Parenting the Highly Sensitive Boy

Wednesday, April 24, 2013 34 comments

Photo by Ambro/ 

I recently finished The Strong, Sensitive Boy by Ted Zeff.  I found the book very insightful into my son's sensitivity and wanted to share with you what I have discovered. I only have sons, and this book was obviously about sensitive boys, but if you have a sensitive daughter, you may want to read The Highly Sensitive Child by Elaine Aron. For this post, I will be discussing the particular issue of raising a sensitive son.

If you suspect your son may be highly sensitive, here is a questionnaire for you to take. I began to suspect my first child was highly sensitive when he was a toddler, and I ran across this questionnaire then. I checked "true" on every single thing on that list. He was, and is, a wonderful child, but dealing with his high sensitivity hasn't always been easy, and is, at times, quite perplexing.  In fact, his sensitivity led me to non-punitive discipline because I could see that even what I considered to be gentle discipline at the time (time out) was just heartbreaking for him.

Something the author discusses in this book is how our culture, particularly here in America, is hostile to sensitivity. We live in a society that disdains sensitivity so that sensitive boys are bullied and misunderstood. "The sensitive boy who reacts deeply to stimuli and exhibits emotional sensitivity is perfectly normal. However, there's something wrong with a society that shames males who do not act in a tough, aggressive, and emotionally repressed manner - especially when such a significant portion of the population simply isn't cut out for or comfortable with these behaviors. When sensitive boys do not conform to the stereotypical 'boy code' and instead express compassion, gentleness, and vulnerability, they are frequently ostracized and humiliated." (Zeff) As Elaine Aron puts it, "The world and all of its people and species would be better off if every culture valued gentle thoughtfulness in its men." It's time for society to recognize that 20% of our boys are highly sensitive, or have a "finely tuned nervous system" as Zeff calls it, and to give them the support, skills, and love that they need to grow into strong, happy, confident men.

As I said, I began to realize my own son's sensitivity when he was a toddler. He would easily startle, hate surprises, not want to be in crowds (no big birthday parties, and please do not sing to him!), and was sensitive to noise. He had a slight aversion to scratchy material and tags and was (and is!) a picky eater. I didn't realize then that perhaps the textures of some foods bothered him. He was extremely witty for a 2 year old, and he also noticed subtle changes as said on the questionnaire. If we'd go to a grandparent's house, he could immediately point out what had been moved since he was last there. His sensitivity really became an issue to me when I first started "disciplining" him. I've said before, I started out disciplining him like everyone else I knew disciplined their children with the exception of spanking which always felt wrong to me. I used several methods to "gain control" such as time outs and counting to 3. He wouldn't "just be upset" when I put him in time out. He would literally be heartbroken. Of course, I was told he was just manipulating me so he wouldn't have to go to time out, but I know my child. He wanted to please us. He was doing the best he could at his developmental level. So, when I isolated him for what I perceived to be misbehavior, it affected him on a much deeper level. He felt deep shame and guilt and it would last far past when the time out was over. 

Now, that 2 year old is a 6 year old. While I have learned that gentle correction is all that is needed for him, there have still been plenty of challenges. He feels pain more acutely than most, so any small scratch or bruise is an event. He scraped his elbow just a few days ago and you would have thought he'd broken his arm. Just getting a Band-Aid on took a good 20 minutes because he kept saying "I need a minute! I'm not ready!" In a culture that thinks he ought to "rub some dirt on it and get over it," even I find it trying to maintain my patience when he has a fit over a scratch.

He still doesn't like birthday parties. He refuses to learn to ride a bike because he may fall and get hurt. In fact, he is super cautious in all of his play. He is very attuned to the moods of those around him and seems to absorb their feelings and energy. He cries at commercials regarding hungry children and homeless animals. I have to screen his movies. The end of Ice Age was too much. Perhaps the biggest challenge was public school. Kindergarten went okay because his teacher understood his sensitivity and accepted him the way he was. She also used a positive reinforcement system of earning rewards rather than a punitive system of discipline. While there were certainly some tears due to separation, he thrived in Kindergarten. However, in first grade, he became a different child. The punitive discipline system used in that class created a lot of anxiety in him. Even though he, himself, was very careful to "stay in line," he felt for the other children and he was greatly bothered by seeing them "in trouble." The fear of being sent to the principal's office for a paddling    was on his mind constantly, even though I assured him they were not allowed to paddle him. Still, knowing other kids were getting paddled upset him. By the middle of the first semester, he was crying every morning and begging not to go. He was exhibiting some anxious behaviors and, even when he was home for the evening or the weekend, he had a sad and anxious demeanor.

