Sensitive boy: Will this ever possibly be a good thing?

To start off my afternoon, I put Lillian in bed, sent Charlie to quiet room time, and set about sweeping my floors and loading my dishwasher, all while thinking through what to write in this post on Mr. Ultrasensitive-to-a-Fault. I assumed I would detail all the grief Charlie has given me lately in a few key circumstances, and I still will. But first I have to mention: apparently Lillian didn’t want to be left out of this post, so she’s giving me a little grief of her own by refusing (yet again) to fall asleep. Finally I put a few books in her crib and said, “Okay, girl, if you’re not going to sleep, you’re at least going to stay there awhile.”

It’s been one of those days. I’ve had a few very sweet moments with my kids, and I’m clinging to those when I really want to throw up my hands, walk out the door, and let them figure out the rest of this day on their own.

I took Charlie to the dentist this morning. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

Charlie has always been sensitive in unfamiliar situations with unfamiliar people. Being approached or, God forbid, touched by a stranger can send him spiraling into an uncontrollable episode of high-pitched whining and crying and gnashing of teeth. So last January, as we approached Charlie’s first-ever dentist appointment, I was extremely skeptical about his ability to last the entire appointment without a meltdown. But he was a trooper! I was blown away, and grateful to no end, that he did so well and wasn’t at all scared of the dentist. He got a new toothbrush and a cool matchbox car, and was pleased as punch.

Fast-forward to July. Early in the month, we attempted swimming lessons. Charlie was excited to go, even calm and happy as we sat around waiting for the lesson to begin. But as soon as he was given instructions, he went berserk. He refused to participate, even after I finally convinced him to at least get in the water. The failure of the day, however, was in my own response, which was obviously frustrated and disappointed at Charlie, two things that, in my ideal-mommy world, I would hope never to communicate to him so meanly. I was angry at myself, mad at the situation as a whole, and, to put it gently, a bit of an emotional wreck.

Later in July, Charlie was due for another dental checkup. I had no hesitation whatsoever, thanks to his stellar mouth-opening skills the first time around. So I was completely caught off guard when the appointment went downhill fast. He did great at the beginning. He climbed up in the chair, he was chatting with the hygienist, he opened up wide… but a few minutes in, the poor hygienist stuck his finger on the roof of Charlie’s mouth, unintentionally activating Charlie’s gag reflex, and the boy just lost it. No amount of talking or coaxing could convince him to settle down and let Mr. Phil get back to work. He was completely distraught. So we left, and I made an appointment for a month later.

Which brings us to today. Charlie and I have talked several times in the past few days about going to the dentist again, and he’s been great. He seemed ready to try again. I even had an appointment first, so he watched Mr. Phil clean my teeth and saw that it was no big deal. When it was Charlie’s turn, he started getting a little whiny and flaily like he does when he’s uncomfortable, and my heart sank. But at some point I must have said something that clicked with him, and he climbed up onto the chair, put on the cool sunglasses that the kiddos get to wear, and chatted with Mr. Phil about all the animals he had brought along. Things were going well. He opened up his mouth, got a few gentle pokes on his teeth, and I started relaxing. Then his tongue apparently bumped into the little mirror, which freaked him out, and all was lost. Whining, flailing, crying, squealing… A very kind female hygienist even came in to give it a try — maybe Charlie was just too nervous with Mr. Phil? — but to no avail. She was so sweet, and even “cleaned” the teeth of his toy dinosaur, snake, Buzz, and Woody. What a sport. But Charlie just refused to cooperate when it was his turn again.

And I’m completely flummoxed. I tend to think I’ve become pretty good at working with Charlie’s personality, but in these recent situations, I’m at a loss. And even looking back on them, I don’t know what would have been the best response from me. He needs love from me, most importantly, especially in situations where he feels vulnerable or afraid. But what does that love look like? Does it look tough, as in, “you’ll be punished if you don’t listen to and obey the instructor/teacher/hygienist”? Or does it look gentler, more compassionate? As in, “I understand that you’re feeling scared; let’s try again in a few months”? This brings to mind Ephesians 6:4 (“do not exasperate your children”): Am I not properly training/preparing Charlie for these situations, and therefore exasperating him by expecting too much? Or am I ultimately exasperating him by allowing him to control the situation with such out-of-control behavior?

I have no idea what to do. If this is a matter of his being too sensitive (Is it?), then I hope we can encourage him to be braver in these types of situations without squelching his sensitivity in other areas. Like, when he brings blankies and dollies to Lillian without prompting when she’s upset. Or when he thinks to pray for Lillian when she feels afraid. Surely this trait will benefit him someday and be a gift to the people he interacts with. Right now, though, it’s giving his mommy a headache.

Do any of you have sensitive kiddos and bits of wisdom to offer?


11 responses to “Sensitive boy: Will this ever possibly be a good thing?

  1. oh wow. we should talk some time in length, cause my oliver sounds so similar. we’ve had similar circumstances in both the dentist chair and swimming lessons. hang in there. i know it can be tough.

  2. Oh Jess…I don’t really have an advice since I’m not really to that stage yet but I can see positives in Charlie being a little extra sensitive. But really I just want you to know you’re a wonderful mother and I’ll be praying that you have wisdom through all of this!

  3. Isn’t it painstakingly difficult seeking to love, guide, and teach our little people? Tony and I both deeply resonated with your story and questions as we read this. Our Hannah is sensitive, and while our stories are a bit different, we often find ourselves so perplexed about what it looks like to love her well in the midst of melt-downs and chaos (that tend to come with out warning). The struggle between offering firm, tough-love or empathetic, compassionate love is one we are familiar with. Hang in there! You’re not alone.

