Q: My 9-year-old is the youngest in his fourth-grade class and has always been a very emotional guy. He has trouble bouncing back when things go awry in school (arguments, other kids being unkind, etc.), and tends to break down crying — sometimes derailing his day. I have been trying to encourage him to let things roll off his back a bit more, and to learn to tune out kids who are annoying him. Any advice on how to help him be more resilient?
A: Watching a child suffer because of sensitivity can feel truly hopeless, so let's try to understand his sensitiveness a little more and from there, how we can help him.
You mention that he "has always been a very emotional guy," but I am not sure what that means. A very emotional guy could be anxiety, sensory processing disorder (SPD), or ADHD (attention deficit hyperactivity disorder), or any other kind of emotional-regulation issue. It can also be as simple (and as tough as) he is a good bit more immature than his peers because of his young age, and that being 9 can be intense.
What can you do?
You need to get to the bottom of what is causing your son to feel so disregulated. Again, it could be as simple as immaturity plus a school with tough kids, or as complicated as a disorder or learning disability, or a mix of all of the above. Talk to his teacher to get a clearer picture of his behavior in school, and while you are at it, reach out to the school counselor. The counselor can provide a safe place for your son when his feelings overwhelm him and can work with the teacher to help your son during the day. In my ideal world, your son could go to the counselor before he starts to cry, not because crying is "bad" or "wrong," but so he can work through these big feelings with an adult. While I would love every child to feel safe with their feelings in school, the fact remains that when your son cries, he becomes a target for other children's scorn and ridicule. I don't want him to feel revictimized in school if that can be helped.
As you figure out what your son needs, with more details from the teacher, and as he gets more support in school, begin with some simple ideas: Stop doing what doesn't work (which can often provide more of a solution than one can imagine). I know you want your child to be more resilient, and I understand why. No parent wants to see a son or daughter cry. We hate it when others are unkind to our children. We hate it when our children's feelings are hurt. And trust me, if I could teach or give aperson resilience, I would be one of the happiest (and richest) humans on Earth. But it doesn't work that way. Resilience is the result of coming through something pretty hard and emerging emotionally stronger and intellectually wiser (with the loving support of someone else). Resilience is not, I might note, coming through something tougher.
The definition of resilience is to bounce back or to have some elasticity, like a rubber band. But for our children, we want them not just to bounce back from trouble and hardship, but also to be more judicious. To be less susceptible to repeating the same mistakes. To be stronger in character.
Resilience is earned through hard times, but those hard times must be mourned through tears. When a child doesn't process his big feelings, his emotions either stay stagnant or explode in anger, options that are not conducive to the best emotional health. But when feelings can move, the brain can begin to adapt and process what has happened, allowing healing and growth. Essentially, the pain doesn't last forever because the brain is allowed to go through the needed emotions.
Maybe your son is in the midst of some pretty unkind kids, and maybe he isn't wrong to cry about the pain he is experiencing. But if you are counseling him to let it roll off his back or to tune out the kids, this could be creating some cognitive dissonance in him. That means that what he is feeling is normal, but his main attachment in life (you) is telling him to not feel that way. You see the problem?
Parents have been giving this advice since the beginning of time, and it has never worked. We do not encourage resilience when we ask our children to just ignore their big feelings. Although I know you are not trying to do this, your fear of seeing your son upset causes you to want him to shut down his feelings. And we don't need more young men who are afraid of their tears, or separated from their emotions.
So when your son complains about the children, listen to how he describes what he is experiencing in school, how he sees it. This will do a couple of things: It will give you a window into your son's thinking. Is he actually being targeted? Is there an incident every day? Is he just afraid there will be an incident? And it will give him what he needs — someone who cares.
The thing that humans want most is to feel that they belong, that they are loved unconditionally. Listening is the easiest and most effective way of showing this unconditional love to our children. When we don't judge or correct or critique or worry or interrupt, we allow our children to simply get out what they are feeling. See if listening helps your son calm down, feel heard and seen, and from there, you may be able to have a small talk about perspective, as well as create some solutions.
Finally, if you are listening, creating little solutions with your son and working with the school and your son still is not getting better, find a play therapist. A good therapist will help your son grapple with his big emotions in a way that puts him in the driver seat of his mind.
For now, pick up "The Highly Sensitive Child" by Elaine Aron for insight and information about your sensitive child.
Meghan Leahy is the mother of three daughters. She holds a bachelor's degree in English and secondary education, a master's degree in school counseling and is a certified parent coach.