Don’t Shy Away

Parenting a sensitive child

I remember being a sensitive boy. I was mild, quiet, somewhat aloof and not quite into the rough games other boys my age seemed to enjoy. Unlike others, I was never exactly bullied as such – but let’s just say I wasn’t quite the alpha male in my school days. While I certainly don’t see anything negative about that (if I’d had the choice, I’d have decided to be exactly as I am), growing up from that starting point does present different challenges to quiet boys as they become men. In a sense, the onus is on them to discover for themselves how their role as an adult will differ from the norms. Tough kids have it easier, which is part of the reason why (in most countries) bullying is rarely punished severely by teachers – some researchers have demonstrated that teachers subconsciously side with the strong ones, recognizing (and deferring to) their nascent leadership qualities. Everyone wants to be popular, teachers included.

Sensitivity can be hard enough on a kid, but being the parent of a sensitive boy can be a painful experience too. We know that boys tend to be aggressive and we expect them to be tough, and while no one wants to see their son become a bully, in some ways we’d worry less if they were dominant rather than submissive in their play. If history has taught us anything, however, it’s that you can’t reprogram your children to match your expectations. It’s difficult not to feel concerned to see your little boy playing alone in a corner while all the other kids are chasing each other in circles, and it’s very difficult to know how to deal with it. Do you push your boy into the fracas, or do you watch him develop into one of those awkward, shy kids? How can you even punish him effectively without risking damage to his self-esteem – the one thing you hope he’ll develop above everything else?

Probably the first thing parents of such children – girls too – need to understand is that a child’s impressionability is not necessarily a vulnerability. Sensitive children are often extremely astute – they notice subtle changes in their environment, they pay attention to details that others miss and they can, especially with encouragement, take the initiative in dealing with things that bother them. Good parents need to appreciate the possibilities open to children with far subtler appreciations of the world than are available to most: it’s better to allow sensitive children to explore their ability to assert control rather than to dismiss their minor irritations as being unimportant. Sensitive boys need to be taken seriously, and they need to feel that the choices they make – even those that seem silly to a parent – will be respected.

Get Over It

Punishing highly sensitive children requires a fine touch. The most difficult part is to get the sense of proportion right. Tough kids can be randomly defiant; they back down when they see punishment coming and spring back quickly, cheeky as ever and ready for another shot at you. Shy children are usually only ever defiant when your interests conflict with theirs and they’re unable to see why; they may be absorbed in their play to such a degree that your interference seems unreasonable, even if they know it’s well past their time for a meal, nap or wash. Such children can inadvertently become great, unintentional manipulators – they can quickly learn to give you such valid reasons why, all things considered, it’s not actually imperative they go to bed right now – and they may well win you over with their reasoning until you finally lose your patience. The danger is that regardless of your method of punishment, a sensitive son will take it far harder than you expect and he may suffer from a sense of shame and anxiety long after the event. Sensitive boys want their parents to be proud of them – and it’s difficult for them to interpret parental criticism as being constructive. These boys don’t typically grow up to say, “my father was a stern role model, but it made me a better man,” but rather “my dad was always wild with me and it ultimately pushed me away.”

It’s important that you try to discipline your son’s behavior through a system of encouragement rather than penalty; don’t coddle him, just help him to understand that if he misbehaves, he won’t achieve his goals. Gold stars on charts can work wonders – if your son is misbehaving, explain that he won’t be getting his star today and help him understand how he can earn one tomorrow. It takes time, but you’ll get the results in the end. If you’re concerned about being overprotective, then do give him the opportunity to face the real world by joining in activities with other children, as long as you can choose an environment where you know he’ll feel safe – don’t dump him at the playground with boys with massive fists and expect him to just deal with it. Find what appeals to him and indulge him in his interests at venues where he can experience and share them with others. This will give him the confidence to interact with other people on his own terms. That’s about the best gift you can give him – self-assurance.

It’s not easy to admit, but discovering that your little boy is shy and sensitive can be immensely disappointing to a parent. The most important step you need to take there is to recognize your disappointment, accept it, and get over it. The more you love your son for who he is, the more his compassion and intuition will inspire you. It may help to take heed in the fact that quiet strength has been exonerated in this part of the world for centuries and it’s in this age that the advantages of such qualities are being proven in Asia. Encourage and give your full support to your boy’s gentle and yielding nature, and he may grow up to be a lion yet.


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