When I was an unmarried gal in my twenties, my perceptive brother recommended a book to me: The Highly Sensitive Person by Elaine N. Aron, Ph.D. see Aron’s website: Highly Sensitive Person Meeting the criteria for a highly sensitive person himself, he clearly recognized the markers in his emotional, neurotic, sensitive sister. It was a pivotal moment in my life and I began to recognize my experience of being “overstimulated” in busy places such as malls, (or during my childhood in the classroom) as well as my discomfort with violent images, as part of my sensitivity trait.Reading this book also shed light on my perfectionism, and some of the qualities I actually valued in myself, such as my intuitive nature and ability to feel things deeply.
It has become obvious that Mini-Me, aka my oldest child, has also been blessed with this unique set of qualities.
From an early age Izzy has been greatly affected by disturbing television images. Okay, okay, let’s cut to the chase: I am obviously beyond careful about what programs she watches. As a general rule, during her toddlerhood and preschool years she was only allowed to watch programs where an annoying character with a giant head would ask inane questions to the audience such as “Do you see the enormous cat?’ and then wait, blinking for at least five seconds. “Great job!” To Izzy, “disturbing images” deviate considerably from what an intelligent adult may conjure up. For example, during a botched attempt at nostalgia, my brother (sorry Uncle Brian) decided to view one of our childhood favorites, a made-for-TV movie version of Alice in Wonderland, while baby-sitting 22 month old Izzy. The two of us had watched this VHS recording so many times during our youth that we had memorized the exact order of commercials, not to mention their dialogue, during each break. (Remember that sound? The noisy fast-forwarding of TV commercials on taped movies? Ah, the 80s). At any rate, during this unfortunate uncle-niece bonding moment, Izzy became terrified of the benign white rabbit. I mean, seriously, they hadn’t even watched the Jabberwocky part, which is obviously frightening. It was the white bunny. She began to hate white bunnies for years to come; months later at Halloween when an adult dressed as a bunny attempted to hand her some candy, she froze, paralyzed with fear. She would relive the scenes from this movie during diaper changes: “White bunny. Alice skeeming. (screaming)” Due to her eerily long memory, Izzy made references to this movie for years after this incident, long past the statute of limitations on remembering unpleasant childhood events had run out. I hope my brother isn’t shaking his head in dismay while reading this, for I certainly would never have anticipated this joyful film being disturbing to my toddler, and while I engaged in some playful ribbing at the time, I did not bear him any ill will.
|They have always had a special bond|
Her aversion to other strange images continued throughout the years, and then her legitimate “fears” began to develop. I believe I have chronicled these before: the wind being the most significant and problematic, thunder, wild birds (including geese, ducks, chickens, turkeys, and peacocks), mascots, and of course, clowns. Izzy is also painfully sensitive to noisy environments; concerts, fireworks, and movie theaters have become off-limits for us without first securing headphones and/or earplugs. We ultimately quit her first dance class at age 3 because the sound system blared the music at such an insane decibel- truly, even the adults found it jarring.
As parents, we have found ways to minimize her overstimulation and help her cope, rather than simply avoid all family outings. Although let me tell you, it has been tempting at times to just stay the hell inside our house. In kindergarten, Izzy’s class went on a zoo field trip. My mother was supposed to attend as a chaperone, which greatly allayed my fears of possible wild-bird induced freakouts in front of her peers. When mom’s spot got bumped at the last minute, my stomach dropped. Izzy’s teacher assured me that my daughter would be in *Ms. Lisa’s group, her beloved and compassionate classroom assistant. The field trip was an empowering success, thank God, and I asked Izzy afterwards which other three children were in Ms. Lisa’s group. “Just me and *Adam,” she replied cheerfully. I thought a moment. “Is Adam the kid who sometimes wears the special vest?” I asked, wheels turning in my head, and she confirmed with a nod. (For those of you not familiar, kids with sensory integration dysfunction or autism sometimes wear weighted vests to help with their comfort on a sensory level.) It dawned on me that Izzy had been put in the “special needs field trip group”, a fact that ultimately made me shrug and laugh.
|Our brief foray into dance class…bout of crippling stage fright||to follow|
Allow me to stand on the “children in our society today” soapbox. Ahem. I feel that children in today’s society are absolutely bombarded by stimuli. Television. Video games. Computer websites. Electronic toys. Disney f-ing princesses. So. Much. Shit. Everywhere. (I will reluctantly avoid contributing my opinion on how much sugar plays into this dynamic, particularly *healthy* items such as juice, fruit snacks, dried fruit, and snack bars that are loaded with extra sugar that literally feeds the beast. Oh, wait, I guess I just did.) Toss some sensitivity to stimulation into that mix, and poor Izzy doesn’t have a prayer of getting through the toy section at Target without a meltdown. The giant, brightly lit megastore is crammed with aisles and aisles of noisy, pink, plastic crap that causes her tiny brain to start firing like crazy. Her intensity to accumulate material goods is alarming at times. I think it actually pains her to look at things that would support her identity as a 6 year old girl without acquiring them for herself.
