Sensitive children are the canaries and the world our coal mine. They can tell us when the conditions are all wrong, when there is danger and injustice. They warn us that the world is too harsh while simultaneously softening it with their presence. They are candles lighting the darkness, and if we look toward them, once our eyes adjust to the light, we will see the turmoil and the hope.
I’m focusing on boys in this piece because I have no experience with raising a sensitive girl, only with being one. I have two boys, one of whom is an HSC (—a trait 20% of the population carries), and raising a sensitive boy comes with unique challenges and blessings, as raising a sensitive daughter comes with its own unique challenges and blessings.
What is high sensitivity?
These children are born with nervous systems that are highly aware. They feel everything deeply—pain, love, sadness, joy. They may startle easily, dislike scratchy clothing or seams in socks. They often are sensitive to odors and notice changes in their environment. They are in tune with the suffering of others. They have rich inner lives and ask deep questions. They may prefer quiet play and be bothered by noisy places or sudden change.
We still live in a culture that shames sensitive boys, which is why we, as their parents, must be their champions. In his book, The Strong Sensitive Boy, Ted Zeff says, “When sensitive boys do not conform to the stereotypical ‘boy code’ and instead express compassion, gentleness, and vulnerability, they are frequently ostracized and humiliated.”
You might think we’ve moved beyond this nonsense, but just this week I overheard a crying boy being told that, “Boys don’t cry like that” and to, “Straighten up.” Our culture still expects boys to be tough and emotionally repressed. Because of this, being highly sensitive is particularly challenging for boys.
Fortunately, with the right support, these boys can not only overcome their challenges but thrive as kids and adults. Here are a few ways you can support your sensitive boy:
A good environment is key
Home must be a sensitive child’s safe haven. They quickly pick up on tensions between parents and can be deeply hurt by siblings who tease.
The best thing you can do for your sensitive son is to create a home atmosphere that is warm, soothing, and accepting. Do not allow siblings to tease or name-call. Work to create a home culture where family builds each other up and supports one another.
Here are a number of ways to set a good environment:
- Build positive relationships through dinners at the table, cooperative games, traditions, light-hearted conversations and quality family time.
- Do not compare siblings but celebrate the uniqueness of each child.
- Make clear rules about treating one another with respect and kindness. When a child breaks this rule, the “consequence” is that he must make amends and repair the relationship. This comes after a heart-to-heart discussion about how he made his sibling feel and why it is important to make amends.
- Keep conflict to a minimum. Zeff says, “Though any child may be alarmed and frightened by [hearing parents quarrel], highly sensitive children are likely to be affected even more by parental conflict.”
Maintain a secure attachment
A positive bond between mother and son is important for all boys, but it is especially essential for the sensitive boy. There is a societal fear of raising “mama’s boys” and of coddling, which lead us to prematurely separate from our boys. Mom needs to remain emotionally connected to her sensitive son.
He will receive many messages outside the home from his peers, teachers, media and coaches that there is something wrong with him, that he needs to toughen up and “be a man,” but you are there with the consistent message of you are wonderful how you are. You are a worthy and loved human being.
Here are some tips for remaining close as a family:
- Play. This is the easiest way to connect heart-to-heart with any child. Play looks different in the tween and teen years. Instead of playing trains or blocks, it might look like video gaming, canoeing, bike riding or learning about his comic book collection. They key is to get into his world.
- From hugs and snuggles to fist bumps and hair ruffles, stay connected through physical affection.
- Laugh together. Victor Borge wrote, “Laughter is the closest distance between two people.” Shared laughter strengthens relationships, so find something funny!
- Be his . Celebrate your son’s many wonderful traits. See the good in him and tell him what you see, because there are enough people out there who will tell them what they see wrong with him. It is our job, as mothers, to tell them what we see that’s right and good and true.
- Avoid harsh and criticizing words which are very wounding to sensitive kids. Rather than shaming or physical discipline, opt for . However, also avoid being permissive for fear of wounding your child. Correct him, just do so gently.
Teach him how to handle his strong, deep emotions
Sensitive boys feel all emotions more deeply than the 80% non-highly-sensitive population, so it’s crucial to teach your son about his feelings and how to cope with them.
It’s really important to not make him feel like he’s weird or wrong for having such deep emotions. I think that it’s also important to validate but not exaggerate his experience. For example, validating is, “I know it hurts when you stub your toe. I’ll get you some ice” while exaggerating is “Oh my poor baby! That must hurt so much. Let me see! That looks really, really painful. I see why you’re crying! It really hurts, doesn’t it!”
I’m speaking from experience; the latter only makes the situation worse!
Here are some tips for helping your child handle his emotions:
- Use time-in rather than time out. The will help you create a calming space to regulate emotions and teach about them.
- Teach them how to take big deep breaths, hug their , watch a swirling glitter jar, and journal or draw their feelings to help them through tough moments.
- Use to teach about feelings.
Teach him to set boundaries
Sensitive children often are people-pleasers and perfectionists. They go above and beyond to make everyone around them happy and comfortable, and sometimes they stretch themselves too thin or put the needs of others ahead of their own too much. Teach them that setting boundaries doesn’t make them selfish and that’s okay (even beautiful) to be flawed and imperfect.
Here are a few ideas:
- Give them scripts to say to their peers when they need out of a situation.
- Give them a voice in your home so they can find their voice outside of it.
- Teach them to trust their intuition and honor their instincts.
- Role-play situations where they might need to enforce a boundary.
- Look for children’s books on boundaries, like ""
A word of caution
It can be difficult to not overprotect these boys. It’s a fine line I still learn to walk every day—figuring out just how much he can handle and the best way to support him without stifling his growth. There isn’t a perfect answer, and I know sometimes I get it wrong. Being overprotective sends the wrong message though—it says I don’t trust you to be able to deal with this.
I suppose the best message we can try to give our sensitive boys is I believe in you and your ability to fly, and I’m here to catch you should you fall.
A version of this post was published July 8, 2021. It has been updated.