I’m a highly sensitive person living in loud, chaotic world. I often find strong smells, loud noise, and chaos. Sirens and violent movies rattle me. I feel things deeply, experiencing great pain, great joy, and everything in between. I become easily overwhelmed by too much sensory input or by having too much to do. I seem to absorb the emotions of those around me. I am easily able to “read” people. It’s sort of like having my very own “spidey sense,” but not nearly as cool. Although I cannot physically climb walls, my high sensitivity has certainly caused me to climb my fair share of figurative ones.
My sensitive trait has affected my motherhood, both wonderfully and unpleasantly. Being intuitive, conscientious, and empathetic are assets when raising children. I am able to easily put myself in my kids’ shoes and see things from their perspective. I often know how they’re feeling before they verbalize it, and it’s a blessing to be able to relate to the boy I’m raising who shares my same trait. I’m able to understand him in ways no one else can, even if sometimes our high emotions collide.
But there are challenges. Motherhood is a roller-coaster ride for the senses. Children are, by their wonderful natures, loud. They’re exuberant, spirited, energetic, and did I mention loud? Many times, I’ve been overstimulated by the barrage of sensory information to the point of being completely frazzled and utterly touched out. My emotions ride the coaster as well. My heart bursts with love and pride, and I feel the joys of motherhood intensely. There is also deep sadness, worry, and fear. If I don’t manage my emotions well, I experience guilt and irritability. I need to escape and find peace and quiet regularly, and we all know this can be challenging in early motherhood.
My firstborn son is also in the 15 to 20 percent of the population that carries this trait of high sensitivity. Raising a sensitive boy brings its own unique challenges and blessings. Sensitive children are born with highly aware nervous systems. They experience emotions deeply. Love, pain, joy, and sadness are all amplified. They may startle easily and dislike scratchy clothing or seams in socks. They are often sensitive to odors and nose and notice changes in their environment. They also are in tune with the suffering of others and have rich inner lives. They ask deep, thoughtful questions. These children may also prefer quiet play and be bothered by sudden change.
Unfortunately, we still live in a culture that shames sensitive boys. In his book, The Strong Sensitive Boy, Ted Zeff says, “When sensitive boys do not conform to the stereotypical ‘boy code’ and instead express compassion, gentleness, and vulnerability, they are frequently ostracized and humiliated.”
You might think we’ve moved beyond this nonsense, but I still hear crying boys being told that, “Boys don’t cry like that” and to, “Straighten up.” I see how my sensitive boy differs from his classmates, and trust me, he sees it too. Our culture still expects boys to be tough and emotionally repressed. Because of this, being highly sensitive is particularly challenging for boys.
Sensitive people such as my son and myself can thrive given the right environment. Our sensitivity, though challenging, is a strength that we have embraced. I believe sensitive people are an asset to society. We make the world softer, kinder, and brighter. There are just some adjustments that we have to make for our own well-being.
Tips for Sensitive Mothers
1. Create a sanctuary. I turned my bedroom into a clam and delightful area with ambient lighting and a soft comforter, and I filled it with books. If you can’t transform a whole room, take over a small area. Fill it with things that are pleasing to your senses, such as a soft pillow or a lightly fragranced candle. Listen to something calming or inspiring.
2. Know what reenergizes you and refocuses you. Just as important as identifying what triggers you to feel overwhelmed is identifying your strengtheners. What centers you? Listening to a chapter of an audiobook, taking a walk outside, or playing music while I take a hot shower all help me get re-centered. It’s essential that you build in a little time each day to do what fills you up.
3. Learn to honor your sensitive self and live a slower, more intentional life. It’s okay to say no to that invitation if you know it’s going to drain you. You don’t have to have your kids signed up for every sport and extracurricular that comes around. You are not obligated to help run everything you’re involved in. When we are stretched too thin, it takes a toll on our already sensitive nervous systems, and when there are no blank spaces in the calendar, there is no room for cozying around and recharging.
Tips for Raising Sensitive Boys
1. Teach him how to handle his strong, deep emotions. It’s really important to not make him feel like he’s weird or wrong for having such deep emotions. Use time-in rather than time-out as sensitive boys really shouldn’t be left alone to deal with such big emotions. Teach him tools for self-regulation such as deep breathing or drawing their feelings. Use games and activities to teach about emotions.
2. Maintain a secure attachment. A positive bond between mother and son is important for all boys, but it is especially essential for the sensitive boy. There is a societal fear of raising “mama’s boys” and of coddling, which lead us to prematurely separate from our boys. Mom needs to remain emotionally connected to her sensitive son. Do this by spending quality time playing with him. Be his light reflector. Celebrate his wonderful traits. See the good in him and help him see it too. Avoid harsh discipline and criticizing words. Discipline that connects works best.
3. Create a positive home environment. Home must be a sensitive child’s safe haven. They quickly pick up on tensions between parents and can be deeply hurt by siblings who tease. The best thing you can do for your sensitive son is to create a home atmosphere that is warm, soothing, and accepting.
For more strategies and inspiration like this, check out Rebecca’s new book, The Gift of a Happy Mother: Letting Go of Perfection and Embracing Everyday Joy.