Very recently my daughter has been returning home from school a little sad (understandably) that supposed friends have started calling her cry baby. Consequently, she is excluded from their clubs (as she calls them, although they’re cliques by any other name) because she cries too much.
As a result of what we’ve taught her and how much she understands about HSCs, she has told them, in her own language, that this is unfair, that she is highly sensitive and can’t fully control her emotions. I’m immensely proud that she responds in this way. I’m not sure I’d respond to being called cry baby in such a controlled manner, even as a fully grown adult.
This creates an odd conflict as a parent. Yes, I know it’s part of growing up and I certainly remember being called much worse than cry baby when I was a nipper. Nevertheless, on the one hand, I have always thought wrapping a child in cotton wool is a recipe for disaster. They need to develop the confidence to fight their own battles (and she’s clearly doing this admirably).
On the other, I know that because she is a highly sensitive child she needs greater guidance and protection from a world that is geared towards diminishing her.
I also believe (and this comes from talking to a lot of parents of highly sensitive children) that parents of HSCs can be a little … well, sensitive … when it comes to the treatment of their little ones. It is generally verboten to talk about high sensitivity in negative terms and only to talk about it as a strength. This is both blinkered and unrealistic and doesn’t, I believe, help anyone. Yes, of course, there are positives. But we live in a society (rightly or wrongly) where confidence and bravado are worshipped and sensitivity and introversion are generally considered a weakness. You only have to look at the recent US Presidential Election to see that in action – a man whose very existence revolves around bravado and the systematic dissection of sensitivity.
If the sound of a helicopter passing overhead disturbs you sufficiently that it makes you a cry baby, then that is a weakness. There is simply no getting around that. I think this is at the root of a lot of the problems I encounter when talking to people about high sensitivity. When I wrote George the (Almost) Fearless Mouse, an early draft used the phrase “suffering from high sensitivity”. A lot of people immediately seized upon that and complained. I had dozens of emails from people who stated, clearly, that HSC should only ever be talked about in a positive light. Indeed, many experts state the same.
The simple fact is that a lot of high sensitivity is about suffering. It’s about suffering because sound hurts, because labels hurt, because emotions hurt. To suggest otherwise is a big fat whopping lie and is doing a complete disservice to highly sensitive children. For them to be able to survive in a world where arrogance can be considered a positive attribute, they need to know both their strengths and their weaknesses and how to best manage them – just as we all do.
So, how did I deal with this recent revelation about name-calling? In two ways.
I’m not a HSC myself so I often try and see these conflicts from both sides. Firstly, I explained to her that there will always be people for whom sensitivity is a strange concept, beyond comprehension – because they’re not particularly sensitive themselves. In the same way that she can never understand the joy that boys get from running around and screaming at the tops of their voices (for no particular reason) well, I explained, that’s how some people perceive her high sensitivity.
So, I continued, in the same way that she might not want to be part of a club of screaming boys, isn’t it understandable that they might not want to be member of a club with a tearful HSC? (Albeit, the particular clique that prompted this debate is a group of very dominant and uncompromising alpha girls but the theory was the same!)
I asked her which girls weren’t like this, who were the sensitive ones and after a brief discussion decided that she should start her own ‘club’ with them, with like minded children. Some might disagree with this. How is a highly sensitive child going to learn to cope in a world like ours if she doesn’t ‘force’ herself to mix with the pack? There, we might have to beg to differ. I believe friendships, even at this age, are important and forced friendships are only ever going to be detrimental to emotional well-being.
Secondly, I retold my Spiderman story (the same that I told in a recent BBC radio interview). This is how I often try and remind her of the positives of high sensitivity (without completely sugar coating it!). For those who don’t know their Peter Parker backstory, there’s invariably that moment when he suddenly discovers his powers for the first time. He finds himself curled up in a ball on the floor as he’s bombarded by sounds from the city around him. A baby crying next door. A helicopter flying overhead. A police siren in the street. Someone screaming miles away. A sudden painful rush of sound that never lets up.
That is what being a HSC is like. That bombardment of information (which also comes with the bombardment of touch and emotion) and while it’s a kind of superpower, it will also always be a kind of curse, but one they have to learn to understand and control (just like Spidey!) There will be times when it might appear to have no benefits, others when the rewards will be clear. This story will probably work much better with my Spiderman obsessed son when he’s older. But for now, it’s a story that my daughter understands and appreciates.
Life seems unfair
So how did this all end? Again, I have to doff my cap to Seraphina who has decided to start her own club with those children she trusts. The ones who don’t make fun of each other or bully or call people cry baby as a way to assert their authority within a pack. The ones who like those things she likes. I’m all for trying new things or trying to push yourself. But there’s little benefit if it’s only to be abused by people of a dissimilar ilk. We wouldn’t do it as adults so why expect children to do it?
Again, I’m proud of her, but so much of this has been down to honesty. Being honest with her about high sensitivity from a young age and being honest with her that being an HSC can be hard. Life as an HSC can sometimes seem “unfair”. But once you learn to understand and harness it … then and only then can it be a superpower!