I read that as kids start to grow out of regular tantrums and extreme emotional reactions to things, it becomes more apparent when a child is “highly sensitive,” which is a term I had never heard before. I mean, of course, I know what the words mean, but I had never heard it as a thing. A fairly common thing, as it turns out. And it’s around age 6-7 when it really starts to become clear.
Yeah. I think we’ve got one of those.
What little I’ve read so far (really, just what I found from a cursory googling tonight) says that highly sensitive children feel physical and emotional pain more intensely than others. They are very inquisitive. Very smart. Have a hard time making decisions because they analyze the choices so intently. They cry easily. They seem to be dramatic. They have difficulty with things feeling unfair. This all sounds remarkably familiar.
Increasingly latel, I have been classifying him as dramatic. Often ungrateful. Infuriating. Stubborn, selfish, and — frankly — spoiled. He literally throws himself onto the ground in the middle of play dates when he believes that rules have been broken or that unfair consequences have been levied. He whines with indignation when he believes that a friend is ignoring him or disregarding him. To me, his responses have seemed over the top — the result, perhaps, of being an only child and having everything handed to him on a silver platter. And the physical pain aspect of it is interesting, too. He shrinks away from having his hair washed if I’m not incredibly gentle. He has been known to scream like I’m stabbing him in the eyes if I so much as go a little too far back with the toothbrush. And he regularly collapses into tears and moans over a stubbed toe. It never occurred to me that he actually felt pain differently — only that he was over-reacting to it.
But I’m no longer certain that’s the case. If what I’m reading does really apply to him, then he actually feels these slings and arrows more intensely than most of his peers do. More intensely than I ever did. More intensely than I have ever understood. And although we have always been very conscientious about his feelings, encouraging him to feel them and talk about them and get comfortable expressing all of them fully, it’s this bit that we have struggled with — recognizing that he is what they call “tenderhearted.”
This isn’t to say, of course, that he has a free pass for assholery. But rather, a reminder to me that it’s probably not usually actual assholery and instead an actual thing. Like, a real, definable, not even uncommon way of experiencing and relating to the world around him. And it’s on me not to simply apply consequences and lectures and frustrated ultimatums, but to instead try to remember how he is experiencing things. And to remind him regularly that I understand (or am at least trying to.) And to help him navigate relationships in a way that honors both his way of experiencing the world and others’ feelings and experiences also.
It’s a weighty responsibility — this whole parenting gig. But this understanding makes it feel just a little bit lighter now.