I made the decision over Christmas break to pull him out of public school to homeschool him, and even that provided yet another challenge. I chose a Charlotte Mason-based curriculum, which requires a lot of reading of literary classics. Many of the stories were simply too violent for him. He would ask me not to read words such as "kill" or "die." After one particular history story of a battle long ago, he couldn't go to sleep. He kept telling me those "bad words" were upsetting him. I had to ditch the entire curriculum and start fresh.

Would I trade his sensitivity? Absolutely not!! While it has presented challenges, he is a special and amazing child. His compassion is humbling. His intuitiveness is amazing. He is witty, humorous, bright, and extraordinarily creative. He inspires me daily, and I tell him often that he is a wonderful asset to this world, and he is.

So, back to some insights from Zeff's book:

"What is the difference between a highly sensitive boy and a non-highly sensitive boy? A highly sensitive boy has trouble screening out stimuli and can be easily overwhelmed by noise, crowds, and time pressure. The HSB (highly sensitive boy) tends to be very sensitive to pain and violent movies. He is also made extremely uncomfortable by bright lights, strong smells, and changes in his life. The highly sensitive boy's nervous system is 'wired' in such a way that he is more acutely aware of, and attuned to, himself, other people, and his environment   The highly sensitive boy generally reacts more deeply and exhibits more emotional sensitivity  However, the degree of emotional and psychological reactions varies in each boy. For example, one HSB may not be bothered by noise or crowds but is made uncomfortable by strong smells and scratchy fabrics. Although the trait has a high correlation with introversion, approximately 30% of HSBs are extroverts." (Zeff)

"Most boys are taught from an early age to act tough and repress their emotions. In particular, sensitive boys learn to deny their real selves in order to be accepted and approved of by their peers. This denial can create fear, anxiety, and low self-esteem." (Zeff)

In their book Raising Cain, authors Dan Kindlon and Michael Thompson state that if boys express emotions such as fear, anxiety, or sadness, they are commonly seen as feminine. The effect on males of having to conform to wearing a tough-guy mask creates suffering on both a personal and societal level and is particularly devastating for the sensitive boy, who has to try harder than the average boy to repress his emotions.

"While sensitive males may not be warriors fighting on foreign battlefields, their battles take just as much courage. Fighting to uphold righteousness in society takes a strong backbone and much fortitude. Personal and global peace can only be achieved through the resurrection of such masculine heroes as Jesus, Buddha, the Dalai Lama, Mahatma Gandhi, and Martin Luther King, Jr. It takes a strong man to speak the truth about morality, virtue, and justice as these great spiritual leaders have done." (Zeff)

Positive Traits of the Sensitive Male, according to Zeff:
  • Compassion
  • Gentleness
  • The ability to act as a peacemaker
  • Concern about the humane treatment of animals
  • A sense of responsibility
  • Conscientiousness
  • Creativity
  • The tendency to feel love deeply
  • A great intuitive ability
  • An awareness of his unity with all beings
  • The ability to have and appreciate deep spiritual experiences
Your son is in good company, sharing these traits with such famous highly sensitive males as Abraham Lincoln, Carl Jung, and Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart.

So what can you do as a parent?

"Recognizing these positive tendencies and abilities in your boy will give you the opportunity to support and even celebrate him. Children of such supportive parents develop high self esteem and will uphold the highest values in society. A positive and secure bond of attachment between mother and son is important in any family but is essential for the sensitive boy. There is a societal myth that boys don't need as much love and protection as girls. Even with infant and toddler boys, there is a strong belief out there that we should encourage them to be tough and avoid "coddling" them. Hence, boys are frequently forced to separate from their mothers too early as society encourages them to become physically and emotionally independent of mom at an early age. Without the model of a strong connection with the first important woman in their lives, some men who experienced a lack of early childhood nurturance don't quite know how to bond with women later on. Mom has a pivotal role in helping her son feel that he is a worthwhile human being, in spite of messages that he may receive from his peers, teachers, and the media that there is something wrong with him. At times, this may feel like an added responsibility, but it's also a wonderful opportunity for moms to share a special closeness with their sons and actively participate in helping them flourish. Your sensitive son will easily notice subtleties in your interactions with him, so even if you are supportive of your son, it's important that he really knows hat you deeply understand and appreciate his sensitivity." (Zeff)

However, we must also be careful not to become too overly protective. One HSM from the book said "I think that my mom became overly protective of me, which didn't help me learn how to cope with the aggressive world that I had to deal with every day at school. In retrospect, it probably would have been better for me to have been more involved in activities outside the home rather than spending so much of my childhood at home." Zeff adds, "A mom should encourage her son to engage in outside activities with other children while making sure that he feels safe in those ventures."  He concludes, "When a mom encourages her sensitive boy, even if he has challenges outside the home, his mother's love and support will live in his heart forever, and he will be able to grow into a more confident man."

