Parenting the Sensationally Sensitive child: Or, it’s not all about me this time.

I got this
I got this

When I was little, in my teens and through most of my early twenties, I heard from all over that  my “sensitivity” was not often a desirable trait.  I was “too” sensitive.  I was “very” emotional. I was not the person you wanted at your side at a loud party. I preferred one on one conversations to large groups.  I needed to spend a lot of time talking about the situation when a tragedy struck. I was too intense, and too serious. There was no hanging loose over here.

Now, I have that son. Only I see what he has going on as an asset, and not a curse. This may have something to do with all the parenting articles I’ve read online, or the surveys I’ve secretly taken on Buzzfeed. Bottom line: being hyper aware of the world around you is not something that I want my kid to ever feel lousy about. Unless of course my ego is involved?

A few weeks back I wrote about how Marcel overcame his fear of crowds, or perhaps even, if I were pushed, his perfection streak to get back on the court and have at it, during a basketball game. I boasted that I knew I needed to step back and watch, not adding any layers of mama drama to the mix, and send his brother in to silently support him by sitting next to him on the bench, when he looked like he might dissolve in tears.

When will I ever learn that parenting well, means it is about the parenting, and not the parent?

A week later, Marcel stood outside the entrance to the gym, crying quietly.  “But, Marcel, you said you wanted to come to the game? They need you. You are really talented…” He glared at me. I tried to get the coach involved. I went in to watch and left him to “think about it.”

On the bleachers, I became filled with dread. What if my son can’t play team sports? What if he never get’s over his discomfort with strangers cheering him on? If I don’t “help him” get over this… I went back out, and tried again. “Marcel, you are just as good as anyone out here. You are six, you are not supposed to be a professional athlete here..”

“I can’t breathe,” he whispered. “What more do you need me to say before you understand?” At this moment, I felt the brick hit the side of my head. This is not about YOU, Catherine. This is about HIM. He is uncomfortable, he wanted to believe he could push through the discomfort today. He is really, really in pain. EXIT NOW. I scooped him up, held him tight, and we left. I didn’t need to explain it to anyone. I needed to show him that who he is at THIS MOMENT is absolutely enough.

A message that most likely was offered to me, but because of who I am, was one I couldn’t quite take in. Now, in parenting Marcel, the value of an explicit message of support has become apparent.  No surprise that my life today, is thankfully drenched in people who are able to deliver that message to me now.

In the car Sam said; “Can we please not go through that again? It is so disappointing for me when I don’t get to play basketball during the half time…” Exhale. Return to empathy 101 in a few minutes.


  1. Thank you for this, Catherine. I am highly sensitive, my son is highly sensitive. (Elaine Aron’s work is amazing.) I have scooped him up and removed him from so many things. Right in the middle of the holiday play that he was supposed to be performing in, for example. It’s so hard sometimes. There is one train of thought that says that he will have a better life if he can just stick out the holiday play, just fake it, just fit in and endure the chaos. The other line of thinking says, you know, my child is suffering, lost, scared, there is nothing good to be learned from this until I swoop in, show him that I love him way way more than I need him to be that which he is not, feel that which he doesn’t. When I really examine the motives here, the forces at work, it’s obvious and clear. F&$k the play and the imaginary future and the enduring misery and fear and anxiety, the toughing things out in the name of some future skill. That’s not how we sensitive people learn, right? We need to feel safe first.

  2. Maranda, thank you for this reply. I am really learning so much about that middle place–that tension between “what he might not learn if I don’t…” and “WHO CARES!” so it is really validating to read your experience.

    • Petra is very sensitive and fearful of many new situations involving kids she doesn’t know… definitely in camps and after school activities, even in free play situations like a playground, the Children’s museum, or open gym time. Beyond requiring that she go to school and a few weeks of camp per summer, I don’t require her participation anywhere else. I feel I need to pick my battles. She is comfortable at school, but when I push her in other areas, it sometimes backfires and she becomes less comfortable.

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