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Parenting a Highly Sensitive Child: My Greatest Lesson

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.

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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 35.

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 burden.

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.

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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.

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