Finn. My first born. My sweet boy. The child who made me a mother, who has made me realize how hard mothering can be, and who has shown me all of the rewards that come along with it. I have known, for a long time, that Finn is not your run-of-the-mill kid. He is 'normal' (whatever that is), most of the time, but also has some idiosyncrasies that have made me wonder more than once if there was more going on inside his head than we realized.
Consistent emotional outbursts that seem out of place for a child his age. Throwing a tantrum with screaming and crying at the beginning of each session of swim lessons, even though he enjoys being in the water. Refusing to use the potty at school unless I am there. Screaming about how hungry/thirsty/tired he is every time we get in the car. Running away from new children who try to engage him in play at the park. Refusing to even open his mouth for the dentist to have an exam. And so on, and so on.
But in between these spurts of emotion, Finn is an extremely bright, extremely wonderful boy. He is so sweet, has lots of friends who he is very outgoing with, and at age 4, communicates better than most 6 year olds I know.
My husband, who doesn't spend as much time around other children, always acted like I was crazy when I brought this up. In his mind, Finn was acting exactly like all of the other children his age, and there was nothing different about him at all. But I knew that there was. I just wasn't sure what it was.
After much hemming and hawing we decided to see a family therapist. More than anything, I just wanted to learn some coping techniques on how to deal with Finn when he was acting "out". How to help transition him to new situations, how to ease his fears, etc. I was nervous to take the plunge and see a counselor... felt like it meant that I thought something was seriously wrong with our child, or that I wasn't capable enough to take care of him. I was sad that my innate mothering instincts were not telling me how to deal. But, his outbursts were causing me to get stressed, frustrated and confused, and instead of being the extra-patient mother that he needed, I was becoming more angry and exhausted. So, we went.
And the experience was good. The counselor, like myself, felt that Finn was a normal kid- who happened to have some not-so-normal behaviors. Just having this confirmation that Finn was a bit different felt good to me,-- that I wasn't crazy for wondering why he acted the way he did. But, I was also assured that his different behaviors didn't signify any major sociological disorders, like autism, which was also good to know. But, these sessions also left me longing.... OK, so he is different, but why? and now what?
Right after the first counselor session, I found a book entitled The Highly Sensitive Child. As soon as I was a chapter in, I knew I had figured it out. This was Finn. The examples the author used were like excerpts from my real life. Highly sensitive people, who make up about 15% of the population, are just more aware of everything... from feelings, to other people's reactions and perceptions, to minute details of a situation. These are the kids who are bothered by scratchy fabrics, feel their hunger more acutely, and who notice every change or inconsistency. And, depending on how they deal with this overwhelming amount of information and feeling, they can sometimes act in unexpected ways.
Finn is highly sensitive, and, while reading this book, I discovered that I am too. I am maybe less sensitive than Finn, but we share many of the same traits. Finn is just much more intense in the way in which he deals with these feelings. Now it made sense that Finn refuses to wear jeans, because until high school, I was exactly the same way. I wear them almost every day now, but they used to make me feel trapped and confined. Finn feels the exact same way and prefers pants with elastic waists. Now I understand why he cries for food and water every time we get into the car.. because his body, now strapped into a car seat, is finally calm enough to figure out what it needs. However, since Finn and I deal with our issues so differently, it never crossed my mind that our feelings could be the same. For example, while Finn and I may both feel extremely nervous and hesitant entering a new group of people, my way to deal with it is to be friendly and try to conform and just fit in and not draw too much attention to myself. Finn's reaction to the same situation would be to scream, kick, and maybe lash out at someone. His body just processes his feelings differently than I do. This is something that I assume he will eventually outgrow, but I know that I need to be an extra patient and understanding mother while he is making that transition. And I am so afraid that I am not patient enough to do that, to be the mother he really needs. I want to, and I am trying, but it is really tough.
So, it feels good to have a label on Finn's actions, to know why he is acting the way he does, and to know that there is nothing wrong with him. But, this book was also very overwhelming for me. It spoke many times about how parenting highly sensitive children is hard, but so important, because of their sensitivity (basically, like one big mess up and you scar them for life). Pressure! Plus, the ways to parent these children, at least according to this book, are very different for many situations. And, it made me feel like I have been a huge failure of a parent to Finn so far. Let's take the swim lesson example. Finn never wanted to start a new session, but as soon as he was a day or two in, he loved it and couldn't wait to go. So, each time a new session started, he would throw a fit and freak out. And-- I would push him and make him get in the water, knowing that he would have fun in the end. The book even used that exact example, citing that parents who pushed their children into swim lessons ended up harming their self confidence, blah blah blah. I won't bore you with details, but I felt like a failure. I sort of still do, except I am giving myself credit for trying now. I just wish that when your baby was born, someone would say he, he is "this" or "that" and here is how you should parent him. Instead, as we all know, it is a game of trial and error, and I just hope that I haven't zapped his self confidence too much for him to be a success later in life. I hope he doesn't look back at me when he is older and think about how his mom really screwed him up. Because did I? Am I?
I am now reading Taming the Spirited Child, which also seems to describe Finn's temperament exactly. I am hoping that, with some more reading, observing, and pondering, I will find the best way to help Finn, and to help myself, when he is having trouble dealing with his over-stimulation. Since I am also highly sensitive, I like (need) to have a plan of action. I need to know what to do when a situation arises, otherwise I will default to autopilot, which is normally a short tempered frustrated person.
This knowledge, although tremendous and powerful, is also challenging. I know that I need to take time for myself so that I can stay calm. I know that for a long time, I will have to anticipate Finn's outbursts and be prepared to deal. I know that I will have to continue to take lots of extra time for transitions and not be upset when things don't work out how they are supposed to. It is going to be hard, but at least I think we are on the right path. And that is something I can be happy about.
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