Saturday, September 23, 2006

My highly sensitive son and me

When my son started at his new preschool last year, he initially settled in just fine. The teachers told me several times about how surprised they were at his adaptability. But after several months there were little things that were not improving. He wasn't really catching on to potty training. He didn't eat very much. He had frequent meltdowns. He would get too worked up to use his words. In concert with his teachers, we've been trying a few things, particularly encouraging him to tell us what was wrong instead of just crying.

But I needed something more and wanted desperately to find proof that my son was not a complete oddity. In my searches I came across Elaine Aron's The Highly Sensitive Child. This is actually follow-up work to her general work on high sensitivity. There's even a website. Reading the book was a very emotional experience for me, as I saw both my son and myself on nearly every page.

And this is a large part of why my feelings about my son's differences run even deeper than the usual mother's protectiveness.

A highly sensitive person is more sensitive to stimuli than the average person. The possible manifestations are many, though most highly sensitive people exhibit both emotional and physical sensitivity. Through her research, Aron has calculated that about 20% of the population. She also points out that American society (and Canadian follows this to a great extent) is generally organized to the advantage of and usually celebrates the attributes of people with average sensitivity.

So how does this all play out with my son and me?

Even before I read this book, I'd noticed that he shared many of my emotional traits. The quickness to cry is not an indication that he is a sad child, as the father of one of his classmates has mentioned to my wife on more than one occasion. It is, rather, an outlet when he's overwhelmed. And the highly sensitive person is overwhelmed much more easily, because all external stimuli have a greater effect.

I have always cried easily. Sometimes I couldn't even explain why and would often make up an answer for my parents, who insisted that there must be something wrong. I recognize now that there was usually an aggregation of causes, and the smallest of discomforts or setbacks could be the tipping point. I've also realized that crying is the natural expression of a whole range of emotions for me, really any very strong emotion--sadness, anger, frustration, exhaustion, embarrassment. And this is also what I'm seeing with my son.

I am very sensitive to noise. That is not to say I must always have it quiet; in fact, I usually like to have the TV or some music on, even if I'm not really paying attention. But that is more a case of me being able to control the level of noise. In noisy places, I often find it hard to concentrate on or even hear what is being said to me. It's not normal distractability. It's more that I notice everything and want to process it all. Now many people would say that I'm inattentive or space out, but what is happening is that I have learned to tune out noise in self-defense and they have to practically get in my face before I notice they're talking to me. My son has not yet learned to ignore the noises around him. I remember one morning at preschool, the CD was acting up, emitting an odd squeak every once in a while. With each noise, my son would suddenly look up and make a little noise. I quickly realized that he and I were the only two in the room who noticed this; nobody noticed when I turned off the CD player either.

I have physical sensitivities too. My oddest one is a dislike of socks, mostly because I can rarely get the seams to lie correctly over my toes or they constrict my feet in the wrong places or they bunch up when I walk. I also hate many of the tags in my shirts. My son does not share those specific dislikes, but his picky eating seems to be largely due to texture. He loves chicken nuggets, but is picky even about those. We can't serve him the healthier versions because the breading has the wrong texture; he just has to feel the breading on his lips to know it's wrong.

It doesn't surprise me that he has meltdowns at school. There are about 25 kids in his classroom, many of them very noisy and rambunctious. He mostly loves playing with them, but sometimes it's too much. My son has always been able to play by himself, maybe one or two other people at most, so large groups can quickly overwhelm his senses. Especially when there are kids who insist on poking and touching and being right in his face; when the stimuli are already coming fast and furious, that's the last thing he needs. So of course he cries. I completely get it.

One thing I especially like about Aron's book is her strong belief that being highly sensitive is not "something to live with," but rather a quality to nurture and prize. This has meant a lot to me as I still struggle to overcome a lifetime of low self-esteem and now strive to make sure my son knows how special he is.

And being highly sensitive does have its benefits. I am generally good at reading other people; most of my errors come from my self-esteem problems so that I'm quick to read another person's anger as anger at me, but I get the emotion right. This also means I'm very empathetic. My son too is more empathetic than most kids his age. Whenever he hears crying, he looks for the source and tries to figure out what he can do. At the playground a couple weeks ago, when an older girl wiped out a younger girl on the slide, he immediately went up to her and asked, "You OK?"

It is very important to me that my son retain his empathy and ability to notice the little things. And I want him to know it's OK to be reflective and not in the middle of every social situation. On the other hand, I want to keep him in preschool and work with his teachers to help him defuse situations before the meltdown begins so that he will be able to start kindergarten with success.

I haven't even gotten into the obstinacy, perfectionism, easy frustration and lack of interest when something proves difficult. I'm also keenly aware that I need to make sure that my actions reflect the parenting he needs, not what I wish I had or what will help me heal.


bubandpie said...

I was thinking of Elaine Aron's books after I read your last post - I'm so glad you know about them. A good friend of mine is a classic HSP. I don't think I really fit the definition (and sometimes I feel inferior about that!). My husband probably has a lower threshold than I do for being overstimulated.

What I see in the Bub is the same traits that I have: he prefers to focus narrowly on something rather than to join a large group, but he's able to completely tune out the irrelevant stimuli (and people - many people, I think, fit his category of irrelevant!).

You have a fascinating son (here's hoping for a wee sib!).

Lisa b said...

I think that story of only you and your son hearing the squeek on the cd player is fascinating. I have some experience working with students who were very sensitive. I always think of the workshop where I learned about what you describe as being in a busy place and wanting to process everything. That understanding has always informed my interactions with students. It always amazes me what a difference it makes when the student is allowed to control their own environment, for example by listening to music on earphones.

Mouse said...

My wife certainly has some HSP tendencies too, so we've got a very full household!

My son definitely has the same tendency as Bub to focus narrowly on something and can tune out everything else.

I often use headphones when I need to concentrate just so that I have control of my background.

One thing that I'm very grateful for is that I'm learning to appreciate my own traits since I truly love my son unconditionally.