Sensitivity is so misunderstood and undervalued in our society. I am a highly sensitive person and I have a child who is also highly sensitive. Growing up this way comes with many challenges that I can attest to.
For those of you reading this that are also highly sensitive perhaps I can offer a bit of relief to you. If you are parenting a highly sensitive child my hope is that I can provide some insight that will help you understand your child from the inside out.
First of all we are bombarded with billions of bits of sensory data every minute. In fact, much more than the average brain can process. This is why we have a filter in our brain. This filter is called our “reticular activating system”. Our filter, if in good working order, should filter out all the unnecessary data and help us to focus on that which needs our attention. For many of us who are highly sensitive this filter has most likely been compromised during birth. If we had a traumatic birth then the filter did not get turned on. This makes it very difficult to tune out all the stimulation….light, sound, feelings, taste, and touch. It is overwhelming. We are sensitive to everything. We feel it all. First of all I want to underline that I don’t believe there is anything wrong with us sensitive folks. There are some gifts to being highly sensitive that I would not trade for anything in the world, however, growing up sensitive can be a very wounding experience. When we feel everything and we feel it deeply we are more susceptible to being wounded and we are more likely to become defended.
My son is highly sensitive. He is extremely bright, has an excellent memory, feels everything deeply and is easily distracted. His dysfunction increases with stimulation. When he’s at home in his safe place all is well. He demonstrated all the signs that his development is on track. When he goes to school or he’s in an environment where lots is going on he becomes alarmed, agitated and unable to focus. I can relate to this as an adult. Put me in a noisy room, full of people I don’t know with lots going on and I get anxious. I long for the quiet solitude of my home and my family where I can once again “think” clearly.
Those of us who are highly sensitive in this way are at risk of being diagnosed with things such as ADHA or Asperger’s when in fact we are just highly sensitive beings. We need to time to mature and develop self-control. We need more time for this process of development to take place than the average person. My son will probably take a couple years longer to mature but this in no way indicated that something is wrong nor that he is of lower intelligence. Most highly sensitive folks have above average intelligence. As a parent it is my job to take full responsibility of my son and his development. One day his sensitivity will be his greatest gift as it is mine. It is to be cherished, nurtured and developed. Our world needs those of us who are sensitive. Intelligence does not make us fully human our emotions do. I have long ago given up trying to change our school system and instead focus on providing for my son’s unique needs. Giving him my unconditional love and understanding is critical to his development. Feeling misunderstood, not seen and not accepted is the most wounding of all.
If you are highly sensitive or if you have a highly sensitive child then here are some things to consider.
Be Patient – us sensitive folks take longer to mature. We must be patient and allow time for the necessary development to take place. We cannot put a timeline on this. Western society puts such a focus on comparisons and if our child is not keeping up with the majority we begin to look for what is wrong. Every time I think of Ages and Stages I get frustrated. Growing up takes time and some of us take longer than others. Take the focus off of trying to make your child develop to quickly. We can’t push rivers. Work on acceptance and nurturing a loving relationship where your child feels unconditionally invited to exist. For teachers working with sensitive children that are delayed it can sometimes help to drop any agenda around teaching and just focusing on developing a relationship where the child feels safe. Remember all growth comes from a place of rest. If the child is anxious then no learning can take place. The dysfunction only grows.
Soften the Heart – Sensitive children become defended more quickly and more easily. In an attempt to protect them from wounding stimuli the brain defends and the heart hardens. Although this is designed for our survival it affects our ability to learn and grow. Science shows that when our heart hardens so does our brain! It is almost a daily occurrence in our house that I have to spend time with my son to soften his heart. The day’s events have often been wounding for him and he comes home full of foul frustrations. I need to spend that time with him, creating safety, showing love and understanding so that he can feel all the vulnerable emotions pent up inside that he didn’t feel safe to have at school. As long as my son has his tears and his heart softens he develops the resiliency required to face all the hurts and disappointments that life has to offer.
Handle Frustration – Frustration is a root emotion and sensitive folks experience greater levels of frustration. I try to reduce frustration for my son where possible by creating an environment that meets his needs but when this is not possible I must help him handle is own frustration. That means that I need to help him find ways to let it out so that it does not turn to aggression or depression. In order to do this I must make room in my life for my own frustrations and find healthy outlets for those things that are not working for me. Our children will not be able to feel those emotions that we cannot be with as parents.
Address separation – The most alarming and frustrating experience we have as humans is that of physical, emotional and psychological separation. My son’s dysfunction increases when he experiences separation of any sort. This could be physical separation from mom and dad during the day or psychological separation from his teacher into the form of not measuring up. When we are sensitive we feel everything deeply so sense when we have lost favour with our attachments or are not invited to exist unconditionally.
Foster development – Last but not least we must work on supporting development and mixed feelings. When my son is in a good place then I can plan little seeds that get him thinking and feeling. That ability to reflect helps us to develop mixed feelings. Fostering courage, the ability to think twice and to be sad about things is so important. I myself am still working on this. Both myself and my son have a tough time looking at our short comings. It can be wounding to see where we have failed or made mistakes yet this is vital to our growth. How can I make is safe for my son to look at himself. I often tell at story that illustrates my own mistakes in life that he can relate to. I normalize this experience of failure and help to to feel the vulnerability of it.
Remember to keep those hearts soft…our brains depend on it!
Denise exclusively references Dr. Gordon Neufeld’s developmental attachment theory. More more information on Dr. Neufelds approach please visit www.neufeldinstitute.com