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Pushing a Highly Sensitive Child

The last two weeks have been quite eventful, to say the least, jam-packed with incredible and surprising achievements by both our kids: milestones reached, habits changed, risks taken, fears overcome. What’s funny is that it seems that the last two weeks have been eventful for many mothers of Highly Sensitive Children. I have read a great number of stories from moms whose kids have done amazing things; things that point in the direction of positive change; things that have left these moms relieved, happy, and proud.

I don’t know what it is that resulted in so many people witnessing such great stuff in the short span of two weeks. Was it the stars? Was it the moon? Was it something we all read that resulted in some drastic change in the way we do things that led to this? I honestly can’t say. But I can point out one event that took place two weeks ago that, I believe, started this snowball rolling.

Two weeks ago, the school year was coming to an end. My son’s class had been preparing for the big performance that would take place in the school court in front of all the other Kindergarten classes, the teachers, and the parents. That’s a big deal for anyone, let alone a bunch of three and four year olds. But the class had worked very hard, and I could tell from my son’s non-stop “performing” at home that there was a lot of excitement around the big event. Luca, as well as the other children, had memorized the words to the song they were going to sing, the date of the big day, what they were to wear on that day, and that they had to be there extra early that day. Whenever we talked about the big day at home, our little boy always expressed his anticipation to us, made sure we would be there to watch, and then sang his song. Which is why it never occurred to me that he might be suffering from a bad case of nerves. That fateful Monday morning was rehearsal day, the day the kids were supposed act out the entire show the way they would the next day. As we walked to class, Luca was he usual self until we reached the top of the staircase from where he could see his class. That’s when he froze, put his hand on his belly and said: “Mom, I’m not feeling very well. I have a tummy-ache and I need to go home.”

On occasions such as this one, when complaints of aches and pains come up, I can usually tell if the booboo is a real booboo, or is of the type that moves around, is caused by some kind of worry, and is created to achieve a specific goal. However, I am never entirely comfortable with my choice if I’ve decided the complaint is of the latter nature. I always find myself worried that I may have unfairly assumed there is nothing physically wrong with my son. And that’s why I found what happened next especially difficult for me to deal with.

When the teacher saw Luca crying, she tried to calm him down by assuring him this was just a practice run, that it would be fun, and that he could just sit there and watch if he didn’t want to sing on stage. Nothing she said or did worked, after we had already tried everything and failed. At some point, I felt like we were wasting time. I thought this would be hopeless and I knew that I would end up taking him home anyway, so there was no use in even trying. I wasn’t even upset about it, although I did worry that he might regret his decision when we got home since he was so excited about the whole thing. As the teacher persisted, I decided to get up and take my son home before things got any worse. And that’s when it happened. Before I had the chance to do or say anything, the teacher took Luca by the hand, told him she’d take him to see the school nurse, and off they went. Luca left his dad and me behind and didn’t even look back.

A few minutes later, the teacher returned by herself. Naturally (or maybe not so much), I jumped to my feet worried and asked what had happened. That’s when she told us we should just leave because he was fine. She assured us that she’d call us if he got really upset, but that she was sure he’d be okay. It’s a good thing my husband was there with me to give me the push I needed, because otherwise I don’t think I would have agreed to just leaving him there. My problem with this strategy was that it felt sneaky and unfair. I was to leave my son without prior warning when he was really down and really nervous and in need of his mommy. I hated myself for walking away, but a part of me knew it had to be done. After all, if things did get bad, I’d be back in a matter of minutes.

After what seemed like an eternity (about 15 minutes after I got home), the teacher sent me a message telling me Luca was fine and that he was actually enjoying himself. And what a relief it was to hear that! All he needed was that little push and he was doing just fine, out of his comfort zone, doing something he’d never done before, and having fun doing it.

