We're at a pub with friends for a Sunday lunch. Their baby is snoozing peacefully in his buggy. We're taking turns walking up and down, pat shushing, trying to settle our screaming baby. Again.
Toddler group. All the children are sitting on the floor singing the wheels on the bus, merrily making the actions. My son is sitting on my lap sobbing, trying to cover his ears.
We head off to a pre-school mini football class. The other children all shriek and run around after the balls having a whale of time. My son won't come out from behind my chair and when I finally manage to coax him out and get him to kick a ball to me, he cries if I take a step from his side.
It's his fourth birthday. We've hired a magician and he's got to dress up like a pirate. He doesn't want to be the magician's helper. He reluctantly joins in the party games. He cries when everyone sings happy birthday to him.
He's getting dressed for school. Or rather, he isn't. He's making a fuss and not putting his shirt on. Eventually I ask him why he won't put his shirt on. Apparently the badge on the shirt is scratchy. I get him a shirt without a badge on it. He puts it on happily.
It's the dreaded time of day - school drop off. I take him into the playground. He clings to me, like every other day for the last year. He cries. He says he feels sick. A teacher has to peel him off me. He screams and tries to escape. I have to just walk away and it breaks my heart. They assure me at pick up that he was fine once I left.
'Your son doesn't say much in class, but when he does, it is stunningly well thought out as though he has thought very deeply about the answer and is almost adult in his approach,' to quote his reception year teacher.
Monday afternoons, our worst day of the week. Swimming lessons. He shouts and yells that he isn't going. 'I hate it,' he screams. I get him in the pool, refusing to negotiate on this point. The swimming instructor tells off the little girl next to my son for not listening. My son bursts into tears, his lip wobbling for the rest of his lesson while his goggles fill with tears.
This is my son. I have written about him before:
What to do when you don't like your child
When we send him off to camp
For seven years I have been at a loss to know what to do with him. Nothing seemed to work. I'd always known he was sensitive, but as he got older, it seemed to me that many really undesirable qualities were coming to the fore: selfishness, laziness, aggression, drama queen tendencies.
But last week I was in a book shop and saw a book called The Highly Sensitive Person. It just seemed to leap off the shelf at me. I didn't buy it but went home and googled Highly Sensitive Children. And hey presto, up popped a web site with a quiz in which you answered questions about whether you have a highly sensitive child. So I did it. And no surprises, but he ticked just about every box. I ordered the book - Highly Sensitive Children by Elaine Aron - immediately and have spent the last few days reading it cover to cover.
It made me weep. Genuine sobbing and an immense feeling of guilt. How could I not have seen this in my child? How is it that I'd never heard of this as an issue? How could I have made so many mistakes with him? I wished with all my heart that I could take back the years and do them over again.
In case you, like me, were not aware of Highly Sensitive Children (HSCs), they make up 15 to 20% of the population, too big a proportion for this to be so unknown. It's NOT a disorder. It is NOT aspergers or autism. In short, a highly sensitive person absorbs more and processes everything more thoroughly. To quote the book:
"HSCs are born with a nervous system that causes them to prefer to observe all the subtleties in a situation and to process all of this information deeply before acting. As a result, HSCs tend to be highly reflective, intuitive and creative (having a strong sense of how things came to be how they are and what could happen next); conscientious and concerned about fairness and what others are feeling; and aware of subtle changes, details or 'what's missing in this picture'. The trait also causes them to be more easily overwhelmed and hurt, both physically and emotionally; slower to warm up or join in; and sometimes quiet and unwilling to speak (in groups).
They are more easily overwhelmed by 'high volume' or large quantities of input arriving at once. They try to avoid this and thus seem shy or timid or party poopers. When they cannot avoid overstimulation, they seem easily upset or 'too sensitive'."
So my crying baby didn't have colic. There was just too much stimulation for him out and about.
My clingy toddler and pre-schooler wasn't being shy or wimpy, he couldn't take in all the noise and activity going on around him. He was hanging back to observe, process it and then venture forth (normally at about the time he had to leave which then caused him frustration and brought on massive tantrums).
My little boy wasn't being a party pooper when he cried at his party - he just couldn't take all of it in and couldn't stand the attention of everyone looking at him.
He doesn't hate swimming. He just hates the shock of the cold water, the splashing from multiple children, the gruffness of the instructor's tone.
Imagine it. Imagine that everytime you hear something, it sounds louder and you spend more time interpreting what that loud sound is. And imagine if every time you put on a scratchy jumper, it didn't just niggle you but really felt unbearable against your skin. And imagine if you didn't want to put that jumper on but your parents got annoyed with you for making another fuss and insisted on it. And imagine being forced to not wait and observe a brand new school with brand new people and lots of new rules and information, but being forced to go in because the bell is going and that's just what you have to do. Hell on earth.
Since reading this book I have looked at my son in an entirely different light. I can feel so much more empathy towards him now. I no longer feel that he is 'acting out' just because he's trying to wind me up. He is just a little boy trying to make sense of a very loud, overwhelming world that his nervous system battles to cope with.
In the last few days I have changed the way I am with him. I don't shout. I don't even raise my voice. I have lowered my expectations as to what to expect of him. I've helped him more. I've been infinitely more patient. I've explained why things have to happen simply and clearly. I've let go of the sense that he's trying to do things to get at me. I feel greater pride in the things he does do - like reading a poem in church for harvest festival. And the change has been phenomenal.
He is a completely different child. A happy child. Someone who is finally comfortable and able to deal with things because it's getting presented to him in the right way. Because he is super sensitive, he can feel the difference emanating from me. There's less frustration and disappointment and anger coming from his primary care giver. He is picking up on that positivity and literally blossoming in front of my eyes.
I know it's early days and it's going to require a great deal of patience to maintain the level of calm, fair parenting that a child like this needs. And it is going to be particularly hard trying to prepare him for a world that is quite simply not designed with sensitive people in mind - particularly for little boys who are viewed as cry babies or sissys instead of the macho role required by today's society. But I now know how I can help him and can see the utterly beautiful gifts his level of sensitivity brings.
I only wish I had known about this before. I hate myself for misinterpreting and misunderstanding him all these years, for not having the patience needed, for caring too much about what the rest of the world thought instead of doing what was right for him.
I promise to make it up to him by doing my very, very best to help him thrive in this busy, crazy world.
If you are the parent of a highly sensitive child, please share your stories with me.