One day she requested that we avoid that section at Target because it would “make her greed”. That’s right-greed– as a verb. We are rarely foolish enough to venture to the toy aisles, unless we are purchasing a birthday present for a friend, a practice that has become uncomfortable at best. The last time we were subjected to this unpleasantness, we came upon a set of princess wand diving sticks that her pal could use at the swimming pool. Here was the brilliant part: Izzy already owned the exact same set! Thus eliminating the jealousy response, or so I thought. Izzy examined the box and stamped her foot in frustrated protest. “This one shows Ariel in her human form, and it has much more detail than mine.” she declared. My eyes widened. “Izzy, you can’t be serious,” I said dismissively, (detail?? what?) and tossed them into our shopping cart. The metamorphosis into the green eyed monster began.She stood, rooted to her spot and began to visibly shake. “NO!” she shouted.” Those have more detail! I just want to punch myself in the face!” Clearly, her system was fried, and she reverted into some sort of primal, brain-stem reaction. I find her greed and materialism to be very problematic, but I also feel the need to absolve her of this ugly condition. Certainly as a parent I could forbid her to watch any TV, thus blinding her to all the shiny goodies available for kids her age. And then I’d have to keep her home from school, so she wouldn’t covet all the ridiculous nonsense that other kids have. Yes, there is a boundary, and we are mindful not to let her marinate in materialism for too long. It has been much harder than I expected to keep my school-age child balanced in terms of crap acquisition, princess fever, too much TV, and technology time. 2-3 years ago, I would have judged my present self harshly. Walking the line between integrity and letting your child fit in with the crowd is no small feat, and much more challenging than one may anticipate.
|Dance class was exhausting to one and all|
Add to the technology/stuff clusterf**k the tendency to be terribly over-scheduled. As a highly sensitive adult I am acutely aware of how wretched I feel when I am spread too thin or spinning my wheels. Running around too much in any given day makes me feel nauseous, drained, and irritable. A highly sensitive child is no different. It is painfully obvious to us when we have pushed Izzy too far. In fact, I have ignored the nagging guilty voice in my head and kept Izzy out of most extracurricular activities. Sure, we have dabbled for the sake of being well-rounded, but during her kindergarten year we limited ourselves to one 45 minute Spanish class per week that lasted for about 4 months. On vacation recently, Izzy met a girl her age in a swimming pool. While chatting companionably about her new pal’s swim lessons, Izzy commented casually, “I took swim lessons but I quit. I quit gymnastics too. Now I do nothing.” (Don’t forget the earlier reference to having quit dance, too) Her matter-of-fact admission made me giggle, though I inwardly groaned with embarrassment. It’s true, we have quit all of those activities, per Izzy’s urging. Dance was too loud, her swim teacher’s expectations in the pool made her nervous, and her gymnastics teachers yelled at her for waving at us. (Seriously- waving? She’s five, and clearly is as graceless as I am, so I don’t think a career in gymnastics was in the works.) I was relieved to be honest. Swim lessons made me anxious, what with the scrambling to get there on time, the crowded locker room afterward, the awkward shower/getting dressed again routine…yuck. And talk about overstimulating- I wanted to pop a Valium before heading into the crowded, chalky warehouse where we went to gymnastics for a miserable, ungodly hour.
|Like mother, like daughter|
Being highly sensitive and raising a highly sensitive child in this age of *too much everything* is an ongoing challenge. The pay-off to our temperaments is this: Izzy and I both experience joy just as intensely as our other emotions. We have both been known to squeal excitedly and clap our hands with delight on a regular basis. Anticipating special events and vacations is particularly thrilling to share with Izzy. We are loving, empathetic, and affectionate in addition to being moody and particular. It definitely makes me uncomfortable to see my own tendencies mirrored in her, but I hope that ultimately my experience helps me to be a better guide for her throughout her life. It is my job to shine a compassionate, clarifying, encouraging light on her while she navigates this noisy, busy world.