Hope for the Hypersensitive Child

Last week, eight rambunctious first-graders were dropped off at our apartment for my son’s birthday party, and I was the only adult in the room. Not so long ago, I wouldn’t have felt comfortable even if I’d had other grown-up support. As I’ve written before, birthday celebrations often overwhelmed my tender little guy. But he’s changed so much in the past year that I decided to give it a go, even sans my business-traveling wife—and I’m very glad I did. Watching him chat with his friends about Pixar movies, play a game of telephone through a mouth stuffed with pizza, and have a relatively controlled pillow fight in the final few minutes before pick-up proved how far Felix has come in his social and psychological development.

My son’s hypersensitivity and social anxiety, traits that many quiet children exhibit, have been part of his personality since day one. As a baby, he never wanted to detach from me and my wife even while sleeping; this continued into his toddler years and beyond. From those earliest days tottering around the playground in diapers to a daddy-son dance class to a part-time preschool program, Felix faced challenges socializing with his peers and participating in group activities without becoming agitated. Normally a highly verbal child, in situations like these, he ended up retreating into a nonverbal frenetic state, expressing himself physically and sometimes hurting others.

We were fortunate enough to be able to survive on my wife’s income with only supplemental money from my freelance work, and we decided as a family that I would stay home with him every day rather than try more preschool programs. So when Felix was three, he and I retreated into our own world, avoiding classes, playdates, and outings altogether. But when he turned four, my wife and I felt the time had come to try school once more. It again didn’t go well.

On the advice of his teachers, we sought a professional behavioral assessment. It revealed that Felix was very bright and creative as well as full of anxieties and special sensory needs—but not to the extent of receiving a clinical diagnosis. As parents, we often label our kids in order to quickly communicate a thumbnail of our experience with other moms and dads. “She’s a picky eater,” we might say. Or simply, “terrible twos.” Felix’s emotional development resisted such classification. His issues were clearly not the norm, but we didn’t have an easy answer for why he acted the way he did. We struggled to communicate to family and friends just what was going on because he didn’t fit into any category. This was tough on everyone.

Now, at seven, he’s a very different kid. He connects with other children over toys and books such as Harry Potter. He participates in organized games of tag and is comfortable enough to crack jokes and play pretend. He can function in a classroom. In fact, he’s quite popular among the adults in his school—even those who don’t work with him directly greet him by name and with warm smiles. In part, his transformation has come about with age and maturity, but it’s also the result of a deep, intentional effort on the part of many grown-ups in his life to help him understand his sensitive introvert nature and control the anxieties he experiences in day-to-day life.

Here’s what we did to effect positive change:

My wife and I sought professional help and found a school that supported him.

Following his assessment in Pre-K, we advocated with the Department of Education (DOE) for a special education teacher to join Felix for several hours every week. Later, in kindergarten, Felix had two teachers. One was certified in special ed, and the other worked with Felix one on one to help him navigate interactions with his peers. His helper also took him on walks and did recharging exercises with him when Felix became overstimulated or needed a release from his seat.

In addition, Felix saw an occupational therapist twice a week to work on self-soothing activities such as meditative breathing and stretching. Plus, he belonged to a peer group of other boys, whom he met once a week for discussions about feelings and behavior. Learning about himself and how his behavior affects others has been a core part of his education for three years now.

Living in our part of New York City makes us very lucky: DOE provides resources for students like Felix (although you must know to ask for them). Everything, from the assessment facility to the DOE offices to a good school, is within walking distance of our apartment. My ability to make midday meetings, and even the fact that I pick him up from school each day, makes it easy to communicate with the school staff and administration. We have built a partnership with the school, and we always feel seen and heard.

I recognize that a lot of our advocacy has been effective because of the privilege granted to a two-parent, hetero-normative, educated white family. Even the fact that Felix’s primary caregiver is male may work to his advantage in the system. So a combination of factors are at play here: we’ve been proactive in seeking help, but we’re also fortunate that our requests for assistance have mostly been met and that the school supports Felix as much as we do at home. I wish these resources and ability to advocate successfully were equitably available to all families with little boys like Felix.

We discussed feelings, a lot.

