“You’re so sensitive” has always been uttered in a mocking, sing-songy voice.
Always an insult, never a compliment. And for those of us raising sensitive kids, it is at once hard and heartbreaking.
My seven-year-old-daughter is a sensitive kid. It’s a quality that presents some challenges, to be sure. Sensitive kids need explanations, (re)assurances, perspective or context. But my daughter’s sensitivity is truly what I love most about her. She is observant and appreciative. She is perceptive and contemplative. Her questions are trenchant. Her observations move me.
The stigma of sensitivity
Sensitivity is equated with crying on cue and a lot of hand holding. There are accusations of taking things too seriously and getting upset about nothing. Being labeled as sensitive is typically a gateway to more damaging insults flung your way: you’re crazy or your feelings don’t matter.
Sensitivity is also a gendered concept. A “Sensitive Sally” is considered annoying, but sensitivity in boys is simply endearing. Luxury clothing brand Zegna is leveraging this idea in its new “What Makes a Man” ad campaign by presenting the sensitive man as an antidote to the alpha male.
The stigma of sensitive kids (and later as adults) is real. Sensitive children aren’t weak or wallflowers. They shouldn’t be dismissed as a social liability or stick in the mud.
In fact, there is value in championing the sensitive kid that many tend to overlook and dismiss.
They feel things deeply
We had a tornado warning recently, with the full effect of sirens wailing in sync to the loud torrent of rain. After the warning ended, my daughter was visibly upset, but not so much at the fear of a natural disaster. She was worried about the prospect of homeless people who wouldn’t have a place to seek shelter. Her sensitivity more acutely endears her to people in distress.
Even the slightest degree of discomfort of others can upset them. They have a keen sense of nuance and pick up on cues and signals. My daughter writes me notes and wears her concern when a simple headache requires me to lie down for a minute. When my father died last year, my initial hesitation at telling her at such a young age wasn’t because I was trying to avoid difficult questions about death. It’s because I knew she would feel my pain and heartbreak as if it were her own. And when I told her, she did.
Her grasp of emotion can translate into her feeling more self-conscious than other kids. Sensitive kids like my daughter don’t want to stick out; they don’t want the spotlight or attention. I find this heartbreaking at times because kids should be kids; their lack of inhibition and disregard for what people think of them is something sacred to childhood. But if something even remotely embarrassing happens, my daughter feels it deeply and it takes her some time to recover.
Her sensitive nature has been a reminder that we can’t just expedite our feelings. There are some situations that require more intense contemplation and we can’t be so quick to say something isn’t a big deal.
They have tremendous capacity to care
Compassion abounds for sensitive kids. They are self-aware and have empathy in spades, and will likely channel their sensitivity to help others.
Sensitive kids have an acute sense of injustice and inequity that belies their years. They develop an early sense of moral outrage and righteousness. My daughter was deeply affected when she learned about the history of segregation in first grade. Oh, and I dare you to litter in front of her (even if that gum wrapper was, in fact, dropped on accident).
Her sensitivity tracks with her current career interests, which all reflect a capacity to care. Among the top contenders: trash collector, training service dogs, social worker, helping the homeless, and working with people with disabilities.
They are invested in making sense of the world
One productive way that sensitive kids can experience the world and begin to make sense of it is through the arts and humanities. Visits to museums and the library can yield compelling insights into how they’re understanding the world.
When it comes to reading, my daughter has shown a keen interest in non-fiction. She connects with the fact that people like Helen Keller were real people and has acknowledged the authenticity of their hardships and struggles.
We went to the art museum recently, walking the stately halls to journey to Mesopotamia, to colonial America and ancient Egypt. It reminded me that the humanities and arts help us to communicate and understand the world. It tells the full complexity of our human history and experience. The religious imagery, portraits of democracy, and scenes from the black experience begin to bear significance to sensitive kids who understand art as ways to communicate, celebrate and express.
Give them outlets
As a fellow sensitive person, I completely “get” my daughter. There is a form of mother/daughter osmosis with understanding many of her feelings. However, I don’t have all the answers and some days, even my patience runs thin. But I do have the benefit of knowing what I would have liked or needed when I was a sensitive kid: that my feelings are valid, having the space and outlets to express myself, and support to harness it into something productive.
So let’s broaden our understanding of sensitive kids. Rather than dismissing or invalidating sensitivity as dramatic, overblown, and inconvenient, it’s vital that we cultivate the truth that they feel because they care deeply for friends, family, and our broader world.
And that’s a quality we should celebrate in all of our kids.
[Read more about my parenting journey at www.anindeliblelife.com]