The Force is strong in my family.
My parents have it. I have it. My husband has it. And my children have it.
…And by “the Force,” I mean the high sensitivity trait.
High sensitivity, known scientifically as “sensory processing sensitivity,” is a trait that that appears in 15-20% of the population. It basically means that we process sensory information more deeply than the rest of the population, making us more receptive and more responsive to various stimuli.
For example, my husband will jump 10 feet in the air if someone touches the bottoms of his feet (you should see his face when someone talks about reflexology). We have to remove the tags of my older kids’ clothes, or else they will go crazy from the sensation of it rubbing against the backs of their necks. We have regular crises in the mornings over the toe seams in their socks not being aligned just right.
Me, I’m less sensitive to these tactile sensations, but I have very deep emotional processing, meaning I experience emotions extremely intensely. This can be awesome when the emotions I’m experiencing are joy, love, and excitement. Less awesome when it’s fear or sadness. I’ve struggled with anxiety and depression since I was a child.
My middle son (currently age 5.5) is a lot like me when it comes to emotional processing. Raviv and I wear identical deer-in-the-headlights expressions on our faces when forced to attend large social gatherings, and we are both easily over-stimulated.
When he was a younger toddler, I noticed that sometimes when he would get worked up and overwhelmed, he “put himself to bed” for a little while. He’d go into his darkened room, climb in bed, and bury himself under the covers, and just lay there quietly for five or 10 minutes. Then he’d get up and return to whatever he’d been doing.
He reminded me that when I was just a couple years older than him, and I suffered from anxiety, sometimes my dad would let me lie in his bed in my parents’ room, and he’d put on soft piano music for me to listen to as I just lay there and relaxed. The memory is a soft, comforting one.
So I started doing the same thing. When I got overwhelmed—which was often—I would retire to my room, get in bed, and put on soft music. Sometimes we even did it together: I’d lie down next to Raviv, put on music, and chill with him.
You can imagine, though, that Raviv’s tantrums can be particularly severe. He has a low frustration threshold, and when he gets upset, his verbal center seems to shut down. This makes it hard for him to express what he wants, which makes it hard for him to get what he wants, and it’s all downhill from there.
One time when he was lying on the floor sobbing over God knows what, I looked at him and realized that I know how he feels. Maybe I don’t throw tantrums over not getting enough milk in my cereal, but it doesn’t matter what caused it: his pain was real, and intense, and I knew what it felt like.
My heart went out to him and I thought, “What helps me most when I am overwhelmed with pain and anger and sadness?”
The answer to this question obviously varies from person to person. Some people prefer to be left alone; some prefer to be distracted. What I need, though, is to be held, in a physical and emotional sense. Too often the world responded with either dismissal or alarm to the intensity of my feelings. So I learned to be afraid of them too. That only piles fear on top of whatever difficult emotion I’m experiencing. So I knew that what I need in those moments is to be told that it’s OK to feel what I’m feeling, even if the rest of the world thinks I’m “too sensitive” or “overreacting.” I need to be given the assurance that if I just let the feelings wash over me, if I let myself feel them in their full intensity without fighting or suppressing them, they will pass.
So I sat down next to him, scooped him onto my lap, and wrapped my arms around him. And I just held him there, rocking back and forth, reflecting his feelings in a low, soothing voice. As I did this, I felt that I was also holding and soothing my own inner child, and his were not the only tears that fell. I held him close and breathed deeply, hoping that his breathing would start to reflect mine.
He kept crying hysterically for another minute or two, but slowly, his breathing got deeper, his cry turned into “hums,” and then sighs, and eventually stopped altogether.
Then, he simply got up and went on with his day.
I was floored.
I started doing this regularly during his tantrums. And they became less and less frequent.
His preschool teacher last year noticed his low frustration threshold and told me that her daughter had the same thing, and she had a lot of trouble coping. She asked if I had any tips, and I told her about what I do with Raviv when he’s overwhelmed.
A few months later, she caught me on my way out the door and thanked me profusely for sharing my “method” with her. “I have to tell you,” she said, “What you told me about just holding her? It opened an entire world for me and my daughter.”
As I walked home that day, I thought about the world it had opened for me—about the inner child I was still learning to hold and soothe the way I soothe Raviv. And I hope that he is learning, too, and when he has highly sensitive children of his own, he will know exactly what to do when the thunderclouds gather.