It's important that everyone involved in his care is educated on your son's sensitivity, including grandparents, daycare workers, teachers, nannies, family members, and babysitters. Explain the trait of sensitivity to them and ask that they be respectful of him. If you suspect that anyone who cares for him is being disrespectful or harsh with him, take action on behalf of your son.

Lastly, Zeff discusses gentle discipline in his book by stating, "Your sensitive son can learn a lesson better when he is calm and receptive, so when you are disciplining your son, it's vital to talk to him in a gentle manner. If mom (or dad) screams at her sensitive boy when he misbehaves, he will become more frightened and upset by her anger than a non-HSC. Sensitive boys generally tend to feel guilty when they make mistakes, so there is no need for harsh discipline. It also helps when disciplining the sensitive boy to encourage him to express how he's feeling and to ask him to express what he wants. For instance, you could ask him to repeat, "I'm feeling frustrated since I want to play with my car instead of putting my coat on." This technique helps your son move from being overwhelmed by emotions to knowing how to manage them."

According to Zeff, here are some specific guidelines to help you on your way:
  • Listen to your sensitive son and let him know that you acknowledge and accept his physical and emotional sensitivity.
  • Talk with your son about all the positive aspects of being a sensitive boy.
  • Let your son know that everybody is different and that differences should be respected. 
  • Never tolerate anyone shaming your son's sensitivity. If you see that your boy is experiencing shame, try to counteract the feeling by gently pointing out the fallacy of the thinking behind it and letting your son know how wonderful you know he is. 
  • Tell your son about famous people and spiritual leaders who share his trait.
  • If you accidentally criticize your son's sensitivity, quickly apologize and tell him that you made a mistake.
  • Try to be vigilant about not putting your son into situations where he will be humiliated. Listen closely to his responses about activities and relationships and if he seems very uncomfortable, help him remove himself from the situation. 
  • Remove him from environments that diminish his self-esteem.
  • Show your son how to set personal boundaries with others.
  • Frequently reassure your son that he always has your support and show him the truth of this statement by backing it up with actions.
This is a huge topic and cannot be covered entirely in a blog post, but if you have a highly sensitive son, I highly recommend you read the books mentioned in this post.

Rebecca Eanes, is the founder of and creator of Positive Parenting: Toddlers and Beyond. She is the author of 3 books. Her newest book, Positive Parenting: An Essential Guide, will be released on June 7, 2016 and is available for pre-order now. The Newbie's Guide to Positive Parenting and a co-authored book, Positive Parenting in Action: The How-To Guide to Putting Positive Parenting Principles in Action in Early Childhood are both best-sellers in their categories on Amazon. She is the grateful mother to 2 boys. 

When Positive Parenting Doesn't Work

Monday, April 8, 2013 7 comments

The following is a guest post by Laura Ling.

The following comment was posted on an earlier post, and since I see many parents with similar issues, I wanted to use it as a jumping off point for when you're parenting positively but still having challenges.

I feel so lost about this as well. We have been attempting to continue positive parenting for nearly 18 months. Prior to this, we spanked on rare occasions and did some time outs- but mostly tried to redirect and teach (so we were kind of here already). I guess what is confusing me is that I feel I have not been able to build a connection with my children (4.5 and 2.5) because when I ask for something to be done, they nearly always just say NO!!! (2 year old is copying I believe)

And how do you get them to do it? I feel like everything I do is undermining the relationship even more. It comes down to "your room needs to be clean before we can go play" or whatever, and since there is always a carrot dangled, they are never doing it because they WANT to please me. I have read that they will want to please when the relationship is strong. It's like a vicious cycle that I can't seem to stop. 
Changing parenting styles isn't easy and requires that we change, as people, too. That can be uncomfortable or frightening, so woohoo to you for being the kind of mother who does everything she can, to do the best for her children!

