I used to think that the only successful parenting approach was picking a system, the best system I could devise, and sticking with it no matter what. Through the sheer force of my will, I would mold my children into the human beings I wanted to produce. Disciplined, conscientious, ambitious. But children are not mixed-media art projects to be shaped as desired. They are living and breathing beings, and need room to grow. Parenting has been much better as I’ve come to see it more like the relationship between gardener and rose bush. My little roses can be pruned and fertilized as I see fit, but when they bloom it will be with a pattern all their own. I was standing over a flower bed screaming “GRRROOOOOOWWWWW” as though prize-winning peonies are regularly produced by verbally irate gardeners.
And so, for the first time since I became a mother 3 1/2 years ago, I realized I needed to pay attention to what my son needed from me, not what I wanted from him. I started to notice things about him, things I had previously passed off as character traits to be overcome or ignored.
He has exceptional attention to detail. Out of the blue he will tell me he likes my shirt or my shoes, and ask me if they are new and where I bought them. He walks into a room and instantly notices if things are different. Our morning happiness levels increased dramatically when I bought him seamless socks because we could never get them on just the way he wanted. All of the tags are cut out of his clothing now, which is going to make it fun for whatever mom wants to buy them secondhand at the thrift store. A friend once described her son to me as “particular,” and I think that is an excellent descriptor for T1 as well.
He doesn’t like loud noises, which we frequently encounter with flushing toilets, hand dryers, or fire alarms (I frequently forget about the toast in the toaster a lot). He asks lots of questions about how the smoke detectors work because he wants to know what sets them off. When his little sister cries he puts his hands over his ears and yells for me to please make it stop. It’s not just that the sound is annoying or loud, it’s as though he is in some sort of physical and emotional pain if she cries for too long. This can be really challenging when we are driving and the baby is crying (because she’s a baby and that’s what babies sometimes do in the car).
He likes to know what to expect and doesn’t deal well with transition, change of plans, or deviations outside of our normal routine. This has been particularly hard for me because I don’t do a very good job sticking to a firm routine. When I drop him off at school it is essential that I follow the same steps every single day — open door, sign in, put belongings in cubby, push mom out door, stand at window and wave and blow kisses.
I’m an extrovert married to an introvert, and T1’s constant talk about being with friends made us think he was an extrovert too. He would wake up in the morning asking to get out of the house to see his friends, and as soon as we left a meetup he would ask if his friend could come to our house as soon as possible. Whenever we took him somewhere though, he would take a long time to warm up and easily melt down. I couldn’t understand why all of the other kids were running around and screaming with happiness while he looked so sad and overwhelmed. Wasn’t I providing him with exactly what he asked for, lots of time with lots of friends?
I have a friend who has talked publicly about her experience with a child diagnosed with Sensory Processing Disorder, and I started to wonder if we might be dealing with something similar. I went down the online checklists, and a few of the traits/behaviors listed fit our experience, but not enough to strongly feel that I had found the resources I was seeking. While looking up more articles on SPD I saw someone mention a book written for persons who identify as HSP, a Highly Sensitive Person.
HSPs are easily overwhelmed by stimuli, get stressed by loud noises and strong smells, are extremely perceptive, have rich and often intense internal lives, and need plenty of quiet and down time to maintain their equilibrium. via Dr. Susan Biali, M.D.
I searched the phrase “highly sensitive child,” and as I checked the boxes that applied I realized that I had found the support system I so desperately needed to help me be a better parent to my sweet, yet resolute, son. It’s as though my child has been speaking French for 3 1/2 years, and I couldn’t recognize that we were communicating using entirely different languages. No wonder we were both confused and frustrated much of the time.
Learning about HSPs has been helpful for me too — as I reflect on my own quirks and preferences I am able to have a lot more empathy and patience as I deal with his. I wouldn’t classify myself as highly sensitive, but there are things that I had previously described as “pet peeves” that are now things I identify as my personal sensitivities. Eating noises, particularly those of young children, top my list. I’m also very sensitive to the absence of sound, and almost always have music or a podcast running in the background. I don’t like anything spicy and see no reason to try to like a thing that to me equates the absence of taste in my food. We are all sensitive to something, and as adults we are able to engineer our world to minimize annoyances and frustrations whenever possible. Now that we are paying more attention to how he processes things we’ve made adjustments to our lifestyle and parenting approach, and these changes have greatly reduced the situations that overwhelmed him, which has in turn increased the enjoyment found in spending time together.
Labels are a tricky thing, especially when talking publicly about your children in a way that classifies them as something other than the current social norm. I don’t want T1 to ever feel boxed in by a label. For now, the highly sensitive child label will serve as a parenting map for me. If he desires to embrace the label of Highly Sensitive Person as an adult I will support him in that, but I also want to allow him the space to define his own self as he is able to do so.
I share my mistakes made and lessons learned in the hope that it will help other mothers who may be struggling in similar ways. I’m not sure how long it would have taken me to figure this out if I hadn’t read the experiences of my friends. It’s a very sad thought to think that I might never have done so and the many ways he would have felt misunderstood and invalidated. I deeply want my child to feel understood and supported by me, and I finally feel like we are speaking the same language. Or, it might be better to say that we recognize that we weren’t speaking the same language and are committed to learning from each other. Now we’re engaged in a two-way exchange of ideas and preferences, supplementing our exchanges with a whole lot of hugs and a bit of sign language along the way.
My next post in this series will explore some parenting situations where I adopted this new approach. I’ll talk about what happened, what I would have done in the past, and the actions I took under this new parenting model that had really positive results. As I gather a list of resources that have helped us (I’m reading Highly Sensitive Child right now and am consistently impressed by how much of it I can relate to) I’ll share those as well. Please share any resources that you think might be of help to us, I’d like to know more about what has worked for my readers as well.
Do you have a child that is sensitive? Are you someone who identifies as highly sensitive? What has your experience been like?