By Sharon Holbrook
I’d look around at a room of smiling, playful children, and wonder why mine was the only one crying and clinging to a parent’s leg. I had known my child—a bright, fun, and friendly 3-year-old—would love preschool. But I was wrong. “I missed you, Mommy, and I wanted you to hug me,” he cried as he tumbled into my arms at pick-up that first day. Though he eventually adjusted and enjoyed preschool, the separation troubles ebbed and flowed for years, tearing at both our hearts. Even in early elementary school, goodbye kisses came with a daily send-off question: “Mommy, will I be OK?”
I’d been blindsided that my bubbly, happy child was so different at school. I was used to knowing my child better than he knew himself. I had seen his laughter and inquisitiveness, and his friendly nature with kids his age. The child I thought I knew was comfortable, confident, and smiling.
What I didn’t know was what he was like when I wasn’t there, and as a first-time parent I had mistakenly assumed what I saw was what the world would get. But, no, the preschool world got a child with struggles I didn’t recognize.
I ultimately became the mother of not just one but three children with sensitive natures, and with experience I realized the clues had been there all along. During library storytime, I always had a plump diapered bottom in my lap, and a sturdy toddler back leaned firmly against my chest. While other children clapped, laughed, sang, and danced during library storytime, mine always watched quietly from the safety of Mommy, thumb in mouth.
Even earlier, there had been the baby picture debacles. At home, my babies were deliciously round and smiley, perfectly photogenic. In the photography studio, though, with a bright light shining and a strange person making faces, each of them in turn cried and cried. One studio offered a free sitting and a small package of free photos, assuming that parents would snap up an armful when they saw the endearing results. I left with a free set of photos of a somber 1-year-old with tears in her eyes.
What was “wrong” with my kids, that they seemed to have a hard time with things that seemed easy for most other children? Had I done something wrong to make them so delicate? Now that I was noticing, I saw even more of what I had missed. My children were different: Preschool, babysitters, loud noises, and the doctor’s office. Introductory sports or classes, distant relatives wanting hugs, and mildly “scary” kid’s movies. When other kids might take on these things with gusto, for mine each situation was a source of overstimulation and distress, of tears and wanting to opt out and curl up in Mommy or Daddy’s arms.
An astute friend recommended The Highly Sensitive Child by Elaine Aron, and the subtitle said it all: Helping Our Children Thrive When The World Overwhelms Them. Highly sensitive people are not disordered, this 15-20% simply have a personality that comes with a highly attuned nervous system, one that notices everything. Sometimes noise and busyness and unfamiliarity can be too much for a sensitive kid, as if the volume of the world is cranked too high. But sensitivity often comes with gifts, too: notable empathy, kindheartedness, intelligence, creativity, insight, wit, imagination, and curiosity.
Aron’s book told me what my children needed: Understanding of their temperament. Routine. Quiet play. Calm. A sense of safety. Parental patience in new situations. Encouragement to take on new challenges, which can feel unsafe to sensitive kids. Acceptance of their feelings, both positive and negative.
This was good news. There was reassurance that my kids would be OK, and that they would indeed learn to cope. Yet—I was the one who had to get them there. Their father of course, too, yes, but in those early years, I was undoubtedly the lead parent. I was at home full-time. I was in tune with the rhythm of their days, and the witness of their moments both grand and small. So, too, I carried much of the weight of how to get them from a fragile, tentative participation in life to confidence and resilience.
I understood, rationally, what my kids needed, but that didn’t always mean it was easy. I tried to respect their temperaments by not pushing too hard. At the same time, I knew they didn’t need coddling, either, and I wanted to avoid treating them as delicate, breakable souls. Figuring out how to translate this into practical, everyday decisions was an ongoing challenge.
Should they learn to swim, for example? I decided that they must, that it was a safety issue and a nonnegotiable life skill. After much trial and error, and tearful children who one after another would not put their faces in the water, their (third) teacher and I found the middle line between pushing and coddling, and that line was years of consistency, patience, and encouragement. The last child, now 5 years old and in the water since age 2, is at last finding her way in the water after what feels like the slowest, longest swim lessons in history. (Actually, it’s been eight years of on and off lessons, starting with my firstborn.)
Some blooms cannot be forced like an amaryllis bulb on a winter windowsill. Some must instead plod in their own good time towards their natural season, though the winter may feel long. I knew this rationally, but I admit to impatience and worry and frustration along the way.
I’ve had to project a calm I did not always feel, since my sensitive, intuitive children would be sure to sense my own unease and pile it on to their own. More than once, I fought tears on my way down the preschool stairs after leaving a bereft child during a particularly bad period of separation anxiety. Once or twice, my voice shook during preschool parent-teacher conferences while discussing one or another of the children’s social-emotional development and resilience, and whether they needed an extra year of preschool. Though I am usually placid, at these times I felt their struggles physically, with tightness in my throat and a sweat breaking out.
My children are all in elementary school now, and, to my great delight, they are all thriving academically and socially. I still walk a line between respecting their sensitivity and resistance to certain things (none is a big fan of sports or risk-taking, for example) and pushing them out of their comfort zone so they can live in the real world without fear and fragility. I confess that even now I still sometimes feel a pang as I watch my kids’ occasional struggles with things that seem to come easily for so many other children.
But I’m seeing those beautiful positive qualities of a sensitive temperament, like a daughter’s poetic description of a tree or a son’s tenderheartedness towards the weak and small. I’m also seeing an admirable toughness and independence in all of them, qualities that they’ve more than earned through years of struggle.
I’ve had to change along the way too, and that is perhaps the hardest part. I’ve had to understand, and accept, and resist comparison. Mostly, I have had to believe that along with patience and encouragement, time and natural development would give them the coping skills they needed to make their sensitivity an asset rather than a liability.
“Mommy, will I be OK?”
I’ll say again what I said back then: an emphatic yes. They were always going to be OK. We just had to believe it, to take our time, to walk the scenic route together. And we’re getting there.
Sharon Holbrook is a contributing blogger for Brain, Child. Her work also appears in The New York Times Motherlode blog, Washington Post, and other publications, as well as in the forthcoming HerStories anthology, So Glad They Told Me. You can find her at sharonholbrook.com and on Twitter @sharon_holbrook. Sharon lives with her family in Cleveland, Ohio.