When your family is a mish-mash of varying degrees of highly sensitive, finding a middle path through takes patience. Finding the right balance takes work and time.
My eldest son is a classic HSC and an introvert, resistant to anything unfamiliar, sensitive to noise, stress and negative emotions, and is sent over the edge on an almost daily basis by his classroom surroundings. He was a cautious toddler and at the age of seven still observes carefully before he acts. He is easily distracted and once he is over stimulated there are dramatic, lengthy meltdowns.
My middle son is a thrill seeker, an adventurer and daredevil but sensitive to noise. He is reserved in his classroom and needs time to recover from his school day. He’s like his eldest brother in many ways, yet in other ways they couldn’t be more different. As a toddler he was climbing chairs and tables with no concern for danger and at the age of four cannot get enough of roller coasters and things he can precariously hang on. He is often intensely focussed and cannot be distracted. When he is over stimulated he is like a rubber ball bouncing off our walls.
My youngest son, now three, is a terrible sleeper, and has been since birth. He cannot sleep alone in a room through the night. He is terrified by loud (unexpected) noises and can be withdrawn in unfamiliar settings with people he doesn’t know.
All three sons were high needs babies, crying incessantly for the first three months of their lives, six in the case of my youngest. My eldest needed someone in the room with him until the age of four in order to fall asleep.
When my eldest was three and in nursery school, struggling to adjust to a new environment, having issues with separation anxiety, I heard the words ‘highly sensitive’ for the first time. I started researching and everything fitted.
Once my middle son started primary school we were knocked sideways when he started showing the same behaviours at home that we had seen with his older brother. There were no real warning signs that he was highly sensitive prior to this, except, looking back, that he was a high needs baby. Primary school seemed to tip him over the edge. The noise and the busyness around him bothers him, it often makes him tired, hyper or irritable.
And so last year I suddenly saw first hand that highly sensitive children out their sensitivities in different ways, and what works for one child isn’t a quick remedy for another.
My eldest needs more hand holding than many other boys the same age. He won’t go to unfamiliar places without his father or me. That means he won’t have lunch with a school friend (a typically Dutch primary school child ritual) if he hasn’t been to their house before. On the contrary, when my middle son started school last year he bounded out at lunchtime in his first week wanting to go to one classmate’s house after another to eat. No fear. No holding him back. I had to make a switch and step in to help him in a very different way than I was used to helping his older brother. Instead of trying to encourage I had to try and rein him in a little. Without quiet in the middle of the day, without time to unwind, he, just like his elder brother, was over stimulated at the end of the school day. Which meant the two of them clashed come four o’clock, and our household descended into chaos.
We also found out the hard way that my middle son often needs to release his energy in a burst of physical activity when he reaches his saturation point. After an explosion of exertion he is calm.
My eldest, on the other hand, shows his frustration and overstimulation with frenzied tantrums and screaming. He needs the complete opposite to his brother – silence, quiet and calm – in order to return to a relaxed state. Very different needs. And generally they need both these things at the same time – after their school day comes to a close. There is conflict, there is drama. And some days are tough for a highly sensitive mother.
I am like my eldest; I need a daily dose of quiet to recharge, to empty my bucket. Without quiet time my patience and ability to cope calmly with three young boys is seriously diminished.
The level of my sensitivity, and that of my eldest son also means that we have to plan family visits, excursions or activities well. Serious disruption at a time when my son is already feeling overloaded means days of picking up the pieces, which has a negative effect on the whole family. It means that our levels of spontaneity are not often high. We also always reserve the right to change or abandon plans at the last minute that we know are just not going to work. And to people outside our family our way of operating is not always a welcome one.
Since babyhood my sons have needed a routine. They have needed to know what is going to happen, what to expect. They have always had a solid, predictable bedtime routine and we learnt the hard way to deviate from it at our peril. This need for routine and structure has had an adverse effect on relations with some of my in-laws, who could never get their heads around the fact that we wouldn’t drag our children from house to house for an evening birthday celebration, or stoically visit their house every weekend.
And having a highly sensitive trio also throws up challenges for us as parents. We don’t need our children to pick up the details about all the bad things that happen around us. I have two sons with an emotional radar that makes hiding negative feelings tough and they think about things deeply and take things personally. It’s a challenge to find the right balance so that they don’t lie in their beds stressing at night nor feel like things are being kept from them.
Parenting our HSCs is a balancing act; we constantly try to meet one son’s needs without disregarding the needs of another. I believe our role as parents is to help our boys find the tools to live harmoniously with their sensitivity and to feel comfortable with their own limitations and triggers. It’s no easy task, and one that will probably occupy us until my sons become adults. And that’s okay with me.