THE BLOG
11/28/2016 07:00 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

'How Can I Toughen Up My Seven Year Old?'

Reader Dad Of Sensitive Kid writes,

In your opinion, what is the best way to increase resilience in a seven-year-old boy? Mine is super sensitive and cries at any perceived injustice or when any small thing doesn't go his way.  I grew up with a fairly self-absorbed mother, so I had to raise myself in many ways.  I'm scared that my son doesn't have the resilience that I developed from my childhood, which was terrible in many ways but did toughen me up.

Dear DOSK,

It is great of you to try and explore what's going on with your son, but what I think is the most interesting is how your own background is impacting your view of him. When people experience a very dysfunctional childhood, they can end up with a low tolerance for others' sensitivity. For instance, adult children of parents with Borderline Personality Disorder or narcissism have often experienced a great deal of invalidation if not outright mockery of their emotions, which led to them developing a "thick skin" and becoming avoidant within intimate relationships, and almost compulsively self-reliant.  While this can be very helpful in the work world, it often leads to frustration from partners, who want more empathy and emotional expression than these types of men have learned to give.  Men are more likely in my experience to develop this type of thick skin and to view it as a positive thing.

When parenting, men who have been raised to be very "independent" (which is the term they would use to minimize the effects of emotional neglect by a self-absorbed parent) tend to be particularly triggered by perceived weaknesses or sensitivity in their kids, especially their sons, who they may identify with more than daughters.  When you look back at your childhood, the idea of anyone catering to you for any preference or sensitivity is ridiculous; your mother never would have "coddled" you in this way. Therefore, it triggers unresolved childhood pain when your son responds to things with such obvious and unfettered emotion and expects others to respond with reassurance.

Your own emotions may have been ignored or minimized by your mom, which you've retrospectively rationalized as "toughening you up," but her parenting style may really have snuffed out a very normal and healthy level of ability to express emotions.  Being a Highly Sensitive Person is highly genetic, so you may have been the same sensitivity level as your son but had it beaten out of you (I hope only figuratively) by a dismissive parent.

Of course, it is difficult to deal with highly sensitive kids for anyone, but it would be particularly triggering for an adult child of a narcissist, who experienced abnormally low levels of reassurance. Another, more adaptive and empathic way to view this situation is that your kid feels secure enough with you to show his emotions and to expects that they will be validated. This means that despite your difficult past, you are doing a good job as a dad, and have created a son who is so confident in his relationship with you that he can express himself openly and without fear of mockery or dismissal.

You can read about Highly Sensitive kids in Elaine Aron's book The Highly Sensitive Child.  There are many positives to sensitive kids, who often grow up artistic and intuitive, as well as kind and empathic.  These are the teachers, doctors, therapists (ahem), and writers of the world.  The best way to make your sensitive child strong is to let him be who he is, without cultivating shame or self-loathing in him.  Although you may have to shield him from horror movies, or even Bambi, he can read and learn about children who don't have as much as he does, and he would likely love to "adopt" or sponsor a needy family for the holidays, volunteer at a soup kitchen with you, adopt a rescue dog, or visit the elderly at a nursing home.

Instead of trying to force "resilience" on your son, I encourage you to develop his gifts of empathy and perception. This will not magically eliminate his irritating behaviors, but viewing your reaction to him in a new way may help you moderate your annoyance in the face of his tears. Parenting your son with love, empathy, and compassion will likely allow you to heal the wounds of your own childhood; it is like you are parenting yourself all over again, in the way that you deserved.  Best of luck and thanks for writing in.  Till we meet again, I remain, The Blogapist Who Says, I'm Raising Three Highly Sensitive Kids and It's Not Easy.

This post was originally published here on Dr. Psych Mom. Follow Dr. Rodman on Dr. Psych Mom, Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, and Pinterest.

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