The main goal of connection is being connected with your child, though. They will know if you trying to manipulate them into following your agenda. Try, if you can, to let go of results for awhile and focus on learning who your children are and what makes them tick. Spend as much time as you can observing them. What do they like? What are they good at? How do they approach obstacles? What are their learning styles?

There are four basic guidelines for engaging cooperation, even while building up your relationship:
  1. Use requests only when you will accept "No" as an answer. Otherwise, make statements. If it sounds like compliance is optional when it's not, you risk further eroding connection.
  2. Limit rules to safety issues and top family values. Where possible and when in doubt, move 'rules' into 'guidelines' and remove power struggles surrounding those areas.
  3. Say "Yes" to underlying needs, if not the actual request, whenever possible. "Yes, we can go play at the park just as soon as the toys are put back in their spots! I'll help you."
  4. Ask yourself how you would influence a friend you had no power over to do what  you wanted. Can you make it fun? Can you show him the value to him? 
When you have to enforce a limit, do so with empathy. Dr. Laura Markham of has some excellent information here.
Same with hitting, kicking, pushing, etc. I take him to his room and wait with him to calm down, then we often talk about how it is hurtful and come up with alternatives. He never uses the alternatives though. He just wants to hit. He wants to push and shove and hurt his little sister when he is mad. Or he wants me to notice. 
When people get upset, they lose access to the thinking part of the brain. Know how you always come up with great retorts after the person walks away? It's impossible for people to be rational when they're emotionally charged. Young children are just beginning to be able to access executive function (self-control, planning, delayed gratification) at the best of times. Expect them to revert back to their 'primitive' brain whenever upset. (See here for research on tantrums.)

First priority is to keep everyone safe. For a number of reasons, I like to say "I won't let you hurt anyone. It's ok to be mad. It's not ok to hit." Give alternatives. "You're so mad you need to hit something! It hurts to hit people. Let's hit this pillow. [hitting pillow] I'm so mad! Mad! Mad!" If you don't want to seem to encourage violence (they'll follow your lead in anger management, so if you don't hit when upset, they probably won't after this developmental stage) then you can walk him through some calming breathing or watching the Calm Down Jar.

When he's calm, reinforce coping strategies. Expect to do this over and over. And over. They're still learning to categorize, so surprisingly, each upset that has a different cause may feel like a different situation. Plus, executive function is still developing into the mid-twenties, so he literally can't control himself all the time.

I was struck by the last sentence. Many people take that look as either defiance or attention seeking. Reframe it to see him looking to you for help.  He doesn't want to be out of control and he doesn't want to hurt people. He does want to connect with you and he does want you to show him how to deal with these big feelings. And if he's resorting to acting out to get your attention, be proactive and offer your undivided attention before he 'asks' for it next time.
I also try to stay out of their business most of the time, but it's like kids only do what you don't want them to do. The office is off limits, so they are constantly trying to go in there and mess with the computers/printer (this happened an hour ago. So I carried him out, and stood there holding the doorknob. It became a power struggle and then he started to hit me. So I moved him, and he started crying and then it was time for quiet time. WTH?). I don't want them to dump their water on the table, but when I offer to go out with them to play in water/with water cups, they decline. I ask if he wants to put cups or plates on the table for dinner and he screams "NOTHING!" It's like he is already a teenager and doing everything in his might to object and point out that I am lame and have no say in the matter.
We have lots of boundary testing here, too. :) It's (slightly) less frustrating to frame those qualities as positives - determined, curious, persistent, self-aware, and self-directed. It's a lot more challenging to encourage those traits during childhood, even understanding that it will serve him better as an adult.

Looking to meet the underlying need is absolutely the right thing to do. I sense it might be hidden under the behaviors with your son, though. Otherwise, he'd be happy to go play in the tub or outside.

