Appreciating and Understanding My Child as an Individual

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?

25 thoughts on “Appreciating and Understanding My Child as an Individual

  1. Ah! Thanks for sharing!

    I had a similar experience as you (in fact, eerily similar) – my son is highly sensitive and in realizing that, we realized that we both were too! I love the HSP book because it really takes a new look at appreciating who we are as people!

    My parents always pushed me to do things I didn’t like and try to still push my son into them, but now I can use this book as a guide to help them understand.

    We have noise canceling headphones that my son can wear when his brother cries or there is too much ambiant noise – we don’t go to restaurants with that low too many people talking noise – he only wears sweat pants and comfy shoes – the list goes on and on.

    My husband still has a bit of a hard time understanding some of his quirks (freaking out when his sleeve gets a little wet), but I TOTALLY get it, so we’re working on it together.

    Thanks for sharing and I look forward to reading!

    Brooke Reply:

    I have been thinking of getting my daughter noise canceling headphones too because we also have a 4 month old who is a car seat screamer so we pretty much can’t go anywhere. Do you mind sharing which ones you got? Any other tips on dealing with a sibling-cryer in the car?

  2. One of my friends has baby headphones for her son, maybe that is an option for the car rides? You could put on some music for him and put his headphones on pre-emtively.

    How new are your smoke detectors? Older smoke detectors tend to get super-sensitive, so check with your landlord or maybe just replace them on your own, or at least replace the batteries.

  3. I believe my 2 1/2 year old is the same way. VERY sensitive to noise, very slow to warm up to people. She is definitely a thinker and processor. She actually was a late talker too, she just started talking in full sentences a few months ago.

    My question, was starting preschool hard? Did he take a long time to warm up? Any tips on dealing with that?

    Jenna Reply:

    I can go on for hours about how much I love his preschool, and how amazing that place is for him. They focus on him as an individual, they’ve worked with his meltdowns and tantrums (at one point in the late summer/ early fall he would rage for up to an hour if he spilled milk on himself or couldn’t get his jacket on right). The school is run by a very Type-A uber-organized woman who really sticks to the routine and rules, and I think that is what has helped him thrive. It’s his third preschool and the difference between this one and the first two is unbelievable (we found it via Yelp). If your child thrives on routine and is sensitive, I would seek out a place that has a firm schedule (although it is a play-based school, I don’t want it to sound like they are doing drills and worksheets all day!), emphasizes the validity of feelings and offers choices (the language at his preschool is “You feel ___________. That is okay. You can choose to put your jacket on, or you can choose to have me do it for you.”, and will support you as you do the exact same thing at dropoff every day and don’t linger. It helps that when he is having a rough time and I leave, they always step in and help him ease into the routine, I think that the staff to child ratio helps with that.

  4. I definitely see the connection between what you say about your son and the indicators highly sensitive person, but I am wondering if you have considered seeing what his doctor says about his behavior or if you did—what did they say?

    Jenna Reply:

    I would seek out professional help if I felt something was wrong with him or if we weren’t seeing improvements. Actually I already did seek professional help – I got myself into talk therapy! The issue was me, and how I was parenting him, not him. Now I have access to information that will help me guide him better, and that’s what we needed the most.

  5. I think it is so great that you are recognizing that your child is an individual and are parenting accordingly 🙂 I would also encourage you to look into Dabrowski’s overexcitabilities. You will find some great info about OEs on the site. Keep up the good work!

  6. I am a special education teacher, and I work with some autistic students who have some of the same sensitivities. With one in particular, we work a lot with him on teaching him to be more flexible if the routine is different (whether expected or unexpected). For example, the speech therapist that works with him tries to come at the same time each week, but he isn’t always able to for some reason or another. It was hard for him at first, but we really work with him to understand that it’s ok if the speech therapist is late and he can’t come to my room for reading at the exact time he’s supposed to. When we do know that the routine is going to be different, we talk to him ahead of time (the day before if we can, and then as close to the change as possible), and it helps him stay more calm and accept the difference more easily.

