I was standing in a Chick-fil-A, looking up into the endless abyss that is the play area. In a dome of small voices echoing through the tubes, I could hear it: the cry that could only be matched to a boy who belongs to me. I saw all the other parents rise just to check, but I knew this one was part of my crew. And then there he was, emerging from the tube slide as though he had just returned from war—shaky and drenched in sweat as the post-traumatic stress started to take over—and through broken words and a distressing change of pitch in his voice, he muttered, “He hit me…in…my…face.”
He is 5-years-old, and his name is Henry. Henry is my nephew.
Following Henry’s long descent down the slide was Henry’s cousin, my son, Sheriff Chase, who is also 5 and who had a death grip on the shirt of the culprit—the one who assaulted Henry. Chase pushed him forward and presented him to me like he was ready to collect his bounty. “That’s the one!” Henry proclaimed.
I was on my knees, face-to-face with a 2-year-old angel-faced, diaper-wearing, drooling toddler. Henry is like 60 pounds. Despite the obvious differences in age and size, the boy’s mother was concerned for Henry and tried to make her son apologize. Unfortunately, Henry had to let the boy know that emotionally he was just “not ready” for an apology. It was too soon.
Henry is a highly sensitive child.
My sister and her husband sometimes find themselves conflicted. Most children will cry if another kid hits them or if their feelings get hurt, but this happens to Henry constantly, you could say. They tell him he’ll be fine, try to empathize, and be sweet but not too concerned in order not to perpetuate an emotional reaction. It seems impossible to make him understand everything is not the end of the world.
The world is so tough, and you want your kids to be tougher without being assholes. It is indeed a balance that is difficult to maintain. This is especially so in the case of highly sensitive children who are often the prime targets for bullies because they are easy to hurt and easy to elicit a reaction from. It’s heartbreaking for my sister to watch Henry run to a kid in his class with an overwhelming sense of happiness to see him, only to have that kid not express a mutual joy, and then come the tears. Henry cries when other kids don’t want to play with him, and he once asked his father, “Are you telling me you wish you never had a son?” when his dad was busy for a little while and couldn’t play at that moment.
As Henry’s parents, they also get frustrated. When a child spends more time crying about their feelings getting hurt during playdates than actually enjoying themselves, you just want to grab them and tell them how much time they’re wasting by being upset. You think, it’s not a big deal. The fall wasn’t that hard. The boy didn’t mean harm by not wanting to play; he just didn’t want to play that particular game. We want our children to be resilient, go with the flow, and be masters of handling change.
My sister was not present at Chick-fil-A, but when she asked Henry if he had a fun day, she got a mouthful about the boy who hit him in the face. She heard less about the cool dinosaur exhibit I took him to or the bouncy houses he jumped in that day. It was the “tube incident” that was worthy of a recap, and the story suddenly became about the aunt who let her nephew get jumped by a couple of droolers in the dark shadows of the fun zone.
But here’s the thing about Henry and his fellow highly sensitive people:
Being emotionally sensitive is not a problem to be solved. It’s not a disorder or an issue of high alert. What would you do if someone told you not to feel what you were feeling? It’s almost impossible. These children don’t just feel emotions; they feel things deeply. Their empathy is through the roof. They are the ones who want to help solve problems. They want you to know they care and that you can count on them. Henry would give all of his toys away if you told him they were going to children who have nothing. His heart overflows with love. If I told my son he should give his toys to children who have nothing, there would be a hostage negotiation. It would take 12 people to pry Iron Man from his hands. Kids are different, and they have different emotional capacities.
There is not an easy “fix” for a highly sensitive child. They are just tiny humans with a particular set of personality traits that make them who they are. For some of these kids, the world stops spinning when they trip on a stick. Blood-curdling screams can be heard frequently when they gently bump their shoulder on the wall. They can be highly annoying when they lose at a game, don’t get picked for a team, or when a flower wilts.
You can give them coping skills and support them through their emotional ups and downs, but they wear their hearts on their sleeves. And they will eventually learn how to better deal with their emotions as they grow and continue to be encouraged and supported by those they love. These kids—the whiners, the ones who are always upset or hurt—they know people don’t react well to their behavior. They can tell their tears repel others. They just can’t help it.
But that kind of passion and tenderness, it’s amazing all that can live inside such a small soul. So just remember this the next time your highly sensitive child is wailing in desperation after a kid half their size taps them on the face:
These kids do not need to toughen up for a world that will one day spit them out. Their little hearts are exactly what the world needs more of.