Practically since he was born, my son, now seven, has seemed different. He is many things, but he is not relaxed or easygoing. Once, when he was just three, someone asked me to describe him. I was at a complete loss, eventually settling on, “He’s a complicated soul.” This got some laughs, but it’s still true: he simply cannot be summed up in a few basic character traits. Sensitive and emotionally intense are the most accurate descriptors.
Perhaps this strikes a chord with you.
My son has many wonderful characteristics. A clever sense of humor, an ear for music and numbers, and an arrestingly accurate memory. He observes and takes in more than most people. He also has traits that make him different, and often more challenging, than a lot of children. In our culture, differences often lead to misunderstandings.
For example, when my son was in preschool, he hated praise of any kind. He cried if someone yelled, “Good job!” at his soccer goal. He only recently accepted a rousing round of “Happy Birthday” before he blew out the candles. New situations, places, and people throw him for a loop and drive his anxiety to new heights. Don’t even get me started on the hell of doctor and dentist appointments, and facing people who want to hug him right off the bat. He is also physically sensitive. Tags on his clothes, seams in his socks, strong smells, new tastes, and water splashing on him bother him like crazy.
Some of these situations are unavoidable in daily life. While I wanted to embrace everything about my son, his intense reactions to daily activities put me in many embarrassing and tricky situations. My husband and I were at a complete loss about what to do to help him be comfortable and happy.
Enter the book, “The Highly Sensitive Child,” by Elaine N. Aron. The author, a psychologist, conducted hundreds of interviews with children surprisingly similar to my little guy. When I first started reading it, I couldn’t believe there were other children like my sweet, sensitive, yet uniquely challenging son. I felt an extreme sense of gratitude and hope.
Aron calls these children “highly sensitive.” She isn’t diagnosing or labeling them with any kind of disability. She doesn’t pathologize sensitivity, but she does recognize that 15 to 20 percent of people in the world possess this temperament trait.
Aron writes that “[a] highly sensitive child is one of the fifteen to twenty percent of children born with a nervous system that is highly aware and quick to react to everything. This makes them quick to grasp subtle changes, prefer to reflect deeply before acting, and generally behave conscientiously. They are also easily overwhelmed by high levels of stimulation, sudden changes, and the emotional distress of others.” They exhibit strong reactions to situations that might barely register in less sensitive people.
Aron also addresses the variability within the HSC (highly sensitive child) population. “Because children are a blend of a number of temperament traits, some HSCs are fairly difficult – active, emotionally intense, demanding, and persistent – while others are calm, turned inward, and almost too easy to raise except when they are expected to join a group of children they do not know. But outspoken and fussy or reserved and obedient, all HSCs are sensitive to their emotional and physical environment.” So, although they all have high sensitivity in common, they are not mirror images of each other.
Aron goes on to argue that high sensitivity is an inherited temperament and that when we recognize its validity and respect these children’s wishes, they really do blossom, and their parents (and teachers and caregivers) can better appreciate and understand them. On her website, Aron notes that “to blossom, they absolutely must be raised with understanding. Otherwise, as adults they are prone to depression, anxiety, and shyness.” It’s our responsibility as parents to embrace and assist our children in interacting with the world around them.
In her book, Aron includes simple, reliable, true or false quizzes to help readers determine if they and/or their child is highly sensitive. As parents, this matters: for better or worse, our temperaments directly affect our children.
The author also offers practical advice for all types of parents, those who are the opposite of their kids and those who aren’t. These tips have already helped us better understand our son and have helped my patience enormously. Most of all, I love Aron’s mantra: To have an exceptional child, you must be willing to have an exceptional child.