I Thought My Son Was Just Difficult, But He's Actually A Highly Sensitive Child

by Wendy Wisner
Originally Published: 
Judita Juknel / EyeEm / Getty Images

When my son was younger, he was not a “go with the flow” kind of child. Everything had to be just as he liked it. If it wasn’t, he would put up a fight and heaven help us all.

He was like this even as a baby. Once when he was 6 months old, he was sitting on the front lawn intently and methodically pulling up dandelions. When it was time to go inside, I picked him up and he started wailing. Not just a little sniffle either. We’re talking wailing. He shook his tiny fists in anger and looked longingly at the dandelions we were leaving behind. I set him back down in the grass, and he broke into a contented smile, but as soon as I picked him up again, the wails started back up, with angry red splotches appearing on his cheekbones.

I didn’t think a baby that young could express such angst about ending an activity before he was ready, but that was just what he was doing. This child had feelings about those dandelions, let me tell you, strong feelings.

It wasn’t just transitions he had trouble with either. A few months into eating solid food, he proved to be quite the picky eater. If a food didn’t meet his preferences, he would turn his nose up in the air and clamp his mouth shut. He was also finicky when it came to clothing: no tags, nothing scratchy. He complained often of being too hot or too cold.

As a toddler and even into his early elementary school years, he was prone to epic tantrums, and it was hard to snap him out of them. He went from zero to about one hundred billion in a second if something upset him.

If I am being totally honest, his intensity would destroy me sometimes. Like many parents of strong-willed children, I blamed myself for not being able to tame him, and I felt frustrated — and even traumatized sometimes — by what looked like a small tyrant child trying to control every aspect of our lives.

Despite all this, he was otherwise an incredible child to parent. He was very bright from an early age — a thoughtful soul, and the wheels in his brain were always turning. He loved reading, making up stories, and playing with numbers. He learned to read at 3 and was manipulating fractions at 4-years-old. He tested as “highly gifted” before he entered kindergarten.

For much of his childhood, however, his intensity was somewhat of an enigma to me. It was easy to label him “stubborn” — or the somewhat more positive term, “strong-willed” — but I recently realized those weren’t necessarily accurate. While doing some personal research, I came across the website of Dr. Elaine Aron, the clinical psychologist who coined the term “highly sensitive person” (HSP). I have always been labeled “sensitive,” and when I read the list of HSP traits, a light bulb went off. Suddenly my need for quiet, my strong emotions, and my uncanny ability to absorb the feelings of everyone around me made sense. I wasn’t weird; I was just part of the 20% of the population born with the “highly sensitive” gene.

At first, it didn’t occur to me that my son might be a highly sensitive person as well. In many ways, he is insensitive — he can be self-absorbed at times and isn’t especially introverted or shy. But when I clicked over to the checklist for highly sensitive children, my son fit almost every trait. Here was everything about him: from his sensitivity to foods, smells, clothes, to his intuitiveness and perfectionism.

Dr. Aron states that highly sensitive people are normal, that their traits are inborn, but that many highly sensitive people are misunderstood. Had I misunderstood my son all these years? Maybe he wasn’t a stubborn, willful, pain-in-the-ass. Maybe he was just sensitive, vulnerable — someone who takes in the world more intensely than others, who feels things deeply, with all his senses.

Had I been too hard on him? Though I had compassion and recognized that his stubbornness was tied into his giftedness, I know I didn’t always have enough patience with him. The fact is, though, he was very difficult, and I’m a sensitive person too, so it was hard for me let his fierceness just roll off my back.

He’s 10 now and is blossoming into a beautiful, mature, perceptive soul. He is much better able to understand and manage his BIG feelings now. He can catch himself when he is being unreasonable and try his best to just “go with it.” He still gets upset easily, is competitive and fiercely independent, but tantrums are a thing of the past now (thank the good lord!).

As he enters middle childhood, what stands out is how profoundly he thinks about things. In the evenings as I’m putting him to bed, he relays some of his worries — about school, about his friends, even about the state of the world. He picks up on the little things about the people around him. He absorbs things deeply, thinks about them intensely, and very often needs help processing his feelings.

I am grateful that he sees me as a confidante — a safe person for him to sort all these things out with. Although I beat myself up about my impatience with him, I know that he and I have a strong, intimate bond. After all, we are both highly sensitive people, and we love with all our hearts.

Like all parents, my hope is that the world will not be too harsh a place for him. I hope I can continue to see his sensitivities as gifts, help him work through the hard stuff, and most of all, accept him for the amazing child that he is.

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