Wednesday, July 9, 2014

the highly sensitive child. and mariachis.

you guys. this book has changed my life.

The Highly Sensitive Child by Elaine N. Aron, Ph.D
okay maybe that's a little ... enthusiastic. but seriously. game changer.

if you looked at the title and thought, "huh? highly what?" then this book and this post are probably not for you. but if the term highly sensitive resonates with you, i would definitely recommend this book.

as you may recall, i myself have a sensitive boy. what you may have gathered, but i probably haven't said in as many words, is that he gets a lot of that from me. i really liked this book not only for the insight that it gave me into my son's little brain, but also for the light it shone on my own issues with life, people, marriage, motherhood, and "the real world."

within the first few minutes of opening the book i was like, "okay, i'm gonna need a highlighter." then i felt like i was in law school again because i just highlighted all of the parts. i was in the bathtub, actually, at the time, and i kept getting out, leaving foot-shaped puddles out to the living room where DM was sitting. "LOOK! highly sensitive people NEED down time! i'm not just being a party pooper or a wet blanket. this is a real thing!!" back to the bathtub. two minutes later. traipse back out to the living room. "highly sensitive people like to follow the rules! highly sensitive people need routine! they are planners! they like the quiet. we are highly sensitive to caffeine! and drugs! this is why coffee cracks me out and i am a total tweaker on pot! (allegedly)." and finally, "ooohhh myyyyyy GAHD! DADDY MACK! highly sensitive people hate mariachis!!! it's like this was written about ME! er... i mean... about Jackson." THIS EXPLAINS EVERYTHING!!!

DM will rue the day that amazon prime delivered this gift unto my doorstep, because it's like my new bible for justifying all my weird-ass quirks and peccadillos. in addition, i have diagnosed 37% of the people in my life as "highly sensitive," which is 22-27% higher than the rate at which the personality type naturally occurs in the human population. with my google university degree in medicine and this book, i am UNSTOPPABLE!!!

but, let's be honest. (DM and) i already knew i was crazy. that's not what we needed help with. we needed help understanding our boy. i have to say up front that life with jack has become more and more enjoyable with each passing milestone, without the help of this book. whoever warned me that "the trying threes" were worse than "the terrible twos" was wrong, at least in jack's case. (also whoever said it was easier to potty-train girls than boys. NOPE.) anyway, while still especially "strong willed" or "spirited" or "challenging" or "a dick" at times, on balance, our family dynamic (which generally revolves around jack's moods) has improved immensely over the past year or so.

but man alive. that was not always the case. there was a time when i wondered on a near-daily, if not hourly basis, what on EARTH was wrong - with him, with me, with our approach to parenting, with karma, with the universe. i thought for sure that i had broken the poor kid with my new-mom neurosis. or maybe it started even before that. as the L&D nurse said to me in the hospital after jack was born and she was unable to soothe him: "did you cry a lot while you were pregnant? if you cry a lot while you're pregnant, then you get an unhappy baby."

i know i am "highly sensitive," which can be a blessing and a curse when dealing with a little mini version of my stressball self. but i've learned to "fake it." at least before i told the entire internet, only the people closest to me knew what an enormous nut case i am. but i was worried that jack was going to have a harder time adjusting. on the other hand, i worried that he would adjust just fine, but that in the process he would lose all the parts that made us fall in love with him... in "toughening up," he would have to harden his sweet little heart and soul. thankfully, for all parties involved, the boy is already learning to "pass" perfectly well, but his sweetest, lovinest, funniest, cleverest pieces have remained completely intact. his teachers even commented the other day, "we just LOVE jack! he's one of our favorites! we are going to warn his teachers next year that they just have to be patient and eventually he'll come around and charm their socks off."

there was a time when we were afraid to take him to parties. especially parties where anyone was going to make any sort of noise. superbowl parties were THE WORST. GOD FORBID anyone score a touchdown. PLEASE LORD LET THIS BE THE FIRST SUPERBOWL TO TIE 0-0!!! if anyone dared to cheer, Jackson would ensure that the party would come to a screeching halt. literally screeching. i myself am very sensitive to noise, so i can totally sympathize. (DM just told me i needed polarized sunglasses, but for my ears. i think they're called earmuffs.) but it was a real problem. even at home, DM, previously an obnoxious slightly-louder-than-average east coast sports fan, quickly learned to tamp down his raucous reactions to the triumphs and sorrows of being a Philadelphia eagles fan.

