My son Aedan continues this highly sensitive family tradition. He observes people but does his own thing, secure in his own space; he pushes boundaries, takes a while to warm up to people, yet becomes unglued when he gets in trouble. When the spotlight shines on him, you can almost see him fold into himself.
I would classify Aedan as a sensitive, both emotionally and sensory processing, introvert, with a bit of hooliganism thrown in. Of our three kids, he presents the biggest parenting challenge.
I never would have said that, years ago. Before Liam started communicating more and finding his own groove, or before we better understood Audrey’s impulsivity and learned how to best manage and parent her attention-seeking self. You will never guess what Audrey thinks or wants, for she will proclaim it from the rooftops. Liam does as well, now, surprisingly.
We had a party at our house the other day, and clouds started to roll in. Being petrified of storms, Liam “battened down the hatches” by lowering the blinds in each room and checking the weather on my phone. He proceeded to go up to each guest and politely ask “how many minutes till you are going home? Because a storm is coming.” He didn’t mean to be rude (luckily, our friends know this) but had no trouble clearly communicating what was on his mind.
Aedan, to a certain extent, is becoming more sure of himself. Sometimes he will be upstairs for an hour, without making a peep, until I ask him to join the family. Other times he will come down on his own accord, standing next to me in the kitchen out of the blue, surprising me. “Hi mom, can I smell your hair?”
Crazy, unique kid.
Last weekend, I asked him to cuddle on the couch with me and watch a show. He did, begrudgingly, but laid down like a board on my lap instead of his usual curling around me like a cat. “I just want to go upstairs and take a nap” he announced after a few awkward moments. The child hasn’t willingly napped since 2009, when he was two. I let him go, surprised. Sure enough, he closed his door and fell asleep for a few hours. “That’s a kid who knows what he wants,” I thought, pleased at his progress in better accepting and announcing his needs and moods.
One Monday morning Aedan came downstairs, rubbing his eyes, not at all in the mood to rush out the door. I started his day by going through his folder, all blustery and movey, ten things on my mind to do the next 20 minutes until the bus came. “Buddy, look at this quiz from last friday - you got a 4 out of 10 . We need to work on these problems later so you understand better, ok?” He looked like a deer caught in headlights as he nodded and sat down. Liam, starting to do the usual yet annoying brotherly thing of teasing the younger sibling, started to quote some obnoxious line from a TV show, over and over.
“Liam, stop!” Aedan whined, in increasing velocity. Liam looked at him and did it all over again. Aedan’s whine turned up a volume notch. "Liam, I SAID STOP!"
Brendan, trying to rush to make homemade sushi for the kids’ Bento lunch-boxes (his newest dad score), yelled at the boys to stop fighting. Liam to knock it off, Aedan to stop being so sensitive. Audrey, always glad to not be the one in trouble, proceeded to stick her tongue out at Aedan. He lost it.
Big, crocodile tears as he slurped down his cereal, found his shoes, hoisted on his backpack. I tried to hug and soothe him as he ran out the door, but he brushed me off. I felt it deep in my gut.
I’ve been trying to figure him out for the past few months especially, wondering how to best access his quiet nature so unlike the rest of us. If Aedan isn’t prepared enough, transitioned form his day at school to down time at home, he becomes very still when the vibes escalate with Audrey, me or Liam carrying on at a higher volume. Sometimes, he puts his backpack away with a cursory look at me or a side smile, then he tries to sneak upstairs before I can ask him any annoying parental question like “how was your day?" or “what did you learn today?”
When Brendan comes home, he works the kids up, much like my own dad used to. Roaring or calling out for them or getting down in their faces to play, Audrey and Liam jump on him, their voices meeting the fever pitch, whereas Aedan sometimes just freezes. Sometimes, if he’s ready, he’ll jump on the pile, but other times he hesitates. I’ve been watching him, puzzling over it. How to best give him space yet help him out of his shell to secure his place in the family?
That morning in the kitchen, the four of us had a talk as we heard the bus drive away (Audrey missed it, taking her sweet time as usual). “We didn’t set Aedan up for success today,” I announced, after brooding for a few minutes. Brendan agreed. “Liam, Aedan can be really sensitive but it doesn’t help for you to keep harassing him. And Audrey, how would you feel if you were upset and Aedan stuck his tongue out at you?” On and on Brendan and I took turns, telling ourselves the same things that we did to our older two. Liam, who also hates being in trouble, cried as it all sunk it.
It was a very Melodramatic Monday.
These are the kinds of exchanges that I take with me all day, as a fellow highly sensitive person who never wants to upset anyone. Driving to work, for 20 minutes I mulled it over, the whole Aedan exchange, feeling guilty, then willing myself not to feel guilty. Then feeling guilty for judging myself, guilty for feeling guilty, and on and on.
When I went to greet him at the bus, later that afternoon, of course he was fine. Enthusiastically, all in his face, I asked him how his day went. He kind of looked at me warily, with his cute side smile, and said “It was good. I had Art,” and that was that. Part of me wondered if I should push it, apologize for the morning, ask if he wanted to talk about it. But I let it slide. Let him know in my own way that I am here, and that I am trying. Trying to be more sensitive and not such a bull in a china shop.
Tucking them in that night, Audrey did her usual demand of “when you’re done with the boys you will tuck me in, okay mom?” I went in to the boys’ room peeking into Liam’s bunk, and he hurled his arms around my neck. “Mom, come and cuddle with me and then we will have dark red hot sauce and eggs for breakfast. Okay?” Again, more clear communication - in his own quirky way.
Then I knelt down to Aedan’s bottom bunk, scooching him over.
“Mom, what are you doing” He sat up, surprised.
“I’m cuddling with you! Do you want me to?”
He thought for a second, then nodded.
“I like it when you cuddle me. “
Liam popped his head over, his black hair framing a goofy grin.
“Baby, you just have to ask me.”
Aedan smiled, nestling in. My sensitive guy who has to be taught to respect people’s space, including his own, by knowing his own limits and then telling us what they are. Being a sensitive soul can be a challenge in this loud, clangy world, but these people become the healers and the listeners, the support system of boisterous future leaders, the backbones of companies and conduits for great societal changes.
We can all learn from them - especially the cute, shaggy-haired 8-year-old ones who melt our hearts.