Raising a Highly Sensitive Child
My son is a “highly sensitive” kid. He’s nine years old, and just as I was at that age. Even on a great day, there can be tears. Maybe a moving song in the radio, a sad part in a movie, or simply because he’s spilled his juice and thinks we might be mad at him.
Some days it’s a struggle for all of us, but extra for me, because it’s so hard to identify so much with his pain and not be able to take it away. I remember feeling those intense feelings as a kid, and being told I was, “too sensitive,” like it was a horrible disease.
I was always an “overly” emotional kid, and the people in my life assigned to support me made it clear it was shameful.
As I grew tired of hearing, “too sensitive,” I turned more to food for comfort. I was a “latch-key” kid, and after school meant an empty house. I would overeat in front of the tv, and hide the evidence (wrappers), so no one would know what a pig I had been and ask me to feel worse for it than I already did.
My mother and stepfather called me “Chubs” whenever I would reach for that second snack, so I learned to hide both my overeating and my sensitivity. I would sneak into the kitchen sometimes after everyone was asleep, and binge in my bed.
The purging started a year later; after a girl at summer camp showed me how, and I quickly lost forty pounds.
The next year I discovered alcohol, and found the less I ate, the faster I got drunk. Anorexia became my new BFF.
I entered rehab for the first time for the eating when I was 20. It took years, and A LOT of work, but thankfully, I have found recovery from both eating disorders and alcoholism (not necessarily in that order). It was a painful process to go back to those early years and see how much they shaped my personal narrative. Feelings are bad. Stuff it or purge, but whatever you do, never be “too sensitive.”
What I didn’t do is suggest he was being “too sensitive,” to just “get over it,” or ask him to understand that kids are just kids.
What I did do is let him cry and tell me how it all made him feel. When I felt he was ready, I told him that no one ever has the right to put their hands on him. I told him I didn’t expect he ever would want to, but that he had every right to defend himself if someone hurt him intentionally.
Then I told my son the truth — that kids pick on other kids when they’re not comfortable with themselves. When we feel bad, sometimes we treat other people poorly, because we want them to hurt like we do.
I told him that people who are happy with themselves don’t often have the time or desire to say or do mean things to other people.
I asked him if he ever thought it was fun to be mean to other kids, and he said he didn’t. He told me he doesn’t like to hurt people, and I suggested that might be because he’s truly happy in his heart and comfortable with who he is.
I told him how much I identify with his feelings and how intense they can feel all the time. I told him he was somehow gifted with a heart just like his mama’s. He has my hair, my eyes, my button nose, and my smile. From where I was standing, there seemed only one thing he has that I never did — a mama like me.
I may not always say, do, or be the right thing for my kids; that’s for sure. But that day, I was EXACTLY what that little man needed. I was the strong voice that assured him it’s okay to feel his feelings, even when they’re hard. That he can be okay, even if he feels like he’s not, because there’s nothing he can’t tell me that we can’t work out together.
I was support, and love, and acceptance. I was a pair of ears to listen, and two arms to hold him tight.
I was his mama.
And that was enough.