry him around. And he loves it.
Now this wasn’t an option in the classroom. As a teacher, there is not the time, space or really, permission to hold the children this way. So I found another way to hold them – with my words.
I learned that I could speak to the children in a way that not only held their attention but made them actually ‘feel’ held – made them ‘feel’ calm, restored and solid on this earth. I told them a story.
Stay with me. When I say story, I am not talking about opening up a picture book or reciting from a chapter book or even retelling a classic fairy tale. Those stories have their benefits and gifts for the children, but the kind of storytelling I’m referring to is the kind that removes armor, finds their heart and talks directly to their most guarded selves.
This kind of storytelling requires slowing down, taking lots of time, standing still and speaking like your words are actually a magician’s spell. “There – was – once – a – crow…” You know you are on the right track when their eyes glaze over, their jaws slack and their heads tilt ever so slightly forward. They look like they are in a trance, because—well, they are. They are in the world you are creating with your words. And now you can hold them. You can shape this world so that it is not so loud, so distracting and so upsetting—this world can have soft edges, sweet birdsong and warm tasty food.
Your story can be about a child who finds a new home in the woods where gentle animals take care of him. It can be about a baby bear that is held by his mamma all winter long. It can be about a little mole that digs and digs and finds the softest bed deep below the ground. These images can be like the strong arms—they squeeze and reassure. And when the story is over and the child blinks and sighs and sits back—you may even hear the sweet words ‘thank you’. For you have held him.
“But I have no idea how to do this,” you say. But you do. Talk like you hug. Firm but yielding – and above all, loving. If every word that comes out of your mouth is as loving as a deep, soothing hug – you are solid.
In my work as a teacher and parent, and in my current work as a children’s author, one thing is clear: Without exception, the most powerful and transformative stories always come from the same place—from the parents and teachers who make up their own. They pay attention to the child, notice the flick of an eyebrow, the deep breath out, the look to the side and then they tell a story out of that place. And the children relax because they know someone else is holding them—telling them they are seen and that one day it will get easier. Because it will.
Photo: Michael Bentley/Flickr