Sensitivity is brutal

When I was about 23, a friend cast me in his university revue – The Four Horsemen of The Apocalypse Go Camping – as War.

It hurt my feelings.

I mean, I was an anxious, dreamy gal, wanting nothing more than to read every book ever printed and, thus informed, bring about world peace. I couldn’t even handle a horror film, let alone—I mean, War? Me?!

Nevertheless, everyone in our circle agreed it was perfect casting.

Hmph.

Fast forward twenty years, and someone gives me Elaine Aron’s The Highly Sensitive Child because she thought it fit my kids.

Sure enough, they ticked some HSC boxes, but damned if I saw us in those pages. Aron writes of mothers so averse to loud noises they commit to never calling their child from another room; she writes about sock-seams; she writes about kids who only eat bland food, who get stress stomach-aches, and who ‘cry easily’ over small injuries, animals, or art.

Who were these delicate beings?! Not us!

So long as they were with me, my kids loved new experiences. (Although they were less keen if the new experience involved other kids.) They tried any new food they were offered, they adored restaurants and Avengers movies and rough-housing, they are hugely, inappropriately, funny, they loathe museums/art galleries, complaining bitterly whenever we go. Wet’n’Wild, though? AWESOME. Outside school, they only ever melted down in public once each.

But at home? The screaming. I may have mentioned it once or twice.

They screamed in frustration, they screamed in disappointment, they screamed in panic, they screamed because it was funny. If I yelled, they screamed back twice as long. They did not scream for any sensory issue, ever, and I never thought of what they were doing as ‘a tantrum’. They just took things badly. So badly that a neighbour – the lavishly tattooed, grey-haired Serb from across the road – once nervously mentioned it. The guy with a kid the same age, that we never ever heard.

Sensitive, my kids? Pfft. They were the Brute Squad, making up in volume what they lacked in size and strength.

Another pointless parenting book. I lent it out.

However.

In my quest for Clues, I had also joined a group for parents of HSCs, and one day a baffled mama asked the magically-worded question that finally tricked my laggard brain into assembling all the pieces. I forget how she phrased it, now. But my answer went something like this:

Stimulus (physical, emotional, or intellectual) slams into our consciousness like a bullet. (If we were off in our thoughts, it’s more like a meteorite.) All the consequences appear instantaneously, like cracks shooting across a windscreen, so we respond, with shock, to a lot of information. As a result, our responses come out fast and hard. BAM! POW!

For instance, if I postpone a trip to the library because we’re all tired, it isn’t ‘just’ disappointment over the missed outing. The missed outing is itself a constellation of disappointments: fun car-ride! Fun place! Adults who enjoy talking to book-loving kids! Fun at the playground afterwards! Fun eating a snack out! Fun using a strange toilet! With strange soap! And strange taps! ALL GONE! Adding insult to injury, this adventure has been curtailed for tiresome old REST, at boring old HOME?! They HATE resting!

And beyond all that, the rich promise of a shelf full of new books, obliterated. And beyond that, what if something happens and we NEVER get to the library?! Can you see the crescendoing crisis, here?

Cue much, loud protest. And then, as Mama remains unmoved, more ramifications unfold: Perhaps I do not understand just how much they want to go to the library and how PROFOUNDLY DISAPPOINTED they are at missing out. Perhaps I – gasp! – do not care. (If I did, I’d change my stance, right, to save them this suffering?) Perhaps they need to express themselves more vehemently.

Ah.

Now that I put it like that, I can see how we might come across as a bit, um, forceful.

Martial, even.

Of course, the kids could never have articulated it like that, and at the time I probably couldn’t have unpacked it like that myself. I would have been too busy dealing with the screaming.

Unfortunately, as a parent with the exact same wiring, I may have dealt with some of it by – yep – screaming. Sometimes literally, sometimes not: it scarcely matters. Their brains and ears are so finely attuned to every nuance of information, so hyper-alert to any perceived threat, that my plain-old, everyday certainty (formed exactly as fast and hard as theirs) sounds like a bomber roaring over their heads. When our brains have raced, laser-fast, to different conclusions? Obviously, it’s war. God help us if anyone digs in.

So the trick turns out to be pulling back from those distant conclusions. Dialling down my conviction, even when (I think) I know exactly what’s going on and what is unequivocally The Right Answer. Nodding thoughtfully buys time to apply a mental fire-extinguisher, creating a gap between the first answer smashing into my brain and the words erupting out of my mouth. I am learning to brake my speech, softening my fast-and-hard reaction with pauses and questions. “I wonder…” is hands-down the best parenting tool ever. I use it about as well a goat with a screwdriver, but eh, I’m learning.

Eventually, the friend returned Aron’s book, and this time, I slowed down enough to recognise us. After all, it’s sensitivity that brings so much information so fast to our brains, even if it’s the gifted that races away and sounds the air-raid siren.

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