| by Dr. Ted Zeff, Ph.D
My husband and I have an eight- year-old highly sensitive son. I (Mom) am Danish, and Dad is Canadian.
Our son was born in Denmark and lived there until he was five years old. We now live in Canada.
My husband and I have helped our son become more confident by always validating his feelings and giving him unconditional love and acceptance daily. We always talk with him about how he feels and assure him that his feelings are completely nor- mal. For example, if our son is faced with a new situation, such as starting a summer camp, he often feels anxious, nervous, and apprehensive in the days leading up to it. We then dis- cuss his anxiety by exploring what he fears might happen. Sometimes we ask him, “What is the worst thing that could happen?” Then we brainstorm solutions together, to empower him in case those concerns turn out to be true.
My husband and I also bolster his self-esteem by telling him how proud we are of him. When he graduated from kindergarten he was devastated that he could no longer be in his teacher’s class, since they had developed a special bond. So he decided to write her a goodbye letter. The letter he composed was truly heart-warming and it moved her to tears when she read it with him. We are so proud of our son for having the cour- age to share his feelings with peoplehe cares deeply about. We believe that his ability to express his feelings the way he does is a positive characteristic that will continue to help him achieve his goals later in life.
We see his trait of high sensitivity as a very positive attribute, since he has the highest values and deepest sym- pathy for other people. He recently became a vegetarian at the age of eight because he felt so sad for the animals that get killed (and he doesn’t even know what really goes on in the slaughterhouses).
He also cried when he heard the story of Terry Fox, the distance runner who had his right leg amputated in 1977 after he was diagnosed with osteosarcoma, a cancerous condi- tion. In 1980, on an artificial leg, Terry Fox created the Marathon of Hope, a cross-country run across Canada, intended to raise money for cancer research. My son was so upset when he heard that Terry Fox died because he worried about how Terry’s mother must miss him. We see our son as one special boy whom we lovedearly.
When our son has to enter situations where we know he may be over- whelmed, we take extra time to pre- pare him for the new environment.
For example, a week before school started we went to his new school as a family, played at the playground, and talked about his feelings and fears of starting a new school and meeting new friends. We assured him that he wasn’t alone in feeling over-whelmed and anxious, and let him know that other kids felt the same way on their first day of school. Since the teachers in our school put up a list of children’s and their teachers’ names before school starts, our son felt more relaxed and confident having this information beforehand.
During the school year we always work closely with his teachers and in- form them about his trait in a careful manner that does not “label” him. For example, we let his teacher know in the beginning of the school year (until he becomes more comfortable in his new surroundings) that he prefers to work and speak in smaller groups. We have also given them a copy of “The Twenty Tips for Teachers” from Elaine Aron’s book The Highly Sensitive Child, which has been very useful and appreciated by his teachers.
We truly feel that our son is respected in school because of his sensitivity. He is well liked by his teachers, who have awarded him with “Honesty” and “Respect” awards.
Another method that we have utilized to empower our son is that I volunteer on field trips and in gym class. In gym class my son would not participateat the beginning of the school year, because he was overwhelmed by the noise, children running around, and he did not understand the rules of the games. He wasn’t able to understand the teacher’s explanations when he felt so overstimulated.
When I volunteered for the gym class, I played with the other kids, to show my son how much fun and how safe it could be playing the various games. I figured that if he saw me having so much fun, he would join in. The first couple of times I volunteered he would just observe me from the bench, but very quickly he started participating with the other children and me. He finally began enjoying gym so much that I would be the one on the bench watching him have fun playing the games. He became much more confident in gym class because he discovered that he was in fact very athletic and a fast runner. Since our son participates more actively in class when he knows the topic, we ask the teacher what subjects the students will be working on the following week. By becoming familiar with the topics in advance, he feels more confident and less anxious about completing assignments in a noisy classroom.
For leisure activities outside of school, we have always signed him up for smaller classes. So instead of attend- ing swimming lessons with six kids, he has learned how to swim with just two other children. The smaller classes give him the confidence to succeed, since he feels that he is being “seen” in the smaller groups and is able to concentrate better with less children around him.