When I went to pick him up later, I squeezed him so hard I might have hurt him a little. Then I asked him about his day, and his tummy, and he told me that the nurse had rubbed on some ‘magic cream’ which made him feel better. Then his face lit up as he told me about his rehearsal, and then about all the cars the other boys had brought in for show and tell. All was normal. No scars, no trauma, no resentment, no nothing.

My first thought after what I’d heard was that I needed to find out where I could buy some of that magic cream which obviously works miracles on tummy aches, and quite possibly other booboos. My second thought was that I was wrong. I was wrong for having assumed he wouldn’t be fine. I was wrong for having been so ready to take him home and have him miss out on an opportunity like this. I was wrong for worrying about hurting him by leaving him. I was wrong for not seeing that taking him home would have done much more damage than leaving him to cope in a very safe and controlled environment with people we can both trust.

Then I remembered a wonderful post I had read exactly one week before rehearsal on a blog called Journeys of the Fabulist, in which the blogger said: “We want to stretch them [our kids], but not so much they snap.” Yes. I think the importance of this concept is something we are all aware of as parents, and although it sounds great and makes sense on paper, it takes a fair amount of courage to bring ourselves to do it when we’re faced with sad little faces and tears. And I hate to think about what might happen if we failed to do this when it really mattered. Our kids might never learn to swim, to make friends, to enjoy different foods, to take risks, to go to parties, to speak in front of a crowd, to ride a bike, to drive a car. Some of these things come naturally to some children, but not all of them, and specifically not the cautious Highly Sensitive Child (HSC). I can safely say that most parents, including myself, will encourage their children to step out of their comfort zone. And yes, it’s very important to know when to back off; but now I see how important it is to recognize an opportunity to give a little push.

Now, I’m not sure what to call what happened next, but it was like a door was opened, and my son just decided to step right out of his comfort zone. It was like he had undergone some drastic transformation that led him to do many things differently. Every single day of the last two weeks, something, or even a few things have happened that made our jaws drop. He has gone from being extremely picky and conservative about his food to surprisingly adventurous, going from vanilla ice cream to a godawful flavor called Blue Sky. He graciously took his medicines, including a nasal spray, without a fight when his stubbornness almost always led to him throwing everything back up. He has gone from someone who despised (and was terrified of) sprinklers, getting his haircut and fire drills to someone who has nagged us endlessly to take him to the water park, to get a haircut and to a fire station open house. He has transformed from a child who used to completely avoid even being near those coin operated rides at the mall to a carousel bully (I had to put a stop to that power trip when he pulled down a boy almost twice his size off “his” Batmobile). He is more confident in the things he does. He is less worried and more carefree. He is smiling more than he used to; he is laughing more than he used to. He has broken out of his shell, and he seems really happy about it too!

I am so tempted to share with the whole world a detailed rundown of everything that happened since “the push”, but I won’t because it doesn’t really matter. What matters is that it happened. Pushing a child, highly sensitive or not, is a hard thing to do, but there are times when we can spot our children’s readiness to step out. And when we as parents are too weak to recognize it (like I was that day) or too soft to do anything about it, then it’s good to have other caregivers we trust to give us the push we need to stretch our kids.

The day after rehearsal day was performance day. The day did not go as I thought it would. It went so much better. After I walked him to his class and gave him a kiss, he didn’t cling on to my leg. He accepted the fact that he would walk with the rest of his class to the court where the stage was, and where I would be waiting with his dad. When he did walk out, he spotted us sitting in the audience and smiled at us. There was no crying or running. He sat through the whole show when the other classes were performing, cheering them on and applauding like a little grown up. And when it was his turn, he got up there, gave us a smile and broke out his awesome dance moves.

With every bone in my body I fought the urge to run down to him, hold him tight, and let him know I was there for him. I must have stared at him for a good hour and a half, something I’ll have to stop doing before he’s old enough to be embarrassed. And then he looked at me, calm and collected, pulled his cool shades down and gave me a big smile. And while he gave me that wonderful, heart-warming look, I could almost hear him say: “It’s okay Mom. I’m right here.”

pushing a highly sensitive child comfort zone

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