My son is ‘sensitive’—here’s why I think that’s a good thing

Although some label his emotions as 'girly' or 'babyish,' there is hidden strength behind his behavior
By Sarah Bradley  Published on 11/13/2018 at 9:00 AM EDT
Annie Spratt/Unsplash

“Buddy, please take your plate off your head,” I called from the other room, a pile of half-folded laundry on the floor in front of me. I could see my 5-year-old son in the kitchen, caught up in some kind of lunchtime comedy routine funny enough to have his brothers laughing riotously from either side of the table. He ignored me, continuing to sing a goofy song with his plate perched precariously on his head.

“Stop doing that,” I warned, standing up and sidestepping laundry to head into the kitchen. Of course, I didn’t make it in time: before I could get there, the plate slid off my son’s head, dumping corn, black beans, and the remains of a chicken quesadilla on the floor.

I stormed into the room. “See? Look at this mess. That’s why I told you to stop.”

My son stared at me for a moment, lip quivering, before erupting into tears and diving under the kitchen table to hide. “You scared me, Mommy!” He shouted, though I knew it was more complicated than that. He probably already felt bad about the mess before I yelled at him. Now he was refusing to come out from under the table.

I sighed.

By now, I should know better than to shout disapproval at my middle child, because while his brothers, 8 and 3, might be unfazed by a scolding from Mom, that’s not the case for him. He’s what many members of our family have deemed “sensitive”: prone to dramatic outbursts, instantaneous crying jags, and end-of-the-world catastrophizing, his emotions constantly simmering just below the surface. It doesn’t take much to send him fleeing to the comfort of his bedroom, where he can close the door and sob his heart out.

Even still, there’s no way (in a busy, homeschooling family of five) for me to moderate every single one of my interactions with him according to his heightened sensitivity; our life moves way too fast for that. So, yes—sometimes he overreacts to being told he can’t do something. Sometimes he struggles to cope with a frustrating art project or block tower construction. Sometimes he is totally crushed by one of his older brother’s dirty looks, or one of his younger brother’s attempts to run away with a favorite toy.

Admittedly, I do get annoyed from time to time with my son’s frequent emotionally-charged reactions, and I’ve called him “sensitive,” too. But when I say it, it’s not a criticism. It’s just one aspect of his personality, and I don’t find it that hard to cope with. I’ve learned to wait for the storm to pass and talk with him once he’s calmed down. He almost always bounces back quickly, eager to move on and try again. This is just how he processes his feelings, at least for now, and I’m okay with that.

Other people, however, seem less okay with it. There is often a quiet judgment from bystanders when my son is furiously crying over a minor problem or sulking in the corner because things didn’t go his way. Sometimes his behavior is classified as “babyish” by certain family members, but more commonly it’s referred to as “girly.” Because while girls are allowed to experience dozens of complex and challenging emotions, boys are supposed to “man up” and pretend nothing bothers them—or, at the very least, express their feelings in more socially acceptable ways than crying (like…punching a wall, I guess?).

While girls are allowed to experience dozens of complex and challenging emotions, boys are supposed to “man up” and pretend nothing bothers them.

Well, I’m raising three boys, and I won’t be persuaded to teach them that any of their emotions are wrong or need to be hidden away. I admire my middle son’s sensitivity. I think it’s a strength. It’s almost like his superpower: He absolutely needs to learn to control it as he gets older, but controlling something is not the same as suppressing it—and I believe my son will be at an advantage in life if he can learn to utilize his sensitivity, rather than fight against it because he thinks it’s a flaw.

Even though my son can dissolve into a puddle of tears if I accidentally snap at him, that same sensitivity also makes him incredibly sweet, kind, and thoughtful. This is a kid who loves kittens and babies and hedgehogs, who heaps excited praise on his brothers when they’ve done a great job, who wonders out loud if there are any horses in heaven. He intuits when I’m feeling sad or angry and reaches out to make me feel better. He carefully considers how other people might react to upsetting situations, like breaking a bone or having a frightening nightmare, and shows sympathy for their pain and fear. He worries when he overhears my husband and I talking about a hurricane heading toward the East Coast or a blizzard knocking out the power for days. Will people be okay? He asks, his small forehead wrinkled with concern. Will they lose their houses? Will their pets get hurt?

My son is also considerate of the people and the world around him. That’s a strong quality, one I don’t plan to discourage. Instead, I give him the space to feel however he wants to feel, and then I try to give him the tools to react more calmly in the future. I don’t respond to every meltdown with saint-like patience, but I don’t require him to stop crying, or “man up,” or quit acting “like a girl.” Being a boy doesn’t limit his range of emotions, and it shouldn’t limit his ability to express those emotions, either.

Personally, I think the world needs more boys exactly like my son. It needs boys who think about how others are feeling and try to put themselves in their shoes. It needs boys who worry about the safety and well-being of people in danger and wonder what they can do to help. It needs boys who can openly admit when they are sad, lonely, frustrated or afraid. And you know what else? The world needs men like this, too. There aren’t enough of them.

My son grows up a little more every day, and at some point he’ll be an adult. It’s my job to raise him to be the kind of man that all men should be–a man less concerned with his perceived masculinity and more concerned with moving through the world with love and compassion. So far, I think he’s on the right track…I just have to coax him out from underneath the kitchen table first.

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