THE PROBLEM: My (9 yo) son is extremely sensitive, which is one of the things I love about him. He always considers other people’s feelings and never wants to see anyone get hurt. He’s so sweet! But sometimes, I think he’s too sensitive, bordering on fragile. Every time something happens to somebody (or an animal), he gets so upset. He’s like that about himself, too. If someone says something unkind to him (which doesn’t happen often), his eyes fill with tears. He’s always been like this, but it’s gotten heavier for him as he’s gotten older and more aware of all the terrible things going on in the world. How can I help him become less susceptible to other people’s struggles without breaking his spirit?
MARY SAYS: Your ‘fragile’ son is one of millions of children who are showing us how to be good humans. Let us hope he portends the direction our species is headed in! That said, he could benefit from learning a few coping tools, so he doesn’t have to suffer so much while carrying the burden of showing us the way.
Start by affirming your son’s innate goodness. I am guessing you already have, but just in case your admiration for his sweetness has been cloistered inside your heart, tell him now! As a child in a rough-and-tumble world, he may not appreciate this characteristic in himself. (In fact, he might even wish he were more ‘like the other kids.’)
Next, challenge him to engage more. It’s natural for parents to try and protect their sensitive children, but what these kids really need is the courage to speak up and act on their own.
Here are some ways you can encourage your son to take charge of his emotions as he goes about his day:
- Ask him to order carryout for the entire family, taking orders, making the phone call, and going with you to pick it up. If there’s confusion or mistakes, don’t jump in. Let him handle it.
- Insist he have difficult conversations on his own. For example, if a sibling is excluding him from a game, don’t intervene. Role-play the conversation with him, then let him mange it by himself.
- Practice ‘getting angry.’ If he has had an upsetting encounter, have him repeat the transaction later with you until he can stay calm while defending his position.
- Give him a go-to tool to use in the heat of a moment, a distraction technique that allows him to regain his composure: one deep breath in, hold to the count of five, release like air coming out of a balloon. This is particularly helpful when he sees someone else suffering or hears bad news, because it allows him time to reframe the event and respond in a meaningful way.
- Give him a ‘talisman’ to carry around throughout the day. A favorite, small item he can keep in his pocket and hold on to when he starts feeling shaky. This is a surprisingly powerful tool!
Practice these techniques, but please don’t worry about your son or try to change him. Sensitive children grow into sensitive adults, and the world needs more of these. What you are doing for your son (and the world!) is helping him grow into a young man who can channel his heightened sensitivities to proactively make a difference.
ERIKA SAYS: I have a six-year-old who can be overly sensitive, and sometimes I feel like he gets it from me. While my sensitivity has more to do with traumatic responses than his does, it doesn’t change the fact that it is heavy at times, watching him have to deal with this issue. I sympathize with your concern and agree that your son needs help coping with his big emotions.
Some people feel more intensely than others. Your kiddo may just be one of them, and that’s okay. Celebrate who he is as a person but also teach him how to recognize his emotions; only then can you help him learn how regulate to them.
As a toddler, when my son lost control of his emotions, I tried to help him identify how he was feeling. Then I would help him associate that feeling with words. For example, if he looked sad, I would say: “You look sad. Do you feel sad?” I would also empathize with him: “I’m sad Sally broke her arm at the park today, too.” Nothing more is needed here; I simply wanted him to develop the habit of putting a name to how he was feeling.
This tool still helps me, even as an adult. Labeling my emotions cues me in to what’s mine and what belongs to someone else. You don’t want your son carrying around everyone else’s baggage; you want him to understand that emotions come and go, and that he doesn’t have to wallow in his feelings.
Practice regulating emotions with your son. Counting to ten and taking deep breaths works well at our house. Most times, we combine both approaches, and it works like magic. When my son gets a little “out whack,” we start counting. With each number, we take a deep breath and blow it out as hard as we can.
Be creative! Sometimes I tell him to picture blowing away his anger or sadness. Sometimes we count to ten and then take one big deep breath at the end. It all depends on the severity of the meltdown. Typically, by the time we’ve finished whatever exercise we choose, he’s calm enough to talk about it or to simply move on.
Encourage your son to take a break when he gets distraught. Create a safe space for your son in your home where he can go to decompress. Include things that comfort him: sensory toys, plush “lovies,” and books. Once he’s calmed down, be sure to give him the opportunity to talk about what’s bothering him. Learning how to talk through emotional upset is a life skill that will serve your sensitive son well.
ASK MOM offers parents two perspectives on today’s child-rearing issues—one from a mom with grown children (Mary), the other from a mom raising a small child (Erika). If you’re looking for creative solutions, or your mom isn’t around to ask, drop in!
If you have a question for Mary and Erika, we’d love to hear from you! email@example.com
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Mary Follin is author of the award-winning children’s book ETHYR and Teach Your Child to Read™, an online phonics program for children ages 3-6. She is mom to two grown kids. Follow Mary on Instagram at @advice_mom.
Erika Guerrero is a freelance hair and makeup artist, Erika K. Beauty, single-mama to one amazing boy, and author of She’s Not Shaken, a blog offering hope and encouragement to women in all walks of life.