another issue is being touched by strangers, or really, anyone, at least unless he happens to be in the mood for touching. this seems perfectly normal to me! but apparently it is not. a couple of weeks ago we were at a party and one of DM's friends not only touched Jackson, but picked him up over his head and threatened to throw him into a small body of water. this struck sharp bolts of panic into both our hearts. DM and i stared at eachother, stricken, like ohhhhh f*ck, and silently counted down the seconds until J emitted his usual party-stopping scream. but then.... silence. DM and i watched in awe as a slideshow of emotions clicked across Jackson's face. "what in the F?.... I DO NOT LIKE THIS!... I DO NOT LIKE THIS AT ALL... this makes me want to scream... or cry... or perhaps both simultaneously... processing: ramifications for kicking this person in the head... no... wait... you got this!... hold it together, man... it will be over soon... oh thank god... okay, smile for the crowd... see? look. take a picture, mom. this is me having fun. whee."

and on the subject of the physical: highly sensitive children (apparently) feel pain more. here we thought we were raising a contender for the biggest crybaby in the guinness book of world records... turns out most of it is probably pretty legit. and they need their feelings, physical and emotional, to be validated, not discounted.

so, you can see why i might be a little concerned about this little marshmallow making his way through the cold, hard world.

then the other day, this conversation happened:

j: co-by, i'm not mad or anyting and we're stiow fwends, but you do not hass to sit WIGHT next to me all dah time.
c: but i wants to pway wif you.
j: you can pway wif me, but you juss hass to give me a wittow space!

and would you look at that?! the kid is not even four years old and he knows what he needs, AND knows how to ask for it. he's got me beat, ten ways to sunday. it's actually to the point now where Colby will walk up to him and say, "Jack, do you want to be awone?" Jack: "Yes, pwease." Colby: "Okay." (Alright, well, she says "Okay" maybe 51% of the time. The other 49% of the time she gets a devilish glint in her eye that says, "too f*ckin' bad, bruddaaaah!") i'm calling it progress.

but one area where my highly sensitive son and his highly sensitive mother diverge, personality-wise, is that, while i tend to be quiet and withdrawn when upset or overwhelmed, jack falls into an uncontrollable rage. i'm pointing the genetic finger at daddy for this one. (me: we do not throw things or kick things or break things when we're mad. j: yes we do. daddy does. me: ....)

i liken it to a switch being flipped, and once it's "on," there is no going back, you just have to ride it out. or, like going off a cliff. once he's gone, you can't pull him back. these "rages" are impossible for me to comprehend, let alone manage. frankly, they scare the crap out of me. until i had a ... i won't say "normal," but... not-highly-sensitive child, i thought maybe this was just one of those parts of parenthood that no one tells you about. but the more i interacted with other kids the more i realized it was... beyond.

my sister, who is to the autism spectrum what i am to "highly sensitive" personalities, has diagnosed both Jackson and me with Asperger's. and while i can see her point, i was resistant to this line of thought because, my apologies, this may not be a PC thing to say, but i think that being "on the spectrum" is the ADHD of the 21st century, in that it is an over-diagnosed catch-all. this is not to say that there aren't plenty of legitimate cases, of course. (the book actually discusses how to differentiate a highly sensitive personality from autism spectrum disorder.)

at one point, though, things felt so out of control that i finally did ask the pediatrician about it. he rolled his eyes and assured me that perhaps i was crazy, but that my son was perfectly normal. of course, he had never witnessed my "smart, well behaved" child try to punch me in the face when he was in a blind rage. every time it happens, i am just at a complete loss. it's like 3 years and 11 months of parenting flies out the window, and i feel that black blur of terror from the early days creeping up again. it cuts me off at the knees. i'm back at square one, ground zero. it f*cking sucks.

this is one area in particular where The Highly Sensitive Child book helped me understand my son, more than myself. she talks about how to help prevent these rages, and how to roll with the punches (literally and figuratively, in my case), when they can't be avoided.

maybe it's like astrology and horoscopes. maybe you just see what you need to see. but if any of this is sounding familiar to you, it is definitely worth a read.

the overarching theme i took from the book is that your child is super sensitive and SUPER AWESOME and it's a package deal. it's about accepting them for who they are, and working with instead of against their personality strengths and weaknesses. don't try to "fix" them. they're not broken. the same goes for you, too, pal. work with what you've got. it takes a lot less energy than trying to be what you're not.

ps, though i know i sound like a walking advertisement, Elaine N. Aron, Ph.D doesn't know me from adam. i just really liked her book :)

pps, i can just imagine my grandfathers or my old school uncles reading this and saying something along the lines of, "pshaw. what this kid really needs is the business end of a belt strap." and don't think i haven't considered it. but i just know in my heart that that is a) not the way i want to handle it, and b) probably the most counterproductive tactic we could possibly devise for dealing with this boy of mine.


  1. You were a little bit of an annoying princess when you were little, but I doubt Asperger's (and we're all a little crazy if we are alive and interesting... don't sweat that part).
    -Honorary Uncle P

    1. Ha! I'm still a bit of an annoying princess. But don't worry. I don't actually believe a word my sister says ;)