After a traumatic entry to the world my first-born cried a lot, every evening for hours at a time for the first three months of his life. At six months nobody could hold him except his father or me. Later, he would cower behind our legs if a stranger came near him. If we tried to leave him with someone he screamed hysterically.
When he was two and a half he started at the peuterspeelzaal. For months he cried when I dropped him off, he screamed, he kicked and clung to me. Eventually he accepted goodbye if a teacher had him under her wing.
One day one of his teachers pulled me aside to say she thought my son might be highly sensitive. As she explained further I realised the concept of highly sensitive ran a little deeper than shyness and a wariness of new places and strangers. His teacher told how tears welled up in his eyes if another child cried, he watched the others intently, disliked lots of noise, and scrutinised every situation before he joined in. Wet sleeves and sandy hands were a drama.
At age four he started primary school. We walked him to the new classroom on his first day. He told us he didn’t want to go to school. Outside the classroom, in the kerfuffle of children and parents getting coats off and hanging up bags his anxiety only grew. He stood glued to the spot in the corridor. We dragged him towards his new teacher and he began pulling against us, trying to get back out the door he had just entered. He cried, uncontrollable sobs that evolved in to screams and hysterical cries of “mama” and “papa” as he battled and kicked against the teacher. It was heartbreaking.
For weeks this was the familiar morning pattern. It was a battle to get him back to school after lunch at home. There were tantrums in our hallway as I tried to get shoes and a jacket on him to leave the house.
When the new school year started in August 2011 he seemed more settled. Then in November, the busiest time for young children in Dutch schools, he came down with a flu bug. Whenever it looked as if he could go back to school he would collapse again with one virus or another. He was exhausted and couldn’t seem to fully recover. In January he returned to school but came home each day tired, full of anger and aggression and suffering through severe tantrums. It was just the start of a long struggle that was to last 18 months.
A family counsellor was assigned to us from Opvoeden in de Buurt. She witnessed the intense tantrums during her first visit, lasting an hour, my little boy lost somewhere inside a whirlwind of anger. With her help we introduced a traffic light system whereby our then five year old could indicate if he was on green (happy), amber (feeling angry or tired so needed time alone) or red (tantrum alert). For the entire summer we had a tool that worked for our family. Harmony returned.
When he returned to school in August he suddenly discarded the traffic light system. The tantrums were back with a vengeance. He came home from school pale and washed out, angry and aggressive. In October he came down with a virus and missed school for most of November and December, just like the previous year.
We saw a sensory integration therapist but made little progress so were referred to a paediatrician. She ruled out physical problems with blood tests and virus checks. A child therapist came into the picture. She did an IQ test and observed him in school. She ruled out that he was highly gifted and checked off every behavioural disorder from her list. With everything else ruled out we finally had someone’s attention and acceptance that being a HSC is a big deal when you are six.
What it means for my son is that he experiences the world more intensely than other children. He sees, hears, smells and feels more than others. His nervous system is finely tuned to his environment and nothing is filtered out, like it is for less sensitive people.
He notices details and subtle changes like a new perfume I wear or when something moves on a shelf. He reacts in particular to changes in his environment, even very small ones. Noises and high activity levels around him easily overwhelm him.
He is highly creative, an introvert, a perfectionist and extremely focussed. He’s intuitive, shows empathy and wisdom beyond his years. He’s caring, affectionate and conscientious.
And he needs help to manage all the stimuli around him. So we gave him an imaginary bucket to help him. Imagine putting every sound, feeling, sight, emotion and experience of our day unfiltered into a bucket. Most of us wouldn’t get though a morning before our bucket started spilling over.
Picture how a classroom looks to a six year old child; the noise and activity. By the time my son comes home for lunch his bucket is full. He is very aware of emotions around him and he acutely senses conflict and negative emotions: the girl crying because she fell and cut her knee causes my son real concern; that Easter story about Jesus dying on the cross stays with him, careering through his head for days. It all goes into his bucket. If we can’t get a little emptied from it whilst he is home for lunch he takes a full bucket back to school. With no space left for the afternoon he comes home flowing over – exhausted and angry.
High sensitivity is an inborn temperament with an array of characteristics that are found in around twenty percent of children. However, we have struggled to get recognition for our HSC in a society that is geared towards extroverts, geared towards ticking off behavioural disorders on a checklist.
My son’s school refused to accept that being a HSC means my son finds school overwhelming and tiring. They pushed the problem to us at home. Luckily we have had amazing support from our local youth services, and now have a HSP specialist on board, someone who can help us determine how to empty my son’s bucket before it streams over.
It’s been an eye-opening journey to this point and we’ve learnt so much but thankfully it finally feels as if we are on the right road.
If you think your child may be a HSC take a look at Elaine Aron’s comprehensive checklist.
Over to You: What made you realise you were parenting a highly sensitive child?
*This post was originally written in 2013.*