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We Time

I’m Growing as a Parent, to Help My Teen Grow

The discovery that her son has a sensory-processing sensitivity required her to adapt as a mother, but also brought hope.

On most Friday nights, my son Micah prefers to hang out at home than go out with his friends.

Despite being old enough to get his license, he has very little interest in learning to drive.

And when my son is hungry, he pretty much turns into the Hulk.

My son is not antisocial, fearful or a brat. He’s “highly sensitive.”

I discovered Micah was highly sensitive when I began researching the trait out of suspicion that my 4-year-old daughter is highly sensitive. To my surprise, my research revealed that not only are my teenager and preschooler highly sensitive, but so are my adult son, my husband and, um, me.

Yes, we’re a family full of highly sensitive people.

To clarify, being highly sensitive doesn’t mean we cry during movies, although that may or may not be true for — ahem — one of us.

No, high sensitivity is a personality trait (officially called sensory-processing sensitivity). Highly sensitive people process information, their environment and social stimuli more deeply and reflect on it more than people without the trait. As a result, highly sensitive people can easily get overwhelmed when too much is going on visually, physically or emotionally.

Fostering healthy self-esteem is a must for all kids and teens, but it’s more challenging for highly sensitive adolescents, who process and internalize things deeply.

I’ve been a parent for 25 years without knowing that any of my three children had this trait, so saying I have some regret is an understatement. But instead of wallowing in guilt, I’m learning how to shift my parenting style to better meet the needs of my highly sensitive children — especially Micah, who will soon transition from teen to young adult.

One change I’m making is to discipline my children more gently.

I grew up in an authoritative you-do-what-I-tell-you-to-do-because-I’m-the-parent household. And admittedly, that is my natural parenting style.

But I’ve learned that highly sensitive teens are more responsive to gentle discipline. When I’m harsh with Micah, it’s almost as if he’s immune to the correction and whatever lesson I think I’m teaching him. But when I’m less forceful, the discipline sometimes takes care of itself.

During an argument the other day, I chose to abandon my typical my-way-or-the-highway approach and left the conversation without having to have the last word. A little later, I heard, “I’m sorry for being rude to you.” Unprompted. Within minutes of the argument. As if my hormonal teenager was transplanted and replaced with an emotionally mature adult. I had to control my shock and managed to squeeze out a very calm “Thank you” in response. I see now that in the absence of my usual aggressive approach, he was able to process and reflect on our interaction.

Highly sensitive people process information, their environment and social stimuli more deeply and reflect on it more than people without the trait. As a result, highly sensitive people can easily get overwhelmed when too much is going on visually, physically or emotionally.

Another thing I’m trying to focus on is avoiding shame.

Highly sensitive teens are extremely prone to shame — both external and internal. I cringe when I reflect on my 25 years of parenting, because sarcasm and joking come naturally to my husband and me, and both can be shame-inducing.

And sometimes, my discipline evokes shame. To share one of my Parenting Hall of Shame moments, during Micah’s younger years, I followed the tradition of my Jamaican mother of giving my kids a “tump inna da mout” (thump in the mouth) whenever my kids said something rude. Basically, I would take my two fingers and quickly hit my kids in the mouth as soon as those rude words passed their lips — as my mother did me. (I know, I know. Please don’t call child services on me.)

While my older son, now 25, got many tumps inna da mout growing up, Micah only received a few; I noticed how traumatizing they were for him and started to do them less. To this day, Micah remembers and talks about the few he did receive. It was shame that made him react so strongly in those moments. Now that I’m aware of its impact on highly sensitive children, I’m making sure to reduce shame in our household.

I’m also trying to boost Micah’s self-esteem and confidence in his abilities.

Fostering healthy self-esteem is a must for all kids and teens, but it’s more challenging for highly sensitive adolescents, who process and internalize things deeply.

During an argument the other day, I chose to abandon my typical my-way-or-the-highway approach and left the conversation without having to have the last word. A little later, I heard, ‘I’m sorry for being rude to you.’

Most of Micha’s friends have started smoking or drinking in the past few years. He’s chosen to stay away from either (highly sensitive teens often avoid risky behavior), but his social life has suffered as a result. He’s turned down so many opportunities to hang out that the invitations are now few and far between.

I’ve seen my son, who has always been the invitee, not the inviter, go from an “extroverted introvert,” pre-pandemic, to a full-on introvert. While there is nothing wrong with introversion (introvert right here!), I know he misses the former version of himself.

To increase his self-esteem, I’m affirming his strengths more (he’s killing it in school, skilled on the soccer field, empathetic and funny!) and engaging in his interests (skin care, hair products, good food, music and art). Highly sensitive teens often have an increased awareness of aesthetics, and many highly sensitive people appreciate fine tastes, scents, music and works of art.

I’m still learning how to raise my highly sensitive children, and every day seems to provide a lesson. While I wish I’d known about this personality trait from day one of being a parent, I’m grateful to have made this discovery. As I grow in my parenting skills, I’m encouraging my children to embrace the many positives of high sensitivity while helping them navigate the challenges.

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