My son recently turned 4. He has never been an "easy, laid-back kid." He is many things, but he is anything but relaxed. Once, when someone asked me to describe him at a party, I was at a complete loss. I eventually settled on "he's a complicated soul," which got some laughs (after all, he was only 2.5 at the time), but it is true: he simply cannot be summed up in a few basic character traits.
My son has many wonderful characteristics. As I have written before, I adore his sense of humor. My husband and I cannot get enough of his jokes. He also has an ear for music, letters, and numbers. His memory is so good that at times, it startles me. He observes and takes in more than I think a typical little kid does. But the best part of him is that he is very affectionate with us, which I cherish every single day.
He also has traits that make him 'different' from a lot of children. He does NOT enjoy or want praise. He will cry if someone yells "good job" at his soccer goal. Similarly, he does not like a rousing round of Happy Birthday sung to him (exuberantly) by 15 people staring at him (Trust me on this. This year we had everyone sing it quietly. He still hid his face in his hands to hide from all of the attention, but this was progress). New situations, places, and people throw him for a loop (Don't even get me started on people who try to make him hug them or give them a high five 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.
Soooo... yeah, some of these situations are inexplicable and unavoidable in daily life. My husband and I are both nice, caring people, but even we were at a loss about what to do. We knew we couldn't and shouldn't ask everyone in our son's lives to avoid saying good job, and we know there are situations where he will be the center of attention. And of course water is going to get on his clothes, and he will eventually have to eat more than his selection of about 5 foods.
Then I found this book, The Highly Sensitive Child, by Elaine N. Aron, as if a gift from God, or whatever supernatural or spiritual being you believe in. The author is a psychologist who has done hundreds of interviews with families with children surprisingly similar to my little guy. I could not believe there were other children like my sweet, sensitive, yet uniquely challenging son.
Aron calls these children "highly sensitive."* She isn't diagnosing or labeling them with any kind of disability, and she does not pathologize sensitivity, but she does recognize that indeed, there truly is a 15-20% group of people in the world who can be categorized as being highly sensitive. With this trait, you will find conscientious, perceptive people; I would say that they often possess that "old soul" quality from a young age. You will also find strong reactions to situations that would barely register in less sensitive people.
Often, HSC (highly sensitive children) are introverted,** and they often aren't big risk takers, but not always. Though they all have high sensitivity in common, they are not all mirror images of each other, because of course they have other traits too and live in various environments.
Aron sees high sensitivity as an inherited temperament, and 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.
I think FranticMamaHubby and I are Highly Sensitive People (she first wrote a bestselling book on grown-up sensitive-types if you are interested), so it shouldn't surprise me that my son is on the extreme side of this trait. Aron includes simple, reliable true/false quizzes in the book to help you and your partner determine if you are or are not highly sensitive. And it matters: Your temperament as a parent directly affects your child.
The best part of the book is that the author offers very 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. I love her mantra: To have an exceptional child, you must be willing to have an exceptional child.
If any of this sounds like your child, or a child close to you, I urge you check out the book.
Or, have you already read it? What are your thoughts? I would love to hear them.
~Julia @ Frantic Mama
*Sensitivity is neither glorified or pathologized in this book. Like most traits, high sensitivity leads to both positive and challenging behaviors. She also does not simply define sensitivity as "having your feelings hurt easily." It is much more multi-dimensional than that.
** Let's get something straight. Introversion does not = shy. They are not the same. I think the best way to look at introversion/extroversion is this: Introverts recharge their batteries by having alone time. Extroverts get energy from being around people. Neither is better or worse, though I would argue in our culture extroverts are seen as preferable. On the [separate] subject of shyness, I would argue that not all shyness is something to "cure." But that's for another post.
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