Tuesday, May 28, 2013

The Highly Sensitive Child

*This is a really long post and probably boring as hell for any reader, so feel free to skip and come back later. I wrote it because this will be my reference in the future, since I have to take my book "The Highly Sensitive Child" by Dr. Elaine Aron back to the library next week! I credit all of this to her book*.

I said some time ago that I had figured out Daniel's personality, in that he's a highly sensitive child. For the sake of making it sound more cool for my boy I am going to call them spidey senses.  Basically, his 5 senses are much more attuned.  15-20% of kids are born the same as Danny actually, but this is a relatively new understanding and only now schools and teachers are coming to the realisation that this exists. In it's extreme form it is diagnosed as "Sensory Integration Disorder" or SID. Danny does not have it that extreme, but even if he did I refuse to use the word "disorder" for my child. In the old days we probably used terms like "shy" "quiet" or "reserved" but actually that is not the same.  I found a really nice questionnaire that helped me to understand what sensitivity means. I believe that just 2 or 3 of these traits can mean that a child is sensitive. Daniel has about 16 of these traits (me, Craig and Linda all did the questionnaire, which was interesting).

Anyway, here is the questionnaire:

My child:
startles easily.
complains about scratchy clothing, seams in socks, or labels against his/her skin.
doesn't usually enjoy big surprises.
learns better from a gentle correction than strong punishment.
seems to read my mind.
uses big words for his/her age.
notices the slightest unusual odor.
has a clever sense of humor.
seems very intuitive.
is hard to get to sleep after an exciting day.
doesn't do well with big changes.
wants to change clothes if wet or sandy.
asks lots of questions.
is a perfectionist.
notices the distress of others.
prefers quiet play.
asks deep, thought-provoking questions.
is very sensitive to pain.
is bothered by noisy places.
notices subtleties (something that's been moved, a change in a person's appearance, etc.)
considers if it is safe before climbing high.
performs best when strangers aren't present.
feels things deeply.

So as I said, it is not something that the child can take or leave. It isn't a learned behaviour. Sensitivity is part of a child's genetic make-up. They can physically sense things more and they are in turn a lot more fearful and cautious and aware of things than the average Joe. This profound awareness will go on to serve Daniel well, but right now it has it's challenges. The analogy in the book is such: Most people process things quickly. We walk from A-B without maybe even noticing anything. Sensitive kids notice everything. If the information were oranges then we would have 3 oranges rolling into our heads and 3 holes for them to plop in to. A sensitive child has 12 oranges rolling into his head and the same 3 holes for them to plop into. So if you present a sensitive child with a new scenario he will take his time processing it and then may or may not cooperate, depending on how afraid or cautious he is.

As an example, when Daniel wouldn't sit on the rug at story time in pre-school he wasn't being awkward, he was cautious. It took him a good 6 months to weight it all up and to feel comfortable doing it. When he had a substitute teacher in his classroom he found it odd and would not interact with that person, but he asked "Where is my regular teacher? when other children might not even notice the switch. Thankfully he had teachers the last 2 years that didn't force him to do things, but let him join in when he was ready.

If you think about it, we typically treat very young children exactly the same way. But really, how different are they from their friends? They are all so different. In middle school and high school and college we are taught and encouraged to be unique - we choose our classes, we choose our friends, we choose our activities.  We are told to find our own path. That is not the case in pre-school and elementary school. Everybody must sit on the carpet at story time, everybody has to do the same craft, everybody has to stand up and sing, everybody has to draw a picture for their parents. If they do not do as they are told they are wrong and punished. It's ridiculous isn't it?  Our children are as unique as toddlers as they are as teenagers and adults, as should be treated as such. Can you imagine being "forced" to stand up and sing, or play soccer, or read aloud to a group at 15 years old? And yet we make pre-school and kindergartners do it. Why do we do that?

They are not a herd of sheep that will comply, there are kids that are, like my son Daniel, afraid of standing up to sing, and afraid sitting on a carpet with a group of kids and a teacher he doesn't know. But we don't see it - we say things like "hurry up" when they need longer to absorb all the things they see around them. We pressure them to make a decision quickly and get annoyed when they take time to make that choice. We say "I don't smell anything" when they do. We tell them to stop being silly when they complain about annoying clothes tags in the back of their t-shirts or scratchy blankets. We get Ohhh so frustrated when they refuse to try a new food, or activity, or sport, or person, or room. In fact anything "new" that completely bothers them. I look back and cringe at all the times I've tried to make Daniel hug or kiss adults he doesn't know. No wonder he was a wreck! Never again.

So it's actually us that has a problem, not them. Daniel knows who he is. It's me (us) that wants him to be more interactive/friendly/brave/athletic/vocal. He just wants to be left alone.  So anyway, I'm learning about ways to help him through  life and I know that well meaning and  persistent people will cross his path and try to make him do things strange, noisy, smelly and frightening. I know because I've tried to make him do things. The four years we have been together I have seen it as a battle of wills: Mummy versus Daniel. What's made it harder is that Jack is so compliant, so ready to jump in and try new things, that it's been hard not to make comparisons.

So, moving forward, the main goal is to build his confidence so that he might try new things. Some of the things we will (try to) do will include -

Build self-esteem by:
(1) Giving him unconditional love and respect
(2) Helping him make friends (lots of playdates!), and
(3) Encourage him to take on and soar in certain physical and intellectual challenges that he enjoys. In other words, not forcing him to do stuff he doesn't want to do, and then belittling him or getting impatient when he's not good at it. But help him find hobbies and sports and academics he enjoys and can can thrive in.

Lead by example (easier said than done hey) . Be respectful. Don't compare, don't tease, don't belittle, don't be mean.

Use Wise Discipline. In particular:

Calm yourself and then the child (Yeah, this will be hard for me. I'm an ogre)
Never threaten to withdraw love
Never make global threats: "no one will like you if you do that"
Never be mean or physically violent
Be very specific about expectations. Don't say "be good when you go to this house"
Do not bring up temperament during conflict, like "why do you have to be so afraid?"
Don't let a HSC manipulate the situation (usually through fear)

Be my Child's Advocate. I know that I will have to talk about this with Daniel, and his teachers and others who cross his path along the way. Until he is old enough to do this himself I might have to say politely "no, he doesn't want to do that right now", if someone insist he play a game, or eat something or try something new. People can be so friendly and so helpful but also so pushy. I have actually had a few encounters the last month though and it has been great.  I take Jack to a sports thing at a local gym and Daniel plays on the other side of the gym, alone. After 3-4 attempts by an instructor to get him to join in I just told him that he's only 4, and perfectly fine just on his own and the  instructor said "yeah, I was like that when I was younger" and he was great with Daniel thereafter and gave him his space but always waved at him and said Hi every week. Bless him. I think most people will be the same.

So there you are. As usual I have investigated it and analysed it to death, because I'm actually Daniel's opposite. Walking into a room full of strangers brings me out in smiles. I've bungee jumped, skydived and emigrated to another country. I'm noisy and friendly and totally oblivious to my surroundings. In fact I'm probably only about 5 points away from having turrets!

But I am full of respect for my Daniel. He's taught me so much already and he's an amazing child. He's really funny, very clever, kind and more aware than I will ever be. He's also a happy kid and very social with those he knows. I have a feeling he'll be helping me later in life with the specifics! And according to the book (and I believe it), he will go on to be a brilliant young man.

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