I have written before about how life changing it is to discover that your child is highly sensitive – that you can finally put a name to the behaviours and traits you see in your children. That light bulb moment actually paves the way to parent in a new way.
It’s the theme of my latest article that has been published by the wonderful parenting magazine Mamalode. “The Day I Became the Mother my Sons Need Me to Be” relays my story of how I came to learn my eldest son is highly sensitive.
“The term ‘highly sensitive’ meant nothing to me six years ago, back when I was the bewildered mother of a three-year-old boy who seemed unable to tolerate the world around him.”
I share just what a difference finding out about the existence of highly sensitive made to our family life.
“My beautiful sensitive boy. Not fussy. Not shy. Not socially challenged. Not high maintenance. Not in need of professional help. Just a highly sensitive child. My highly sensitive child.”
Learning that I am the mother to three highly sensitive children changed everything. ‘Highly sensitive’ helped me look at parenting in a whole new light.
They are words that helped me be a more patient, understanding mother to two more newborn sons who also cried often and inconsolably unless snuggled safely in their mother’s arms. I doubted myself less, and held my babies more.
When your family is a mish-mash of varying degrees of highly sensitive, finding a middle path through takes patience. Finding the right balance takes work and time.
My eldest son is a classic HSC and an introvert, resistant to anything unfamiliar, sensitive to noise, stress and negative emotions, and is sent over the edge on an almost daily basis by his classroom surroundings. He was a cautious toddler and at the age of seven still observes carefully before he acts. He is easily distracted and once he is over stimulated there are dramatic, lengthy meltdowns.
My middle son is a thrill seeker, an adventurer and daredevil but sensitive to noise. He is reserved in his classroom and needs time to recover from his school day. He’s like his eldest brother in many ways, yet in other ways they couldn’t be more different. As a toddler he was climbing chairs and tables with no concern for danger and at the age of four cannot get enough of roller coasters and things he can precariously hang on. He is often intensely focussed and cannot be distracted. When he is over stimulated he is like a rubber ball bouncing off our walls.
My youngest son, now three, is a terrible sleeper, and has been since birth. He cannot sleep alone in a room through the night. He is terrified by loud (unexpected) noises and can be withdrawn in unfamiliar settings with people he doesn’t know.
All three sons were high needs babies, crying incessantly for the first three months of their lives, six in the case of my youngest. My eldest needed someone in the room with him until the age of four in order to fall asleep.
When my eldest was three and in nursery school, struggling to adjust to a new environment, having issues with separation anxiety, I heard the words ‘highly sensitive’ for the first time. I started researching and everything fitted.
Once my middle son started primary school we were knocked sideways when he started showing the same behaviours at home that we had seen with his older brother. There were no real warning signs that he was highly sensitive prior to this, except, looking back, that he was a high needs baby. Primary school seemed to tip him over the edge. The noise and the busyness around him bothers him, it often makes him tired, hyper or irritable.
And so last year I suddenly saw first hand that highly sensitive children out their sensitivities in different ways, and what works for one child isn’t a quick remedy for another.
My eldest needs more hand holding than many other boys the same age. He won’t go to unfamiliar places without his father or me. That means he won’t have lunch with a school friend (a typically Dutch primary school child ritual) if he hasn’t been to their house before. On the contrary, when my middle son started school last year he bounded out at lunchtime in his first week wanting to go to one classmate’s house after another to eat. No fear. No holding him back. I had to make a switch and step in to help him in a very different way than I was used to helping his older brother. Instead of trying to encourage I had to try and rein him in a little. Without quiet in the middle of the day, without time to unwind, he, just like his elder brother, was over stimulated at the end of the school day. Which meant the two of them clashed come four o’clock, and our household descended into chaos.
We also found out the hard way that my middle son often needs to release his energy in a burst of physical activity when he reaches his saturation point. After an explosion of exertion he is calm.
My eldest, on the other hand, shows his frustration and overstimulation with frenzied tantrums and screaming. He needs the complete opposite to his brother – silence, quiet and calm – in order to return to a relaxed state. Very different needs. And generally they need both these things at the same time – after their school day comes to a close. There is conflict, there is drama. And some days are tough for a highly sensitive mother.
I am like my eldest; I need a daily dose of quiet to recharge, to empty my bucket. Without quiet time my patience and ability to cope calmly with three young boys is seriously diminished.
The level of my sensitivity, and that of my eldest son also means that we have to plan family visits, excursions or activities well. Serious disruption at a time when my son is already feeling overloaded means days of picking up the pieces, which has a negative effect on the whole family. It means that our levels of spontaneity are not often high. We also always reserve the right to change or abandon plans at the last minute that we know are just not going to work. And to people outside our family our way of operating is not always a welcome one.
