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:
- The ability to act as a peacemaker
- Concern about the humane treatment of animals
- A sense of responsibility
- 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
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.
- 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.