It’s a Friday. It’s after school. Your eldest son has been invited to a friend’s for tea. When it’s time to pick him up, the other parents gush about how wonderful and polite he has been, how he has played nicely all afternoon and fall over themselves to tell you that he can come again anytime.
Then it comes to leaving.
Your son won’t put his shoes on. You give him a two-minute warning, thinking it is surely enough time to finish what they are doing on Minecraft. Two minutes pass. He still won’t put his shoes on.
This is the start of a game you are forced to start playing: the ‘how many times can you ask him to put his shoes on before he actually does it’ game.
You will always lose this game.
When you insist, again, that he puts his shoes on he shouts ‘NO!’ You reason, negotiate, cajole, consult, debate, bribe and even threaten to drag him home with no shoes on at all. He shouts ‘NO!’ again. You give in and attempt to squeeze his wriggling feet into his shoes but he lets off a blood-curdling wail and stamps his feet. He runs and hides. He starts to cry.
The other parents insist it is ok, but you can see they are mortified and just want this suddenly horrible child to get out of their calm, peaceful, idyllic house.
He continues to wail and scream and lash out as you finally force his shoes on. You profusely apologise to the other family and are incredibly embarrassed. When you finally get out of the house, he yells at you the whole walk home and blames you for ending his game, ruining his fun and being the worst parent ever.
He is not ever invited back.
This is NJ. He is 7 years old and is a highly sensitive child.
Parents of other more compliant and amenable children probably dismiss this behaviour as just attention seeking or the petulance of a spoilt little brat. What they don’t see is that he feels emotions on a deeper level and can often feel overwhelmed by sudden and unexpected changes that leave him feeling unprepared.
He also feels pain more acutely than others his age – in football, the slightest kick or shove will often be met with complaints or tears. He isn’t keen on big crowds or loud music, which makes birthday parties a challenge and has a tendency to become attached to inanimate objects – he refuses to throw things away and has a collection of ‘special items’ that no one else can touch. These include badges, stickers, paper planes and even a Match of the Day magazine wrapper.
As he has progressed through school, it has become clear that the education system is not suited to him and it has created a lot of anxiety in him. His sensitivity means he struggles with ever-changing school friendship groups and is often picked on or excluded.
However, raising a highly sensitive child can be extremely rewarding. NJ is naturally inquisitive and constantly wants to learn and understand the world around him.
He excels at maths and reading and his capacity to learn is only limited by our ability to keep up. He has always been at the top of his class, to the point where he becomes bored from being held back. He loves being outside and learning through play rather than the confines of a regimented classroom.
Here is what I’ve learned so far:
1. Don’t shout
We’ve all seen the films – an army Sargent pops a vein screaming at a load of grunts that hastily fall into line. Don’t we all want our children to obey us like that at one point or another? You may think that shouting will solve the behavioural problem in your house too. If you’ve had to ask your child to brush their teeth five times and they still haven’t, you obviously can’t be asking them loud enough, right?
A highly sensitive child will be more in tune with the moods and emotions of others and shouting will prolong any behavioural problems and distress.
With NJ he needs to feel understood and shouting at him will make him feel like he isn’t listened to and increase is frustration, and in turn, his unwanted behaviours.
It is far more effective to remain calm, reason with him and explain the ‘whys’ so that he can understand what is happening and how he is affected. Whilst I’m sure the same can be said for all children, a highly sensitive one will need more convincing, more reasoning, and will ask more questions until they are fully onboard.
2. Explain that all emotions are ok
Nobody wants their child to be angry, grumpy, or tearful, but no matter how hard you try they are going to be. They won’t even realise it, and they often won’t be able to control it.
We encourage NJ to accept his feelings and rather than wail or shout or cry, describe how he feels and what he is concerned about.
Dismissing them would just leave him confused and frustrated that he isn’t able to be understood.
We explain that it is perfectly normal to feel angry, sad or frustrated and that he is responsible for he reacts to these emotions.
Things won’t always go his way – kids at school call him names, we won’t be able to buy him a new Pokemon card game, he won’t always win at football. Whilst he may be upset, it is important he has the tools to defuse his extreme emotions before they explode.
3. Learn the trigger points
By the end of the day, N’s mind is exhausted from constantly absorbing information and trying to control his bubbling emotions.
He isn’t keen on transitions and thrives when in a stable environment. Given the slightest modicum of doubt or uncertainty, he digs in and refuses to take part. As far as possible we prepare him through a regular routine or talking to him about trips out so that there are as few surprises as possible. It has meant that we have considered stopping or altering certain activities so that he isn’t put into situations that make him uncomfortable.
Initially, I thought it was up to us to toughen him up or watch the world chew him up. I used to look on enviously at other families at parties or in parks. Why didn’t they have to live with the ticking time bomb that are the words ‘it’s time to go home’ or the fairly innocuous ‘it’s time to sit down and play pass the parcel’?
Rather than change him, we accept his intense emotions and recognise he just needs a little more help in managing them. It seems the world needs more sensitive people after all.
Does any of this sound familiar to you? Am I just describing a typical seven-year-old? Let me know what you think.