Since babyhood my sons have needed a routine. They have needed to know what is going to happen, what to expect. They have always had a solid, predictable bedtime routine and we learnt the hard way to deviate from it at our peril. This need for routine and structure has had an adverse effect on relations with some of my in-laws, who could never get their heads around the fact that we wouldn’t drag our children from house to house for an evening birthday celebration, or stoically visit their house every weekend.
And having a highly sensitive trio also throws up challenges for us as parents. We don’t need our children to pick up the details about all the bad things that happen around us. I have two sons with an emotional radar that makes hiding negative feelings tough and they think about things deeply and take things personally. It’s a challenge to find the right balance so that they don’t lie in their beds stressing at night nor feel like things are being kept from them.
Parenting our HSCs is a balancing act; we constantly try to meet one son’s needs without disregarding the needs of another. I believe our role as parents is to help our boys find the tools to live harmoniously with their sensitivity and to feel comfortable with their own limitations and triggers. It’s no easy task, and one that will probably occupy us until my sons become adults. And that’s okay with me.
When my husband and I had our second child, we were thrilled. She was a bit fussy, but I wrote it off as her just doing what babies do. There were small clues that I didn’t pick up on at first. She would only nurse. She refused to use a bottle, even if it had breast milk in it. And forget about a pacifier. She would spit it out immediately. As she got older, the signs were glaring. She was given a book that played a little tune and she would cry every time it played. She cried at birthday parties when everyone sang “Happy Birthday”. I couldn’t sing in the car because it caused an absolute meltdown. She refused to wear certain clothes, and sometimes she would just cry for no reason at all. I kept thinking something was wrong with her, but the doctor assured me she was fine. I thought because she was so particular about things she might have OCD. I combed the internet looking at the symptoms, but they just didn’t seem to fit. While she did obsess about a few minor things, it wasn’t to an extreme degree. I also didn’t feel like she thought we were in danger if she didn’t do certain things. For the most part she was, and is, a happy child. I checked the autism spectrum and still didn’t think it was right. I kept researching different personality disorders and scouring mental illness sites. In trying different terms during one of my searches, I stumbled across the words ‘highly sensitive’. It was like a light switched on. I began reading anything I could find on it. Any book or website and every angle on the subject that could be studied. It all made perfect sense. Finally, I was beginning to understand her and her personality. Most importantly, I learned there is nothing wrong with her. She is simply more in tune with the world around her. At first it was hard trying to accommodate her quirks, but we’ve since learned to love and appreciate every part of her personality. Now Veronica is four years old. As she gets older she has outgrown some of the behaviors that were more difficult to deal with. We do our best to teach her how to best cope when hard situations come up. She will go into a public restroom as long as she can keep her ears covered. Unless it has one of those Xlerator hand dryers, then forget it. They’re just too loud. Her sock seams still need to be straight, but she can pretty much dress herself. I keep a pair of scissors handy to cut off loose threads. I can now sing in my car, most of the time. She doesn’t freak out at birthday parties anymore. She really enjoys a good party. She likes semi-trucks and fire trucks, but admires them from afar. She likes to help fold the laundry, but only if she can do a particular item by herself. For example, only she can fold the shirts and I will fold the pants. She still randomly cries sometimes, but now she can articulate what’s the matter, and I can help her through it. Just like with any child, some days are better than others. I’m enjoying watching her blossom into a wonderfully creative and beautiful person. I especially treasure the times she lets me into her world and shares all the beauty she sees. We’ve still got a lot to learn, but we’re all enjoying the journey.
Finally it’s here my first eBook inspired by this community page and all the wonderful people out there who care passionately. I would be so grateful if you could read, like, share, comment and review it all helps to spread the word because coming to understand highly sensitive children can transform lives.
It’s not easy to be a highly sensitive child. Nor is it always easy to raise, care for, guide and teach a highly sensitive child. Because the highly sensitive child experiences the world a little differently, and that can be difficult to understand.
This book aims to help you experience the world from the child’s perspective, so that you can better understand them and help them to grow and thrive. In this simple, concise guide I distil the reams of information available on the highly sensitive child so that you can get the knowledge you need quickly and easily.
Philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche wrote: ‘And those who were seen dancing were thought to be crazy by those who could not hear the music.’ The highly sensitive child isn’t crazy. Nor are they slow, or weak, or just ‘not tough enough’. They simply dance to a tune that not everyone can hear. This book helps you hear the music to which the highly sensitive child dances. Once you know the tune exists, and you listen for it carefully, you’ll find it’s beautiful, moving, powerful music.