    He also doesn’t do well with loud noises, so we have a pair of wireless headphones that go completely over both of his ears, and we have him wear those when there’s a fire drill, assembly, or other loud event. This has made such a difference for him!

    Obviously, I’m not saying T1 is autistic, but because he has some of the same sensitivities, I thought I’d share some of the things I do that have worked. (Side note … as I’ve worked with this student more and more, I’ve come to recognize a lot of my own sensitivities and have been able to understand them/cope with them in a much better way.)

  7. I was just like T1 as a kid, down to the issues with sock seams (I also needed my shoes laced to the exact same level of tightness, or I would literally have panic attacks). I think that it’s great that you’ve pinpointed the issues you faced with parenting (my mother sought therapy to learn to deal with my personality, and I went to preschool/kinder from about 2.5 to be better prepared for school). I know that when my mother felt like she understood why I was so overwhelmed or frustrated, she felt a lot happier as a parent, and it was helpful for our relationship.

  8. Great post! I’m so glad that you’re fishing things that work for you and T1 both. I don’t remember if I mentioned it when we talked on the phone, but at least for us this has also been something that has gotten better with time. I don’t know if it’s because Eli has gotten older and is easier to talk through things with, or if we’ve gotten better about prevention and handling of situations, but it’s definitely gotten easier. Talking to you and reading this post reminded me of how many little “quirk”s we had a year ago that I had forgotten about, as well as quirks that he had now but I don’t even think about much anymore. I think you are doing a great job in trying to relate to T1, and I think with the right approach things just get easier (not saying we always do the right approach, half the time I feel like I have no idea what I’m doing as a mother and if I’m doing the right things, but just figuring out what works for you guys). P.S. Because I don’t feel like I know what I’m doing half the time I’m not sure I’ve done anything to warrant a dedication, haha, but I really enjoyed talking things out with you last month and would love to any time!

  9. Haven’t stopped to read any comments yet because I am busy running off to check the links you included about SPD and highly sensitive children – the things you describe about T1 sound SOOOOO much like my daughter, who is about 6 months older than him. She is obsessed with being with her friends but yes, easily overwhelmed by circumstances and especially loud sounds. She practiced for weeks to sing in church with her Sunday Night Club, and as soon as she got up on the stage and the music started she lost it, and came running down crying to me “Too loud, too loud!” Her dad and I are both particular about certain things as well (YES on eating sounds – I have never lived down the time I finally forgot to act normal and asked my husband if he could chew a little quieter at dinner with his parents) so I wonder if this might be a family trait.

    Thank you so much for posting all of these things about your new approach to parenting, because I feel like I learn something new about my child every time you do!

    MrsW Reply:

    yep, she ticked 18 boxes on the highly sensitive child list…

  10. I just think this is really important and something all moms should be reading. I had never considered how my flexibility as a parent was or wasn’t impacting my child until we were visiting friends- the mom is extremely loud and outgoing and loves to live without a schedule. She has two boys with some more serious issues than what you’re describing here, but either way they’re the kind of kids who desperately need routine and structure. She is attached to the idea of raising her kids casually because it’s what she always envisioned and so she’s very relaxed. For example, the kids don’t have set beds. There are mattresses set up in their rooms but they can sleep wherever they want and go to bed at whatever time. That works for some kids, for hers it’s a disaster. But she can’t look away from how she wanted to parent and see what her child needed. I’m not saying it to be critical: parenting is hard and some of what keeps us motivated is the daily fulfillment of seeing ourselves parent the way we planned to. But I give you a ton of credit for being able to look at what your sons needs and letting that determine your behavior instead of doing it the other way around.

  11. this was such an amazing post and i really loved reading. i LOVE your blog, jenna, and i have for a long time. you truly put yourself out there and i admire it deeply.

