Last night, my four-year old son told me that when someone is being “mean” to him, he feels like his “heart would explode.”
When I heard this, my first reaction was amusement rather than alarm. I knew that the meanness in question is usually an adult asking him to follow instructions, or perhaps the refusal of a fellow pre-schooler to share a toy. I was quite confident that there was no permanent damage to the heart in any of those situations.
But, I also know that my son is a sensitive child. His feelings are hurt often and easily, and I am afraid I am to blame, because he is essentially the same child I was at his age. He is, however, also a little boy with boundless energy and joy. So while I wasn’t too worried about him holding on to his slights forever, his dramatic description of his feelings — while made me laugh — also gave me cause for thought.
According to studies, the “highly sensitive child” is one of the 15 to 20 percent of children born with a nervous system that is highly aware and quick to react to everything. This makes them quick to grasp subtle changes, often reflect deeply before acting, and generally behave conscientiously. They are also easily overwhelmed by high levels of stimulation, sudden changes, and the emotional distress of others. Ali scores high on a questionnaire for parents that’s been developed to test for high sensitivity in children. He has always been intuitive, extremely curious, and easily rattled, especially in situations with high levels of noise or chaos. He also has a keen sense of humor, and is very perceptive of adults’ moods and subtle changes in behavior. So the results of the test weren’t surprising to me. The real challenge however is how to respond to these traits in a way that nurtures his fast-evolving personality.
While high sensitivity among children is, according to many psychologists, a wonderful trait that can result in high moral conscientiousness and empathy, such children can also be more prone to anxiety and depression as adults if misunderstood. They might be boxed under labels such as shy, fearful, or hyper-sensitive, and fail to fully express their intuitiveness and creativity as they grow older. As a child who battled painful bouts of shyness and inhibition throughout my childhood, I want to avoid the mistakes made with me and encourage Ali to take pride in the wonderful and unique little person he is. Most of all, I want to encourage him to face his fears–whether they arise in personal or professional relationships, or in dealing with life’s inevitable hardships.
While high sensitivity among children is, according to many psychologists, a wonderful trait that can result in high moral conscientiousness and empathy, such children can also be more prone to anxiety and depression as adults if misunderstood.
And finally, I want to not laugh at his use of big words to convey his feelings (like I did when he first told me about the heart explosion). I want to listen to him like I would listen to an adult, and understand the sentiment behind his dramatic expressions rather than dismiss it as an exaggeration. Perhaps one day, he would use his art and creativity to convey those very feelings in memorable ways. I can’t wait for what beauty this explosive little heart would produce.
For fellow parents of highly sensitive children, here’s a nice blog with various perspectives.