For children, one of the most challenging aspects of dealing with sadness, nervousness, fear, or anger is that they lack a vocabulary to communicate their emotions. They’re also not always able to determine exactly what they’re feeling, which makes the sensations that much bigger. My wife and I often talked about our interior states with Felix and tried as much as possible to use “I” instead of “you” statements. For example, we’d say, “I’m frustrated that I’ve had to tell you three times to clear the table for dinner.” When reading, we stopped to ask him what he thought the characters in the book were feeling and why. We modeled a vocabulary for describing the invisible world of thoughts and emotions.

Again, we also sought outside help for this. Felix saw a play therapist every week, who engaged Felix in games designed to strengthen his empathy, help him control his nervousness, and communicate what’s on his mind. On our fridge hangs a figure that Felix colored, mapping his feelings to his body. Anger, for example, lives in his hands. Fear in his throat. Excitement in his belly. This helped him understand the mind-body connection and enabled him to put words to what was going on inside of him instead of expressing it physically.

I developed a support system for myself too.

For the past two years, I’ve seen a therapist a couple of times a month, one who has experience working with kids like Felix. He advised me on parenting strategies and helped me deal with frustrations in my relationship with my son. He also provided encouragement whenever I felt despondent about Felix’s slow and atypical development. My wife and I are both open to mental health treatment, and I’m grateful we’ve supported each other in this regard.  

I took less expensive steps as well, relying on friends, some with kids and some without, with whom I had one-on-ones about my parenting worries, hopes, and accomplishments. But I also sometimes needed to not talk about any of this and instead be an adult who wasn’t defined by parenthood.

In addition, I’ve tried as much as possible to keep exercise a part of my life. My support network has lightened (and enlightened) me, which has been important for me as well as for Felix. I need to be calm in order for him to be calm; if I’m my best self, I can encourage him to be his best self too.

I modeled how to accept and rebound from social anxieties.

I shared stories with him of when I was a child and experienced social and performance anxiety, so he knew that he was not alone—I’ve faced similar challenges and gotten a handle on them. I put them into the present tense too, describing a part of me that still feels nervous going to parties or being on stage but also letting him know that it doesn’t prevent me from doing, and eventually enjoying, those things.

For example, every week when we walk up the steps to his swim class, Felix tells me how his stomach bubbles with trepidation. I tell him how I used to feel the same way before swimming too. We remember how he always has fun once he’s in the water, and that after that first plunge, he’ll feel better. One day, he wants to feel as relaxed in the water as I do, and I remind him that he will. It’s become part of our routine before swimming, one from which he seems to draw strength.

We never stopped loving, being positive, and celebrating every small achievement.

This has been the hardest and most important aspect of our relationship with Felix. I tried never to say things like “what is wrong with you?” or compare my son to other children. Instead, I focused on what a wonderful, compassionate, and fun-loving little light of joy he is and tried to nurture that spark. We reviewed situations that didn’t go as either of us would have liked—times when he lost his temper with a friend or became so clingy that he unintentionally hurt me or his mom—and imagined aloud what other actions could have been taken or words said which might have produced a different, more positive outcome. “Now you know for next time,” I’d tell him.

This isn’t to imply that I didn’t sometimes express displeasure at his decisions or feel disappointed when I witnessed his nervousness get the better of him. I did, and I do. But I tried to keep in my mind—and his—the fact that we are temporal creatures, growing over time. “Look how far you’ve come,” I’d tell him. “You’re going to keep changing your whole life. That’s what life is: we’re always moving and learning new things about the world and ourselves in it.”

I believe this with all my heart. Even just a year ago, Felix wouldn’t have been able to successfully navigate a birthday party with his peers. He wouldn’t even have known whom to invite, his concept of friendship was still so nascent. Today, he’s thriving socially, in part by mastering his anxiety and in part by just going with it, knowing that nervousness isn’t a permanent condition or necessarily a negative one. This gives me strength and hope too as I continue to learn about my own nature by nurturing his.

And so, even though it was his birthday, I feel like my little boy is the one who’s given me a gift: the gift of providing him the parenting I wish I’d had as a sensitive, quiet child. In the process of helping him become a more confident, capable, and compassionate social being, I’m becoming a better one myself.