Raising a Sensitive Son

While I sat in my comfy chair writing last week’s post as my little boy slept and my older son was trying to fall asleep, Everest stumbled out of bed to tell me he felt scared. This was hardly a new communication; he’s felt scared more nights that I can count since he turned five (he’s almost eight). But because I happened to be writing about teaching your kids how to respond to fear, I decided to apply the lesson in the moment:

“Everest, do you remember how we’ve been talking to Asher about his Monkey Brain and how he can boss it back? Well, let’s see if you could try that now. What would you like to tell fear?”

“Go away, fear! You’re lying to me! There’s nothing to be scared of in here!”

“Good, now let’s see if you can say it with a little more power in your voice. Do you know how you yell at Asher when he’s in your space or touching one of your toys? Let’s see if you can talk to fear with that same voice.”

And he did. We’ve done this exercise many times before, but using the reference of how angry he feels when his little brother messes with his stuff seemed to connect him to a stronger part of himself.

He walked back to bed and I continued to write.

A few minutes later, he stumbled back over to me and said, “Mommy, I don’t feel scared anymore. I just feel sad. Could you please give me some comfort?”

So I lied down next to him and held him close. I scratched his back and told him how much I love him. I thought about how often it happens that when the fear is unveiled, what lies underneath is sadness. In other words, he thinks he’s scared of snakes, but as soon as he bosses his fear-mind into place, the sadness emerges. Why do we gravitate toward fear instead of the core feeling of sadness? I imagine it’s because fear is a more defensive and, thus, a falsely powerful emotion whereas sadness renders us vulnerable, like a soft sea-creature without its shell. Unless we know that we can handle the sadness, fear creeps in as a protection. But eventually, as I see with my clients every day who were anxious as kids, the unfelt sadness mutates into anxiety as adults and demands attention and healing.

A few minutes later I asked him what he felt sad about and he said, “I feel sad that everything’s always changing. I feel sad that the soap bar is getting worn down. I feel sad that the Shrinky-Dinks change in the oven. I feel sad that my Pooh-Bear is losing his shape. And I’m sad because I know everyone is going to die one day.”

Oh, boy. My sweet, sensitive boy. There are times when he just breaks my heart. How many kids think about the fact that we’re all going to die one day? (I know from working with a highly sensitive/anxious population that it’s more common than we think.) He lives with an exposed heart, aware of the fleeting nature of life and the noble truth that things are always shifting, changing, dying. My husband and I often remark that, although I’m Jewish and my husband was raised Catholic, Everest was born with a Buddhist soul. He lives this quote from Pema Chodron daily:

 “All anxiety, all dissatisfaction, all the reason for hoping our experience could be different are rooted in our fear of death. Fear of death is always in the background… Trungpa Rinpoche once gave a public lecture titled ‘Death in Everyday Life.’ We are raised in a culture that fears death and hides it from us. Nevertheless, we experience it all the time. We experience it in the form of disappointment, in the form of things not working out. We experience it in the form of things always being in a process of change. When the day ends, when the second ends, when we breathe out, that’s death in everyday life…”

And I’m left with the awesome and, at times, overwhelming responsibility of teaching him how to relate and respond to the sadness without being overtaken by it. I also remind him that with every death, with every loss, comes a rebirth and a new beginning – that it’s through experiencing the sadness as fully as possible that the joy is released.

“What can you do with the sadness?” I asked that night. as I often ask.

“I can be with it,” he responded (clearly he’s my son : ) ).

“Let’s be with it together. Let’s take a deep breath right into the middle of that sadness.”

In another era or another culture, he would apprentice under a shaman and his sensitivity would be honed and utilized as  medicine to his people. But this culture is nothing short of brutal for the sensitive souls among us. We devalue feelings, especially emotional boys, and regard a sharp intellect and “normalcy” with the highest praise. If he was in school, there’s not a doubt in mind that he would been bullied into believing that he’s a “sissy” by the kids and a “problem child” by the teachers, and his self-esteem would be the gutter in about five minutes. We’ve done our best to preserve his spirit and self-worth, but there are times when the cracks show through and we’re at a loss as how to help him.

In September he’ll begin Bodhi School, a monthly class offered by the Boulder Shambhala Center to teach kids how to meditate and other age-appropriate practices that cultivate mindfulness. He’ll also start bi-weekly classes at our Jewish Renewal synagogue, where he’ll learn about a loving and life-affirming God/Goddess in an egalitarian and inclusive community. I have no idea how he’ll take to either of these classes, but our hope is that he’ll learn some lifelong skills, tools, and belief systems that will support the healthy unfolding of his true nature. We’ll continue our homeschool workshops and continue to allow for plenty of unstructured time in our days so that boredom can give rise to his creative impulses and scientific inventions. And we’ll support him in every way that we can, with love, acceptance, and reverence for his brilliance, his challenges, his creativity, his sensitivity, while honoring the unique path that he came here to follow without attempting him to fit him into the narrow societal box called “normal”.