  4. Hey Jess…I wish I had awesome advice or the “answer,” but our little Luke is very similar to Charlie….and, since he’s younger, I certainly don’t have any advice. But, Marc and I have had NUMEROUS conversations about the positives of having such a tender heart. You mentioned how kind and sweet he can be to his sister….while Luke doesn’t have a sister, we do notice traits like that. And, we think that he will make one heck of a husband someday with that trait. Thanks for sharing….if you find the “answer,” please let me know….I’m looking as well.

  5. I understand where you’re coming from. As everyone else has said, wish I had answers…but I hope someone does, because I would love to glean some wisdom from others. Asher sounds very similar to Charlie.

  6. So tough. But the fact that you are even thinking through these things and trying to find positive solutions for both Charlie and you says loads about the wonderfully Mom that you are.
    The only thing that has seems to help mine is to give her another response when she is overwhelmed by something. So if she is suddenly overwhelmed by a situation or a person she has a positive way to express herself and take back control of her emotions.
    First I try to validate her emotions. I tell her she’s allowed to feel angry or scared or shy or confused or frustrated or whatever and I offer comfort and support for those feelings. Lots of “I’m sorry this isn’t your favorite.” or “Mommy is right here sweetheart. I won’t let anything happen to you.” or “It’s okay if you aren’t sure what to do next.” or “You can tell me. Mommy’s are here to help!” or “That was a little bit scary, wasn’t it?” The feelings in themselves are not inappropriate, the response to those feelings is sometimes inappropriate though. I want her to know that.
    Then I try to give her a more appropriate response – something to say or do – which (in theory) will at some point become the first response (before the meltdown). If she doesn’t like the way something feels or tastes or if she’s overwhlemed by a situation in general, I want her to learn and have the confidence that she knows how to make herself heard and understood. So, if Nora was in the chair and the mirror touched her tongue and she flipped out, the response would be something like, “What happened? (Lots of cuddles.) Did that little mirror touch your tongue? That feels really funny doesn’t it?! Sometimes when I’m getting my teeth cleaned it touches my tongue too. But it doesn’t hurt does it – it just feels funny. (Once she was calmed down…) How about this, if that mirror touches your tongue again can you clap for me? It will be our secret code and I will know that the funny mirror touched your tongue again! Let’s try!” (Lick the mirror like a lollypop to practice together.)
    When she succeeds in using a more appropriate response I am sure to tell the story (in front of her) over and over to her dad and grandparents, etc. bragging on what a good job she did even when she was unsure what to do. I want her to know how proud I am of her for trying things even when she is scared and not just proud of her when things come easy.
    Sorry, this was way longer than I meant for it to be. And of course, you know Charlie-boy and what works (and doesn’t work) for him. I can empathize a little though and would LOVE to hear any tips you pick up as you continue to work with him on this. Bless you Jess!

    • Deanna, thank you a TON for taking the time to think through such practical tips. It was really valuable to read your examples and think through the situations a bit differently. I loved your emphasis on validating emotions (I think I do this, but I could do it more and more specifically. Like your example of “It’s okay if you aren’t sure what to do next” instead of just saying “It’s okay.”) and on bragging about them in front of people later. That’s a great thing to be conscious of.
      Charlie seems to have a specific point on the meltdown spectrum at which there’s no going back (I think this is normal). With smaller tantrums, or just whining when he doesn’t get his way, helping him respond positively and put words to his emotions works pretty well. But once he’s pushed over the edge, like in the dentist chair, he sets his mind against opening his mouth again, and my words just don’t even register. Still thinking this through.
      One thing I think I’ve pinpointed: Charlie’s responses like these usually happen when he thinks, or is told, that he’s in a safe place, and then something scary tells him otherwise. Does that make sense? So with the dentist appointments, he was assured beforehand that it wouldn’t hurt; that the dentist would be kind and gentle; that Mommy would be right there. So he was okay with getting up in the chair and giving it a try. But then when something happened that told him otherwise, he panicked. Another example: we went to Denver a few weeks ago to visit Jeff’s brother and his family. Charlie knows them well, and was super excited to play with his cousins. He knew their home would be safe, and that we would all be there together. When we arrived at their house, Charlie was leading all of us up the sidewalk to the door when the dog started yapping inside. It freaked him out, as suddenly something happened to scare him and tell him he might not be safe. (He doesn’t like dogs.) So that’s my best analysis of what happens in his mind in these situations.
      Still don’t know what to do with that information, but I’m so thankful for your (and others’) input and advice!

  7. You are brave for posting parenting questions online!!! 🙂
    I don’t have an answer. I am struggling with my own four-year old boy…and feeling like we’re failing miserably most days, too. Hopefully, all of these frustrating days will one day produce little men (and then bigger men) who are passionate and sensitive, loving and strong. That’s my prayer, anyway!!!

  8. Thanks, everyone, for your thoughtful and helpful responses. I’m relieved and grateful to get some of that “you’re not alone” feedback. Of course I know this in my head, but I appreciate your reminders! You all are moms I have loads of respect for!

  9. I feel your pain! It seems to be getting better with age. However, with him too once he is to the that point there is no going back. I think so much of it has to do with their development of emotional maturity and processing it and then communicating it in a way that is appropriate(sp?) in public. A friend of mine’s little boy (also the oldest in their family) is turning 11 in October and I am amazed at his growth in these areas compared to him at 4,5,and 6. It gives me hope!! Always remember too that God gives us wisdom when we ask and I always praying that Ryan needs will be met because God knows them more than I do 🙂

  10. Parenting is a crazy mess, huh!

    I so often have no idea what to do! Hugs!

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