Learning To Parent My Highly Sensitive Son

by Wendy Wisner
Originally Published: 
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When my son was younger, it was easy to label him “stubborn”—or the somewhat more positive term, “strong-willed.” He was not the kind of child who would just “go with the flow.” Everything had to be just as he liked it, and if it wasn’t, he would put up a fight.

I remember once, when he was around 5 months old, I had been sitting with him outside enjoying a lovely spring day. He was sitting on the grass pulling up dandelions (and I was trying frantically to make sure he didn’t eat them all). When it was time to go inside for lunch, I picked him up and he started wailing. No, not just a little sniffle. He shook his tiny fists and looking longingly at the sunny scene 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 recommenced. I didn’t think a baby that young could express such angst about ending an activity before he was ready, but it seemed that was just what he was doing.

It wasn’t just transitions he had trouble with. A few months into eating solid food, he proved to be quite the picky eater. If a food didn’t meet his specifications, he would turn his nose up in the air and clamp his mouth shut. The same pickiness applied to clothing: no tags, nothing scratchy. He complained often of being too hot, and he was easily chilled. He was prone to epic tantrums, and it was hard to snap him out of them.

I should note that, despite his intense nature, he was an incredible child to parent. He was very bright from an early age—a thoughtful soul, the wheels in his brain always turning. He loved reading, making up stories, and playing with numbers. He learned to read quite early and was manipulating fractions at 4 years old.

Despite his strong-willed tendencies at home, he was well-behaved in school and made friends easily. I surmised that his stubborn qualities went along with his giftedness (I have learned that this is true of many gifted children). I always said to myself that as long as he functioned well outside our home, it was okay for him to save some of his angst for us, and that he would outgrow some of it as he got older.

That has proven true to some extent. He’s 9 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 generally a thing of the past.

Recently, in doing some personal research, I came across the website of Dr. Elaine Aron, the clinical psychologist who coined the term “highly sensitive person.” Since I was a child, I have been called “sensitive,” and when I found Dr. Aron’s website and read the list of traits attributed to highly sensitive people, it was like a light bulb went off in my brain. 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 a freak of nature; 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 also fit the description of a highly sensitive person. 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 of traits of 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—all listed together.

Dr. Aron states that highly sensitive people are normal, that their traits are innate, but that many highly sensitive people are misunderstood. I wondered if maybe I had misunderstood my son to some extent. Maybe I shouldn’t have labeled him stubborn when he was young. Though I had compassion for him and recognized that his stubbornness was tied into his giftedness, maybe I was too hard on him. Perhaps I didn’t have enough patience for his intensity.

The fact is, though, he was difficult—and I’m a sensitive person too, so it was hard for me let his fierceness just roll off my back.

As he enters middle childhood, what stands out about him is the intensity of his feelings. 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 confidant—a safe person for him to sort all these things out with. Although I have 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.

My hope is that understanding him (and myself) a little better is going to really help me as he grows up. 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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