Estimated reading time: 4 minutes
Updated March 2016
Lisa Hassan Scott, South Wales, UK
Photos: Kate Nolan Photography
Parenting a sensitive child
It didn’t take long for my daughter to piece it together. At the tender but highly verbal age of three, she asked sadly, “Aren’t I brave too?” You see, my daughter is highly sensitive. If she gets hurt, she seems to feel it more than others. If someone hurts her feelings, she experiences those stings more acutely than other people. If she accidentally bumps heads with another child, she howls.
As a baby, she was what Bill and Martha Sears might have called a “High Need Baby.” She needed just a little bit more than other babies seemed to: more holding, more feeding, more comforting, more presence, more reassurance. She was not a baby who could be passed around to adoring, cooing aunties and uncles. She was a baby who burst into tears if someone in the room suddenly broke into peals of laughter. She was a baby who would throw up her hands in shock, eyes wide, if a door slammed. She was a baby who cried every time her father came home from work because she couldn’t cope with the change.
Adjusting to life with a highly sensitive baby took practice. I soon figured out that I could only schedule one activity per day. Only one play date or only one errand. Never both. No stores with big bright lights, no play centers where there would be noise. We fell into a rhythm of doing only what was comfortable for her. My life became much simpler as I wrapped myself around her needs. We delighted in one another’s company and I was there to offer her the healing balm of consolation when she needed it.
At three, when she asked, “Aren’t I brave too?” she was referring to the way others treated her. She was referring to society’s disapproval of her sensitivity. She had already figured out that she was different and that different equals wrong. Not everyone was willing to try to understand her.
Two toddlers rushing across the room bump heads and their mothers go to them to soothe their hurts, and check whether the other child is OK. When my daughter experienced this, she’d cry loudly and inconsolably for several minutes. On the other hand, many of the children who were on the other side of the bump might whimper or cry a little, or sometimes just pick themselves up and carry on with their play. Those children were praised, “Well done. Aren’t you brave!” the adults would remark approvingly. It soon became clear to my daughter that she hadn’t done well; that she wasn’t thought to be brave. She knew they thought she was making a meal of it. That’s a tough lesson to learn at a tender age.
I’ve known onlookers shake their heads and tut when babies cry “too much” or don’t want to be held by anyone besides mommy. If a child isn’t thought to be personable or outgoing, many people think there’s something wrong with him. Babies who want to be held all the time are too needy; they get in the way of the rest of life. The painful bottom line is that society doesn’t like sensitive children. And because they’re sensitive, unfortunately those children are the first to pick up on this message.
I’ve known onlookers shake their heads and tut when babies cry “too much” or don’t want to be held by anyone besides mommy.
Those same onlookers are, behind my back, crossing their arms and shaking their heads. “She’s too soft,” they say of me. I shouldn’t give in to her, they criticize. If she were their child, she’d soon learn.
Or, on the other hand, is it not they who should learn what it is to parent a highly sensitive child? Because it’s not easy to console someone who is inconsolable. For a parent the pain of being unable to soothe a child’s sadness can be crippling. There are many times I have felt defeated by my own crushing inability to make everything better. Fumbling in the dark, I often do not know what to do to help her, and that’s scary.
Parenting a sensitive child has forced me to dig deep into reservoirs of strength I’d never known were there. There, I have found the groundwater of parenting instinct, running silently, soulfully within me.
How extraordinarily painful and difficult it can be to support my daughter to be herself, a whole, authentic person, in the face of such disapproval. Those who disapprove of her fail to see that she is golden. They do not see the light of perception shining in her eyes. Nor do they hear the voice of her intuition as it speaks to her and helps her know her own needs. Those naysayers do not feel her loving hand as it empathetically rubs the arm or back of an injured person. They do not hear her sweet words of salve for a person who has been harmed.I have known my daughter to befriend the friendless, condole with the grieving, stand up to bullies and help those in need. She no longer needs to avoid brightly lit stores and noisy play centers. She knows her own limits and respects herself as a sensitive person. But society’s disapproval is still there, in the background of her subconscious.
This month I fell down the stairs. Cradling my ankle in both hands, I lay on the floor mouthing, “Owowowowowow!” Though her siblings simply wanted to know when breakfast would be ready, this child came to me, stroked my arm and offered to bring me an ice pack. She knew how I was feeling, because pain is so terribly acute to her. In other words, she gave me what I needed right then and there: empathy. And if that’s not bravery, I don’t know what is.
Lisa Hassan Scott is an LLL Leader living in South Wales, UK with her husband and three children. She blogs at lisanhassanscott. This feature first appeared in 2013.