If you see my 6-year-old son
kick the bag in taekwondo class, or command his pack of buddies at a park
playdate like a seasoned general, you’d think he is a boy of steel.
But I am privy to the other side
of the story—the boy who feels every ache and scrape with a pain that
is unparalleled. The Princess and the Pea has nothing on him. I’ve busted
out of the house at a full run to the sound of his shrieks, imagining a broken
arm, a fall from the treehouse, a flesh wound requiring stitches, only to find
he’s badly stubbed his toe or maybe broken the skin. If the injury has drawn
blood, I do everything in my power to keep this from him; the sight of blood
can cause him to hyperventilate.
“No, honey,” I’ve said more
times than I can count, “You won’t lose all your blood from that paper cut.”
I’ll never forget the first
time the pitch of his scream made me sure his infant self had fallen out of his
crib—I came running to find him exactly where I’d left him, but with a mosquito
sucking from his cheek. Albeit, that parasite left a mark on his tender skin
that took nearly a year to fade away, but to him it might as well have been a snake.
For the first two years of
his life you couldn’t wash him in anything but the gentlest solutions without
the appearance of a full body rash. Every new pair of shoes is a process of
agony for weeks until he adjusts to the way the edges scrape at his ankles.
Slippery socks on our slick hardwood floor often lead to tumbles that require 10 minutes of cuddles and kisses.
My son comes by this
sensitivity honestly; I was the child who had to be chased around the doctor’s
office before a throat culture, the gruff nurse forcing my head forced between
my knees after a blood test. I was also the child who had to be picked up from
failed sleepovers at 1 a.m., sure I’d seen a man with a knife in
the shadows, and the girl who had to lie down to get her blood drawn until age
I’ve learned that the only approach with a sensitive child is to acknowledge his pain as true.
With my history, you’d think
I was the perfect mother for this sensitive boy of mine. But sometimes the
child who is most like you can touch upon old wounds, and I find myself barking,
“Oh come on, it’s just a flesh wound.”
“Oh honey, that must have
really hurt when you antagonized the cat and he scratched you.”
“Oh baby, I’m so sorry you
slipped on the grass and bumped your knee.”
“That must have been awful
when my fingernail grazed your arm.”
While I struggle to deliver the perfect words in the moments when his pain seems over-the-top, I’ve learned that the only approach with a sensitive child is to acknowledge his pain as true. For only he knows exactly how he feels, and who am I to tell him otherwise? No matter how my
logical adult mind wants to minimize the moment, I remember the adults in my
life sneering at me, saying, “You’re sooooo sensitive” in a tone that
suggested I should toughen up. Friends’ parents didn’t want me to stay over. My
own parents and grandparents sighed heavily at my insistence that I was hurt or scared. I’ll always remember my mother’s furrowed gaze of frustration in
those horrible doctor’s visits, sending the message that my sensitivity was a
It wasn’t until my 20s that
I received validation for being sensitive. One day my supervisor at a high-end
spa where I worked yelled at me in front of the whole staff for a minor mistake.
Crushed, I hid in the linen closet so no one would see me cry. A coworker named
Len came after me.
When I babbled about being
overly sensitive through tears, Len patted me kindly on the shoulder, “Don’t
apologize for being sensitive. It’s a gift. Life is cruel and hard, and the
world needs sensitive people like you.”
I hold his words in mind
when my child falls apart because a friend didn’t want to play with him, or the
dental visit makes him scared. Sensitivity is often a burden to the one
who experiences it—you are an open channel to all the world has to offer, both the
beauty and the suffering. But it’s also a gift that you can learn to channel
into art or humanitarian efforts, or just empathy for your fellow human,
something that we should encourage in all children.