  12. Hey Jenna, what you are describing with T1 sounds a lot like my twin brother. As a young kid he thrived with rigid routine and was very sensitive to noise and other stimuli. He also had a speech delay- he went to a preschool specializing in hearing/speech delays and always jokes that they turned on his talking switch and he hasn’t stopped since. When he was around 8 years old he was diagnosed with Asperger’s, which often manifests with some form of SPD (but not always). With my brother, routine and also modelling of desired behavior is fundamental. A break in routine goes a lot better if he is given advance warning! If my parents yelled at us as kids, it just made him yell at them, and that’s true even today (unfortunately they like to yell). He was like a sponge for all things- especially verbal, but also behavioral- kids with Asperger’s often need repeated and explicit social instructions because they don’t usually have a strong intuition for others’ feelings.

    T1 sounds like a sweet and bright little guy, I am really glad you have figured out on your own a better way to approach your relationship with him early on. That’s something my parents struggled with for my brother for years and truthfully they have made him feel a bit like the “problem” in our family which has definitely not been healthy for him or any of us. When he has a meltdown even today they still don’t tend to understand that it’s usually rooted in a change in routine or something environmental that is overwhelming him. So, I think the compassionate approach is a lot better!

  13. For me, being a mom really is all about re-evaluating my look on life, my views on child rearing, my ideals and dreams and focussing on my child(ren)’s need and personality.

    My daughter is nothing like I expected any child of mine to be, and my son is already surprising me at 9 weeks, and while I had thought a lot about raising children before we even considered having children, I’ve had to abandon a lot of the tactics I thought I’d employ.

    Before I ramble on too much, I just want to say I think it’s great you’ve recognized mistakes and are willing to change things, and I wish you and your delightful children all the best and good luck finding something that works for you all, so you all can be happy together.

    …and, now one more rambly bit: For me the biggest things to learn has been that the sooner and more fully I accept my role as the one needed 24/7 for the first years of their lives, the happier I am and the better I cope. I now choose to see this challenge as a privilege. They need ME, and never again will I be as needed, crucial, all-important to someone as I am now to my tiny ones.

  14. My son has a variety of sensitivities that I don’t think reach the HSP or SPD level, but recognizing and accomodating have made our lives much better. We have a noise problem–but if he’s prepped and can brace for it, he does okay (so vacuuming is great, but random loudness not so great!). He will only wear ‘soft pants’ (his words) and pants that aren’t soft are ‘too jeany’ so I buy jersey and fleece pants. Really, what’s the big deal there? Any new situation or potentially stressful one, requires a great deal of preparation-explaining what we will see, hear and do. Over and over. The result has fewer meltdowns and a more relaxed kid.

    To be sure, he takes forever to warm up to new kids, new places, new clothes. We’ve spent 40 minutes just looking at the pool rather than swimming in it. But now that we go every week, we only look at it for 5 minutes. We are in a looped daycare, so he’s had the same teachers and/or aides since he was 6 months old and will stay with them until he goes to K. (Lord only knows what we’ll do then).

    I still get unspeakably frustrated though. I see people with kids who just dive in, have fun, jump in puddles, sled down hills, or otherwise throw caution to the wind and I get jealous. At the same time, I’ll never have to worry about him running into the street or throwing himself off the porch!!

    Jenna Reply:

    I could have written all of this. Have you looked into the book Highly Sensitive Child? It talks about all of this, and I think it has helped me to see both the good and the bad more clearly.

    I can’t even think about leaving his current school. Fingers crossed we won’t have to face that until he is in kindergarten (and they have a private kindergarten, I would love to send him there to!)

  15. I hope it’s not too late for you to see this. My son, age 7, sounds very much like yours. We noticed it when he was still a baby and I ended up reading not only the “Highly Sensitive Child” but also, more helpfully, “The Difficult Child” by Stanley Turecki. Don’t let the title put you off.

