Quite often I hear myself say “no thank you” when responding to invites for our family. While we’re disappointed that we can’t make it, we don’t regret it. Instead, the times I regret are the ones when we opt into something that we shouldn’t have.
I have a sensitive son. Like other children, he loves social outings—they’re fun and exciting! But they’re also emotional for him and stressful for our family. Learning how to manage this so we can maximize our fun and friendships without overdoing it is a challenge. At times, I’m left feeling like I’m in a balancing act at the circus. Because people don’t easily understand our situation, it seems we’re often disappointing someone or taking on too much.
I know it’s easy to misunderstand our situation, and it’s even easier to have expectations for my son that are way too high. I know because I once lacked understanding. Now that I have a highly sensitive child, I get it, and I’m angry at my old self, because I had no idea. I recognize that most kids are sensitive to a number things, but my son brings sensitivity to an entirely different level. And the worst part of having a sensitive child isn’t the child; it’s dealing with others and their expectations—the same ones I had before I truly understood the sensitive child.
It’s natural for others to expect more of my child. After all, sensitivity in kids isn’t easy to spot, and it’s even more difficult to understand. I used to think that a child’s sensitivity was the result of a problem—an illness or unbalance of sorts. But now I know this is most often far from accurate, because my son is sensitive, but he’s also fine.
My son is quickly overwhelmed by stimulation and sudden changes. He is always thinking and learning, and he’s very easily exhausted. Strange as it may be, physical activity isn’t nearly as tiring as emotional experiences and intellectual stimulation—those take a toll. For other children, being sensitive could pose different challenges, but regardless of the circumstances for a particular, it’s always tough.
At a glance, my son is fun-loving and outgoing. He’s always smiling and eager to learn and love. But fun has a bigger price tag for him than it does his 4-year-old peers. It’s not that he can’t go to the zoo or attend birthday parties. He goes to school and the park like other children, and he enjoys himself. In order to minimize his stress, we plan ahead and keep the big events to one per day. We schedule rest time into busy days. It’s a balance that works so well, it often appears that my son isn’t overwhelmed or tired, but he is.
With this balance we’ve achieved, it’s easy for others to forget or even dismiss that he’s sensitive. But when this happens, my son pays the price and so do I. That is why I beg you to listen to me when I explain that any activity where you’re engaged with his play is highly stimulating for him. Those pancakes he helped make for breakfast? That’s enough for the morning. Good intentions are hard for me to argue, and that’s when I wish for your understanding.
An overnight trip away from home is an intense change for my son. I know, it seems he takes it all in stride and that I’m making this up. But you didn’t see how sick he got after a fun weekend getaway or hear his meltdowns during the holidays. The excitement wears him down. Whether it’s real to you or not, it’s reality for us.
Don’t get me wrong, sensitivity isn’t so terrible. In fact, if you look closely you’ll see that it’s actually a good trait. Experiences are full and complete. Nothing is missed. Sensitivity is life to the max. It’s experiencing everything that the world has to offer. And it’s an amazing world. My son’s approach to life is admirable. He’s an expert observer. He examines toys to see how they work. He is acutely aware of other’s feelings and always thinks before he acts. The friends he makes are genuine. He’s an exceptional person inside and out. Maybe he will grow out of the sensitivity. Maybe he won’t. But it’s not going to slow him down.
But as it stands, we really do feel disappointed when we miss something with friends. But regret? Nope. Time is what we make of it, and we’re always making the best of the things we partake in. Sensitivity is only a bad thing when it’s made an issue by others, and a little patience goes a long way. Maybe you have a highly sensitive child in your life. Perhaps you don’t. But your understanding helps my son thrive in his comfort zone. And you’re helping out a mom who knows the disappointment of saying “no thank you,” but also knows the terrible consequences if she doesn’t.