Society may not favour sensitive boys. But they are a true gift. Find out how can you encourage your sensitive son to be strong without changing who he is.
We were at my kids’ favourite Tex-Mex restaurant. My husband, who arrived before me, had the foresight to get the kids tortilla chips to munch on while we waited. Green Crayola crayon in-hand, my son and I played our letter game. Instead of finding actual words in the word search on his placemat, we take turns finding letters the other suggests.
I say, “Can you find a Y?”
He circles a Y and then tells me to find a B.
It’s a fun, preschool-age appropriate way to pass the time before the food arrives.
We played for a few minutes until the baby needed to nurse.
That’s when it happened.
My four-year-old slowly turned from our word puzzle to the play dough that had been handed to him when we walked in. He grabbed his straw and started puncturing holes in the dough as I did my best to get the baby to stay latched. Before our server sat sizzling skillets of fajitas in front of us, she moved my son’s drink and straw to the opposite side of the table. Then she took the play dough away.
As I sat the baby back down in the bucket car seat, my son’s posture had changed. My previously bright-eyed-letter-finder was hunched with his arms crossed visibly grimacing.
Not entirely sure why he was suddenly upset, I did my best to fill in the gaps.
“You’re hungry, hon. Here’s your food.”
“Uh!” he screeched.
“Oh, you didn’t want us to stop playing the letter game.”
He recrossed his arms for dramatic effect and let out another screech.
By now, people were starting to stare.
“Go home! No restaurant!” he screamed.
I can always tell the extent of my son’s anger based on how few words he uses.
“I need you to use a quiet voice,” I said.
With a final scream of frustration, all the tables in our section turned to watch our melodrama unfold.
I scooped up my boy and headed to the waiting area. Once we had the closest version of privacy available, he collapsed into my arms sobbing.
My heart broke even though I still didn’t know why he was crestfallen. In between sobs, he was able to tell me. When the waitress came to set down our dinner, she took his apple juice and play dough away. I don’t doubt she did so simply to make way for the oversized plates. But in the eyes of my sensitive son, he could no longer have something that belonged to him.
In the past, I made many mistakes parenting my sensitive son.
Boys have always known they could do anything; all they had to do was look around at their presidents, religious leaders, professional athletes, at the statues that stand erect in big cities and small. Girls have always known they were allowed to feel anything… Now they can feel what they want and be what they want.
There’s no commensurate lesson for boys in our culture. While girls are encouraged to be not just ballerinas, but astronauts and coders, boys—who already know they can walk on the moon and dominate Silicon Valley—don’t receive explicit encouragement to fully access their emotions.
For reasons like these, I have tried to stop my son from crying and having meltdowns. I did my best to distract him too. All it did was intensify his reaction.
When I took a step back and reflected on his sensitivity, I realized I didn’t want to inhibit his feelings. Part of what makes my son wonderful is his heart and how affectionate he is. The issue was that I didn’t know how to handle such intense emotions. Instead of trying to stop his sadness, I started to ride out the storm and figure out how to parent him in a more understanding way.
Related reading: Why You Shouldn’t Punish Tantrums and What You Can Do Instead
Here is how to empower your sensitive son.
Give him the words to label his feelings.
It took practice to label my son’s emotions in the heat of the moment. There were moments where I wondered if saying, “You’re really mad,” would add fuel to his emotional fire. What happens instead is it gives him the release he needs to move through his meltdown faster. He feels understood.
Never punish feelings.
Punishing a child who cries will lead to more crying or less predictable anger. In her book, Peaceful Parent, Happy Siblings, clinical psychologist, Dr Laura Markham asserts that “a child who thinks his feelings aren’t okay will stuff them down. Unfortunately, repressed emotions aren’t under conscious control and will burst out in ‘bad’ behaviour later on.”
In addition, psychotherapist Lisa M. McCrohan states that punishing crying won’t lead “our children to be compassionate, empathetic, and confident kiddos.”
Related reading: One thing your highly sensitive child needs from you
Avoid statements like “relax,” or “let it go.”
For one, these phrases don’t tell a child much of anything. Two, it’s dismissive and doesn’t show empathy. And it takes being the recipient of empathy to begin to become empathetic.
Instead, use these phrases to coach your sensitive son’s feelings.
Have empathetic boundaries.
Having clear boundaries that show understanding and compassion are key. This doesn’t mean I’m permissive with what he can have or what he’s allowed to do.
I like to think of it this way. Say you’ve applied for a promotion at work. Your boss decides on someone else. There is a big difference in hearing, “You aren’t ready for the job. You need more experience,” compared to, “We could see your enthusiasm and really appreciate your application. We decided to go with someone who is more qualified.” Both don’t give you what you want. However, one shows understanding and appreciates for where you’re coming from.
Doing this for our sensitive children pays dividends.
Hug it out. If your son doesn’t want to be hugged, hold space for him.
Not only does hugging show affection, but it also decreases feelings of stress, anxiety, and sadness. There are some kids that do not want to be hugged in the heat of the motion. When my son is angry, I sit near him and say, “I’m here for you when you’re ready.”
Celebrate who he is.
Thank him for his warmth and affection. Praise what makes him him. The last thing a sensitive boy needs is to feel unsure about himself. Reinforcing what makes him great will serve him well throughout his lifetime, build his self-esteem, and keep his character strong.
When I reflect on my son, I feel such a privilege to raise such a kindhearted soul. I tell him often why I love the way he is.
In the entrance way to the restaurant, I acknowledged my sweet boy’s feelings. When he had finished talking, I told him that if anyone did anything else to upset him, he should grab hold of my hand and squeeze it really tight. He pawed away his tears and beamed a big smile. He hopped from my lap and grabbed hold of my hand. We made our way back to our dinner plates and alphabet game peacefully and happy.