    The book addresses the vast array of characteristics or orientations children can have that can present parenting challenges and/or make the world difficult for them. Sometimes “sensitive” is just too vague to be able to help your child. My son, for example, has “initial withdrawal”, which is why he loves being social but struggles to throw himself into a group or new situation; “poor adaptability”, which is why he has a hard time with change; and some sensory issues surrounding loud noises.

    I used Stanley Turecki’s book to pin-point where and why my son was having trouble in certain situations, to understand where my own idiosyncrasies complemented or exacerbated my son’s (because grown-ups can be difficult, too!), and finally to adopt new practices and strategies to mitigate problematic situations.

    The results were huge. In some cases, it simply amounted to me saying no to things that I knew my son could not handle, like a birthday party at a bouncy place with too much noise and too many lights. In other cases, it helped me ease my son into situations so he could enjoy himself or handle a necessary transition with less stress.

    The good news is that a happy preschool, an understanding family, and time can lesson all the symptoms you currently describe. My son is still sensitive and change averse, but two summers ago I put him in several different camps where we didn’t know anyone before the first day and then marveled at his ability to go from one to the other and make new friends. I chose the camps carefully, of course, but this was still a big ask for him.

    I think you will find over time that understanding T1s wiring and working with it will give you whole new arenas in which to enjoy your child. And, of course, T1 will flourish, too. I’m glad you made this discovery and I wish you luck!

    Jenna Reply:

    Really appreciate this comment, as I think it is the next step for me in the exploration of this topic. You are pinpointing so many things that I am struggling with right now.

  16. Glad it was helpful. One more thing: Don’t let people pathologize a healthy personality. Allow me to explain. Some kids are extremely sensitive to sensory input and require occupational therapy for assistance. It’s the same for anxiety, depression, OCD, etc. But other children simply have preferences, tendencies, or even temperaments that are not the cultural norm in the US but that are nonetheless healthy. These don’t have to be fixed! Your child might need to develop some coping skills if he is in the minority (like your introvert husband no doubt has to do in extroverted America), but he doesn’t have to become someone he’s not. For my son, this means he’s happier on a hike than at an amusement park, which is honestly great for me, and isn’t a fan of Chuck-E-Cheese or fireworks displays, which is also great for me. Giving him the space and quiet he needs, meanwhile, has helped him blossom. Turns out he’s quite athletic, and his love of sports is helping him learn to assert himself and generally move past the timidity and initial withdrawal. I used to be super defensive of my boy and felt like I had to champion for him and others like him. If you want or need more specific information, feel free to write privately. I just stumbled across this and don’t want to co-opt your space!

  17. This has been like a bright light bulb going off in my head! My son Landon is highly sensitive. I opened up the test and sure enough – I checked every single box. But I honestly don’t think there is anything wrong with him. If fact, I think everything about him is amazing! He has always seemed more mature for his age. I plan on reading the book about it. I hope it helps me be a better parent to him.

    Jenna Reply:

    I hope it helps both of you! I don’t think there is anything wrong with my son either. I like the idea of relating it to languages. My in-laws speak Polish, and we can’t understand each other unless we learn how to speak the language of the other person.

    The more I read the better I understand him. One day I was having a really hard day, and I broke down in tears. He had been happy and I wasn’t crying over what he had done, but he immediately absorbed my feelings and took them upon himself. My education over the last few months has taught me the importance of reinforcing my connection with him, and that he can be easily overwhelmed and he doesn’t yet know how to process things. This was an instance where my understanding of the way he works helped me come back outside of myself and help him, even though I was really distraught.

  18. I know this is an older post but in case you are still looking for resources, I liked Raising Your Spirited Child by Mary Sheedy Kurcinka. It was recommended to me by my son’s occupational therapist when he was less than a year old (he is 5 now) and it helped me understand more about not only him but myself!

Comments are closed.