It wasn’t long after I read Elaine Aron’s book, The Highly Sensitive Child about three years ago that I found Dr. Ted Zeff’s The Strong, Sensitive Boy. Naturally, as the mother of a highly sensitive boy, I quickly bought and read the book, hoping I would better know how to bring out the best in my sweet child without damaging him. I needed to know that my expectations were realistic and fair. And I was desperate to find out how I could better equip him to deal with a world that expects boys and men to be tough and virtually emotionless.
The Strong Sensitive Boy is based on Dr. Zeff’s interviews of thirty highly sensitive men from five different countries, demonstrating the factors that had the biggest impact on these individuals growing up, such as relationships with fathers, school, making friends, and sports, just to name a few. Reading these men’s stories and finding out what helped and hurt them the most is not only moving but also helps to open the eyes and hearts of fathers ̶ and mothers ̶ who may be trying to “toughen up” their sensitive boys.
It is true that the high sensitivity trait can be found equally in both males and females, regardless or age, race or culture. And it is true that, because of the heightened sense of awareness that comes with the trait, making it very difficult for the highly sensitive person (or HSP) to filter out all the input from the environment, it is a challenge for both males and females to live carefree, happy lives without getting so overwhelmed with the world. However, because of society’s expectations of men to be a certain way, a way that is more characteristic of the opposite end of the sensitivity spectrum, raising a sensitive boy to be a healthy and happy man can pose a bit more of a challenge.
Here are ten invaluable tips for parents of highly sensitive boys which I really wanted to highlight. There is so much more to take away from the book, but these are points I believe we should always keep in mind, especially when times get tough.
(1) Moms cannot, and should not do it all on their own. I know some of us want to, or think we can, but we need to remember we’re only human, and parenting a highly sensitive child can be challenging even for the strongest, most super of parents. As Dr. Zeff so cleverly puts it,
It takes the patience of a saint to be able to always exude unconditional love for your children. That’s why they invented grandmas!
Yes! I can at least speak for myself when I say that there is a point I reach every so often (at times more often than I’d like) when I feel like there’s nothing left for me to give. I am completely wiped out, both physically and emotionally, and will snap at the slightest thing, which needless to say isn’t good for anyone. In his research, Dr. Zeff shows that those highly sensitive men who grew up with loving relationships with females other than their moms had happier experiences as children than those who didn’t.
(2) We need to do our best not to put our sons in situations in which they will be extremely uncomfortable or humiliated. This of course is true for all children, but with the highly sensitive boy, these situations can seem very trivial to most people, especially if those people are not highly sensitive themselves. Joining friends for a BBQ, getting in the pool, or going to a crowded mall are just a few examples of challenges that aren’t seen as such by the majority of the population. But as parents of highly sensitive boys, it is important we always try to remember what our sons are going through, and remind ourselves that to them, these are real problems that cause real stress.
(3) Dad, your presence might just be the most important influence on a child growing up. Spend special, quality time with your son, doing anything at all. It doesn’t matter as long as you’re present and supportive of your boy. Your acceptance of your son’s character and your love and understanding will play a huge role in building his confidence and self-esteem. Connect with your sensitive boy, even if your interests are completely different. He needs his father.
Fathers would do well to let go of the cookie-cutter model of masculinity.
And remember, sensitivity does not equal weakness.
(4) Gentle discipline works best with the highly sensitive child. Dr. Zeff points out that boys tend to receive much harsher discipline than girls. While physical punishment is terrible for any child, its effects could be devastating and possibly traumatizing for the highly sensitive. Gently and calmly talk to your sensitive boy about what he’s done wrong, and try and work with him to correct his behavior. I do realize this is easier said than done, especially when you have a lot on your plate and emotions are running high, but I have found time and time again that when I take the calm approach to discipline with my highly sensitive boy, the response is always positive. Oftentimes I find that he already knows he’s made a mistake and is upset with himself before I even say anything.
(5) How can we expect someone who is highly sensitive to noisy environments to learn effectively in one? We can’t, and we shouldn’t. That means that the typical large public-school classroom can be extremely overwhelming for the highly sensitive boy. With so many stimuli to deal with, it’s no surprise our sensitive children can’t tune out the noise and focus on what needs to be learned. According to Michael Gurian, sensitive boys crave love and attention in a school environment in which they feel uncomfortable. Dr. Zeff repeats that a boy needs more one-on-one time with his teacher in order to do and feel better at school. Another point that may reflect badly on sensitive children in school is that they are often reluctant to speak up, which may be misinterpreted by a teacher that these children are either not listening or not understanding the subject matter. One thing Zeff says in this chapter about school really resonated with me:
Even one humiliating experience by a teacher could damage a sensitive boy’s entire scholastic career.
Talk to your son’s teachers. Explain to them why your son is the way he is, and clarify what he needs to function better. I have heard of many parents who left schools where teachers and principals did not show any kind of empathy or support towards their children’s needs, and were lucky enough to find better schools for their kids. It’s a lot of work, and sometimes a hassle, but it pays off big time.
(6) Watch out for signs that your son is being bullied. According to Zeff, sensitive boys are more prone to being bullied because of their quieter, non-aggressive nature, but are unfortunately less likely to ask for help for fear of getting embarrassed or of causing further bullying because they spoke up.
(7) Oftentimes, the highly sensitive boy likes and needs to spend time alone. Don’t nag or force your son to “go out and make friends”. Remember that for them, it’s not always as simple as that. However, it is worth noting that having friends can really increase the quality of your son’s life and give him the confidence and strength he needs to face the world, so gently encourage your son to spend time with a couple of good friends (not necessarily at the same time, of course), while he still gets his time alone is key.
(8) Sibling rivalry is trickier when one child is highly sensitive. We need to be extra careful about how we give out praise to our children while making sure we don’t use comparisons to make one child feel less worthy than the other because of their nature. While children teasing each other is perfectly normal, we need to minimize teasing that is directed at your son’s sensitivities. It might be a good idea to have a talk with your non-highly sensitive child about what makes your sensitive one uncomfortable while being clear that these are not weaknesses. Perhaps even discuss the things that make your non-HSC anxious, and point out that this is what his/her brother feels like when he/she is too loud / physical / aggressive / etc.
(9) Highly sensitive boys are not all the same. We often make the mistake of making generalizations when we discover a major commonality. But just because highly sensitive boys all share the “high sensitivity” character trait doesn’t make them all the same. Don’t assume that just because your son is sensitive, he won’t enjoy certain activities. One thing to watch out for is sports. Dr. Zeff talks about the positive impact that sports can have on a boy’s self-esteem, but if sports are not his thing, don’t force him to join a team!
(10) Body image can be a bigger problem for males than females. Studies have shown that the less satisfied a boy is with his body, the lower his self-esteem. Try to help your son accept the way he looks by listening to him and explaining that the stereotypical image of masculinity the media bombards us with is not real. Finally, try and help him find an athletic outlet that suits him. Dr. Zeff points out that the men in his study who took part in team sports were confident about the way they were built, regardless of their physique. If your son doesn’t feel comfortable in a team, there are always individual sports like running, biking, martial arts, etc.
I could go on and on about all the helpful information Zeff gives us in The Strong, Sensitive Boy, but I don’t want to give it all away. If you have a highly sensitive boy, I highly recommend you get yourself a copy of this book.