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Learning to Embrace my Highly Sensitive Child

By Deborah Song


I noticed the signs early on.  When my daughter was 18 months old, she once cried watching an episode of Mickey Mouse because a hungry baby Goofy burst into tears. Even as a young child, she never took a toy from another kid.  So if another child snatched a toy out of her hand, she took the offense very personally, and sobbed. 

Her tantrums as a toddler were intense. When erupted in public, they were impossible to contain and I desperately wanted to crawl into a hole. Gentle correction works better than harsh punishment.  Even the threat of taking away a sticker on her sticker chart is too much disappointment and stress for her.  She is very hard on herself and can’t stand losing. If she can’t get something right the first time, she gets upset, walks away and doesn’t want to continue, usually with tear-filled eyes.  She’s a perfectionist.  Above all, she feels things deeply. 

But the highs have been higher too.  Her rapturous laugh is the spring of life in our house. She’ll laugh hysterically when someone snorts, something startles me, if dad runs in his slippers, or at pretty much anything.  Her teachers have described her as a very happy girl and a joy to be around, but a child who needs constant reminding to use her “inside voice.” She’s creative and loves to sing and dance. She is very expressive about how grateful she is and how much she loves me. Even with a younger more aggressive sister who jumps on her, pulls her hair and takes her toys, I’ve never seen her lay a hand on her, not even in the heat of the moment. She’s a gentle soul.  Above all, she feels things deeply.

So with the good comes the bad, to put it simply.  But as an exhausted mom, I often wished she were an easier child to raise.  Moreover, I worried about her. Mostly about how easily her feelings were hurt. So I scoured the Internet for help and found, “The Highly Sensitive Child,” by Dr. Elaine N. Aron, which gave me incredible insight.

Highly sensitive children are mislabeled as “dramatic,” “reserved,” or in my extended family, “spoiled.”  If they seem reserved, it’s because they would rather observe from the outside before jumping into a situation. So they’re also naturally more cautious.  Nor are they difficult for the sake of being difficult.  Their intense reactions are a result of their heightened nervous systems. They just feel more – more scared, more anxious, more nervous, more pain, but also more excited and more joyful.

Understanding the reasons for her sometimes challenging behavior has enabled me to see life’s daily experiences not as something gone wrong and something that required constant fixing, but as an opportunity to embrace her for who she is.  She still needs to learn coping skills, but I get why some forms of discipline work better than others. 

One of the most difficult parts of my day lately has been the morning drop off at school. My younger 2-year-old runs into class after a bear hug and kiss.  But my highly sensitive 4-year-old, who has been going to school for over two years now, has been creating a dramatic spectacle every morning ever since she changed classes.  She’s been crying, pulling on me and telling me she’s scared. It is part stressful, part embarrassing.

For the past week, however, I stopped asking her “What’s wrong?” or worse, “What’s wrong with you?”  Instead, I simply tell her it’s ok to be scared or to miss me.  I take my time saying goodbye to her.

Related: 10 Ways to Drop Your Preschooler Off on Good Footing

I don’t think it’s a coincidence that after two months of tear-filled goodbyes and refusing to line up with the rest of the class, she lined up willingly today. Will she do it again tomorrow?  I don’t know.  But more importantly, I don’t care.  Not the way I used to.  I don’t care what people might think of her – or me as a parent.  I know I’m not enabling her.  Her sensitivity is not my fault as a parent.  I’m not preoccupied trying to fix her “problem.” I find it interesting that once I stopped expecting her to perform, she did.

Perhaps the biggest breakthrough, though, is that I now see sensitivity as a gift, which has been therapeutic for me as well since I’ve been repressing my own  sensitivity my whole life.  Being prone to feel more and notice subtle details are the reasons why many highly sensitive people are artists, writers, actors and scientists.  Albert Einstein, Leonardo Di Vinci, Beethoven, Mother Theresa, Nicole Kidman and Steve Jobs have all been linked to high sensitivity.  And they probably made the contributions they made not in spite of their sensitivity but because of it.

It is not an epiphany of earth-shattering proportions that how you view your child affects how you parent, but put into the context of a highly sensitive child, it is very profound. Our society does not favor the 20 percent of highly sensitive people who make up the population. So initially, it seemed logical to try and change her, to repress the trait, to assimilate her so she could have an easier life.  But trying to force her to be something she wasn’t was hurting her, not helping her.

As Dr. Aron put it, “It is primarily parenting that decides whether the expression of sensitivity will be an advantage or a source of anxiety.” Raising a highly sensitive child is not easy.  But with greater challenges come greater rewards. 

When she lined up without a fuss for the first time in months, I was that much prouder because I know how much effort it took – both on her part and mine.

Source:
Aron, Ph.D, Elaine.  The Highly Sensitive Child.  New York: Harmony Books, 2002.  Print.

Posted on Oct 09, 2014

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