Tuesday 24 April 2018

David Coleman: My six-year-old son is overly sensitive. How can I help him be more confident?

David Coleman

David Coleman

I would appreciate your advice about my son who is six years of age and is in senior infants. He is sensitive to almost everything, both at home, school and socially.

He cries over the simplest of things. For example, this morning one of his school friends kicked his ball away as the school door opened and he burst into tears.

I stayed calm and went over to him and tried to find out why he burst out crying. He eventually stopped and I made sure he was ok going in to school.

He also cried at Mass yesterday when a young boy wanted to shake hands during the sign of peace. He does not cope well with situations that involve doing something in front of people he does not know.

In school his teacher said he starts to cry if she asks him to go in front of his class for any activity. He has a younger sister, who is three years old, and is much more confident but sometimes picks up and copies his reaction to things.

I believe that this trait is one I had as a young child and I would describe myself as having a sensitive personality. I would appreciate your advice on some techniques that I could use in dealing with my sensitive six-year-old.

David replies:

I love the phrase "he didn't lick it off a stone" which is sometimes used to describe how personality traits, or particular behaviours of children, have been passed down to them by previous generations of their family.

Typically I hear the phrase when someone spots how a child seems to mirror the personality traits or behaviours of their parents.

The fact that you feel that you and your son may have the same kind of sensitive approach to the world is important, not because you are solely responsible for passing it on to your son, although he may have picked up some of his sensitivity from how you are, but because your sensitivity blocks you from dealing with him in a confident manner.

If you worry about him, and how he is, and whether he is upset, or overly challenged, or not coping then it is unlikely that you transmit to him any clear sense that he can cope.

Some of the confidence that we learn to adopt in our dealings with the world comes from the confidence that our parents and others have projected on to us as we grow.

Phrases that parents use like "go on, I know you'll be fine!" or "off you go, not a bother to you!" can instil in children a belief that they will be ok, even if they are unsure.

Equally, how parents respond when children get knocked back by events is also important.

For example, when you saw your son's ball getting kicked away you could have responded by saying "Oops, now you'll have to go chasing your ball" or you could have reminded him "Better get your friend to get your ball back before you all go in to class."

These are very matter of fact responses to a very matter of fact (and typical) childhood event.

Instead, it seems that your son had no coping skills for when his ball got kicked away. So when he got upset you seemed to take it upon yourself to be his comfort, rather than to encourage him to sort himself out.

I would love to know what you said to him while you comforted him?

Hopefully you said things like "Oh dear, how frustrating that you have to go get your ball," or "You seem upset that your friend kicked away the ball. Not to worry though it didn't go far."

These kinds of phrases are empathetic, showing him that while you understand that he might feel upset, you also know that he will be ok and that it isn't a huge deal.

It is as if your own sensitivity is a bit of a blind spot for you in terms of helping him to deal with his sensitivity. I think, perhaps, that you have characterised him, in your mind and through your actions, as vulnerable.

If so, then you might be actually getting in his way by always feeling responsible to be there to help him because you believe that he doesn't have the capacity to help himself.

For example, I am wondering what you were even doing in the school yard just before the bell rang? Why hadn't you just dropped him at school and gone away?

I wonder if you were hanging around, in case something went wrong for him (like his ball being kicked away), so that you would be there in case he "needed" you?

Ironically, hovering like this (because you believe he is sensitive and mightn't cope) actually disempowers him because he learns that you will always be there to step in and comfort him and he never learns to stand up for himself and to comfort himself.

If there were no adults around then your son may still get upset at times by the behaviour, or comments, of others; but he would have to learn some coping strategies to deal with them too.

You and his dad can teach him some assertive and confident responses to various different kinds of situations, but you can't be assertive on his behalf.

I think you may be in danger of over-protecting your son because you believe he is vulnerable in the world because of his sensitive nature. However, if you protect him too much he can never learn to protect himself.

In my feature article on the next page of this issue I have written about fatherhood and the role of dads. It seems to me that this could be a perfect situation for his dad to step in to support you with what seems like a worrying situation for you.

His dad can also help him (and you) to find those strategies to feel confident and assertive in the world.

Have you got a problem for David? Email him at dcoleman@independent.ie

David Coleman is a clinical psychologist, broadcaster and author. Queries and issues can only be addressed through the column and David regrets he cannot enter into personal correspondence.

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