What I've found with my strong willed daughter is that she will resist everything when she has some big feelings, almost as if daring me. When I see that pattern developing, I offer her a hug (usually rejected, which some children do - others prefer physical closeness when upset) then create a safe place for her to offload feelings. She will rage for a bit then transition to sadness. This is normally where I can begin comforting her until she's gotten out all of those feelings. She knows that I love and accept her, no matter how terrible she feels inside, and quickly goes back to her sunny self.
I spend lots of time (too much?) with them trying to build trust in order to get some cooperation. But cooperation doesn't come. Then I don't know what I SHOULD do in order to keep things positive. I sometimes feel like I understand, but I haven't been able to get things to work. So now I just feel defeated, discouraged, and frankly, stupid. I read testimonials from other parents talking about how 2 months of positive parenting has changed their lives. I've been "studying" this for 18 months and don't feel that I have gotten anywhere...except maybe a little permissive because I don't know what else to do. 
I hear your frustration and have felt it as well. Both with parenting and other written directions I just can't seem to figure out. It's not you; it's the medium. It takes a lot of words to explain something and sometimes words have different meanings to different people. Sometimes there are assumptions that you already have pieces of information. Sometimes the people who see success quickly have 'easier' children or a different environment.

The time you spend on your relationship with your children is never wasted. The connection you build benefits you both. Keep in mind though, that no matter how strong your bond, your child will not always want to do what you want, on your timeframe. The developing brain is wired seek autonomy and determine boundaries. There will be a lot of testing, for a long time.
(other examples, he demands I cut his eggs, stay with him in his room while he changes out of his peed in pj's, demands I stay at the top of the stairs so that he can be the first one down, etc. I don't accommodate [but I feel that he internalizes this into a struggle for power]. They don't really have "chores" as of yet, but we try to get them to help us clean up their toys, clear their plates, set the table. That's about it.) 
We all like to occasionally take breaks from our responsibilities. Sometimes a child doesn't want to do something they 'know' how to do because they are working on some other concept and don't want to spend the time right then. Sometimes they're asking for more connection in the only way they can figure out.

I would say accommodate those requests where it's feasible and explain why you can't or won't accommodate the other times. While you don't want to create dependence on you for things they are capable of, you do want to model generosity of spirit by helping them out with a loving heart.
Again, I read stuff and think that this is so easy, then when I get bucked, I don't know how to turn it around. I don't know how to "make" them help, or what to do if they choose not to. And if it is a bad relationship in regards to being connected, I need to be pointed in the right direction to see how to improve that. Specifically what needs to be done to become better connected with mutual respect. Is that possible when I am always saying no? No you can't drive the van/hit your sister/rip apart my books/play on my phone/watch 12 hours of TV/eat 50 cookies/buy new toys/eat the neighbors junk food/sit with us in church....
For most people, it's neither simple nor easy. If our parents didn't have good tools, we also don't have good tools and we have a less positive 'default' when things aren't going well. Learning new tools takes time and practice. There will be setbacks and mistakes. When you add in the human factor of your children, it's even more complex. Is behavior due to normal development? A bad mood? The tool being applied less effectively? The wrong tool being used?

I'm seeing two different goals in this post, and as such, I'd take two different approaches. The first goal is developing more connection. This requires focus on the child and lessening of expectations. Create a safe haven in your relationship. All emotions are welcomed and support is freely given.

The second goal is cooperation. The best teacher here is modeling. Children do what we do, not what we say. They also appreciate knowing why we do things. Explain how their actions affect both them and you as parents. Give them time to respond. Toddlers can take up to several MINUTES to make a decision and act on it. Be respectful of their current activity. Give notice, especially for children who have challenges with transitions. When they do cooperate, give appreciation and resist the urge to 'fix' any aspect.

If you're feeling you say no too often but your boundaries aren't too restrictive, try saying yes to an acceptable alternative or changing your environment.
Driving - You can sit in the driver's seat while I clean out the back seat. You can drive your car when we get home.
Damage property - You may rip this paper apart. I'm putting my books in another room because I can't read them when they're ripped.
Too much media - We can watch your favorite show before going to the park. I've noticed we aren't as nice to each other when the TV is on more than an hour, so I'm turning it off when it's not time to watch the show you picked out.
Too much junk food - Our tummies get upset when we eat too much of any food. Lets have some grapes instead. I'm not buying any more Oreos since they don't help our bodies grow. Would you like cantaloupe or strawberries?
Buying thing - This trip is to get a birthday present for your cousin. I'm not buying anything extra. Maybe your cousin will let you play with him. I'm going to the store by myself today because you've shown me that it's too much for you to handle right now. We'll try again later when I have more time to spend with you.
Being separated - They have asked for services to be adult only. You get to go to special classes until then. We're going to look for a church that allows children to sit with their parents if they want.

Positive Parenting doesn't remove challenges. Your children will still have meltdowns and test boundaries and go through stages. Positive Parenting gives you tools to make your home happier and more peaceful. It positions you to retain your influence once your children are too big to physically control.