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Note: If you’re a highly sensitive person or you’re raising a highly sensitive child, be sure to read Elaine Aron’s books and check out her site at http://www.hsperson.com.

19 comments to Raising a Sensitive Son

  • Liz

    Thank you, thank you, thank you.
    I struggle with this too, daily. Fear is a daily part of my life. Thank you for showing me that I should be aware of the sadness (that is, indeed, behind the fear). Thank you for the enlightning quote of Chodron.
    Thank you for showing your beautiful kids the way.

  • Marisa

    Wow. Your son’s response to “what are you sad about,” just blew my mind and cracked open my heart. I was the same in my childhood; I remember putting my hand out the window of the car and crying because I realized when I died I wouldn’t be able to feel the wind on my skin. You are so right about sadness turning to fear – somehow it seems easier to manage. Thank you for reminding me to look past my fear to find the heart, and perhaps sadness, of the issue.

  • Thank you, Liz. The Pema Chodron quote is from “When Things Fall Apart” – a must read.

    Marisa: I love your story about the wind. Do you remember how your parents responded to your sadness?

  • Marisa

    I can only say that my mother did the best she could. Being a sensitive child to begin with, then losing my father at 7 to cancer really compounded my anxieties, sensitivities, fear, sadness and overall emotional equilibrium. I think my need was much more than my mother knew how to handle, so she tried to comfort me as best she could and would typically point me in the direction of God. This approach definitely led to a dependency on others to define and secure my sense of safety and well-being, but it has also shaped for me an understanding of God as a caregiver, an unconditional lover and a safe harbor in times of storm.

  • Sarah

    Wow…I really like how much respect you have for your son and his individual needs and personhood. Too often parents seem to have the opposite approach…wanting their kids to fulfill their own dreams of what their kid “should” be like. I was a sensitive kid too, and remember thinking of death often, crying when teased, however gently, and being scared of change. My husband and I have wondered if we’ll have sensitive kids (likely…since I think we’re both somewhere near the sensitive side of the spectrum), and I hope if we do we can meet them with similar compassion and understanding!

    • It’s quite likely that you’ll have a sensitive child, and the more you meet your own sensitivity with compassion the more you’ll be able to do the same with your child.

  • Jeanne

    Hi Sheryl,
    I appreciate your approach with your son very much, but I wonder if it might make him feel split within himself to have to yell and shut out at a part of himself (the scared boy inside). I know for myself, it has been especially helpful to be kind, yet firm with my fear, as though she were a young child tugging at my skirts asking for attention. I like to hold my fear, befriend it so to speak, and through that empathic holding it usually relaxes and and is able to sleep, like a well-attuned to child.
    I just thought I should share this, as it has been so important for me and for the chidden I take care of.

    • What I have found, Jeanne, is that when I’m working with adults it’s more effective to embrace the scared child inside, but in working with children it seems to be more effective for them to de-fuse from the scared part and “boss it back.” At times I’ve encouraged Everest to breathe into the fear and be with it, but it usually makes him feel more scared and the fear seems to overpower him instead of him letting the fear know who’s in charge.

  • Marybeth

    Very moving…
    Amazing to see a child’s emotions verbailzed–
    That’s more than half the battle just ‘naming it’, I think.

    Great points about fear and sadness…
    Sometimes I think for me fear feels fixable–
    whereas sadness from my losses are not.
    I can ‘overcome’ my fears, that are often morphed into specific phobias or anxieties, but sadness is harder to overcome or fix.
    Also, specific anxieties for me often surround being ‘stuck’ such as in a plane or car or tight elevator for too long and I am certain it is because I can’t escape the sad feelings should they surface–how will I handle them? Can I handle them?
    Sit with it is the best mantra ever offered! And it does help.

    • “I can ‘overcome’ my fears, that are often morphed into specific phobias or anxieties, but sadness is harder to overcome or fix.” Fantastic point, Marybeth. We live in such a left-brained, solution-oriented culture that we approach every feeling as a problem to be fixed instead of a shifting experience to embrace until it passes by.

  • I look back at raising 3 such boys! I see them as young adults now. Even though I knew these traits were there, we did not have such resources as you mention. I WISH that I could have taken more action like you describe. I had not thought about the fear covering sadness. I will now. As my middle son faces cancer diagnosis (now in remission), I see what looks like a void in his up bringing EXCEPT that he seems incredibly resilient some how! We left the church when they were in grade school because of leadership persons attitudes about money donations ( we were told that we weren’t giving enough $$). As our lives were busy enough, we decided to take a different path. In the “Bible belt” this is not a positive. My point is that recognizing is one step, taking steps to MAKE supportive community is next. Don’t give up on that like I did. You never know how deep your sons will have to dig into their own “well of security” as they go thru life’s challenges. While it is never too late to learn or to teach, it is easier to build on a strong foundation than to “dig out” a shakey one and start on a new one. For you young mothers– find a community where each child is truly valued and learn what “kind of child” as well as support for each “kind” !

    • I love hearing stories from mothers with grown children! Thank you for sharing your experience, and I agree that finding a compassionate, spiritual community where children feel seen and accepted for who they are is a big piece of the puzzle.

  • Carly

    Sheryl, I loved this, and your last post too. I am so grateful for the example you provide of how to parent consciously. Although not yet a parent, it is heartening and inspiring to see how it can be done. There was a time when my ego would feel oppressed and intimidated by such an example (‘How will I ever be able to be half as good a mother?!’), but now I can truly say I have disengaged from that mode of responding (which is born of perfectionism and competitiveness), and rejoice that I have women like you in my world to learn from, and to show me what is possible. The grief of time passing is familiar to me too. I remember when I was 3 or 4, having many little episodes of feeling utterly bereft and empty – out of nowhere. I remember it so clearly. I could almost see the magic leaving me and the world… it looked like fuzzy static on an old TV. A few years later, my younger brother had these episodes too. He has a word for it: being ‘clocked out’. As an adult, I now wonder whether that was our exprience of leaving our source, our essence, our true nature… as our little egos were formed. The grief and desolation were profound – until we got used to it, and forgot that we ever knew anything different. It is so wonderful that you are providing your boys with the skills and language and understanding to hold the daily grief of being a mortal creature in this beautiful, messy world of ours. And so wonderful that you are sharing this with us as well. Thank you.

  • “There was a time when my ego would feel oppressed and intimidated by such an example (‘How will I ever be able to be half as good a mother?!’)”

    And let me reassure you, Carly, that there are far too many moments when my mothering is far from loving! I lose my patience, I snap, I shut down. I’ve written about those times on this blog as well, as I never want to paint a picture of myself as some kid of Zen-mom. There’s enough perfectionism and consequent guilt around motherhood and I would never want to add fuel to that fire. I know that’s not what you were saying in your comment at all, but I just wanted to take this opportunity to give voice to the shadow side of my mothering as well!

    What you wrote about your childhood memories is stunning, and I think you’re right on the money when you wrote: “I now wonder whether that was our experience of leaving our source, our essence, our true nature… as our little egos were formed. The grief and desolation were profound.” YES. Thank you for articulating something I’ve sensed but never put into words. I will share this with my son and hold it in my awareness as he expresses this unnamable loss.

  • Clare

    What Carly wrote is what I remember also, at 4, ending I guess around when I turned 5. I remember the fuzzy static like veils and a strange lovely bright air around me, I remember being ‘in love’ with my best friend of the time, I remember we talked without talking. I remember losing it, too, and the sadness is so hidden but so big. I have never read the description of this experience before and thankyou Carly for remembering and describing for me to connect again. When I read it my heart leapt into my throat and I felt very sad and I wish I could be there again.

    • Clare, I’m stunned that you had such a similar experience as Carly. I wonder how many other children have had this experience around this same age – it makes me want to research this! What’s also interesting is that I believe both you and Carly are from Australia!

  • Clare

    Yes I am from Australia. Sheryl, thankyou for this site. Since I discovered it, early August, it opened my eyes to the fact I’m not alone, what I am is called Highly Sensitive (!!) and that my son is too, and I have had an overwhelming push into understanding myself and him rather than questioning and worrying. In fact I sought information and help regarding dealing with him – which is what led me to your site, Sheryl. Since the shock of remembering with incredible intimacy what Carly described, I have had premonitionary dreams, strange mood swings, and have been led to a phenomenal experience with a kinesiologist who is helping unlock some of the grief of being a three year old transitioning from (in my currently simplistic understanding of what happened then) experiencing predominently energy to experiencing predominantly ego. I didn’t go to her for that purpose but my subconscious, through muscle memory, led the healer there for work. I am on a journey of discovery.

  • Clare: I am utterly fascinated by what you’re describing here with the healing of your three year old transition. I think this a largely under-researched area in terms of understanding what’s happening for three year olds as they jolt into their human body and lose touch with invisible realms and energies. I’d love to hear about your journey in more depth. Please email me using the contact form above if you would be willing to share more details.

  • Christine

    Thank you for writing this! Beautiful! My son is sensitive as am I. Can’t wait to read the Highly Sensitive Person. Bought it today as you suggested.