Family life

Are your kids "sensitive"?

From strong-smelling flowers to stranger anxiety, Anna and Avery's sensitivities can throw a wrench into any day.

By Tracy Chappell
Are your kids "sensitive"?

Photo courtesy of Tracy Chappell.

When you think of a “sensitive” child, you usually think of one that is emotional. I think both of my girls are sensitive, but in different ways.
I’ve written plenty about Anna’s “spirited” nature, and she certainly has a strong personality and quick fuse. She has her share of days when she she’ll fly off the handle at the smallest thing, but Anna’s sensitivities are more sensory than emotional.
She has a very strong reaction to noise, and has since she was a baby (which wasn’t so great in a building prone to late-night fire alarms). It’s only in the last year that the blender wouldn’t send her screaming from the room. If only her own screaming would hurt her ears! Anna also has a crazily heightened sense of smell. I swear, she can smell me sneaking chocolate in the other room, and you will not get her to go into a bathroom if someone’s been in there too long, if you know what I mean. She’d rather pee her pants. A bad smell — manure while we’re driving through farm country, a skunk lurking around outside, even strong-smelling flowers or foods — will send her into a terrible state of agitation.
I suppose she’s sensitive to taste. I think a lot of kids are. But combined with her personality, this goes beyond her not wanting to try to new things, to violently spitting out anything that tastes different than she expects.
She’s amazingly resilient in some areas; Anna bounces back quickly from physical pain or hurt feelings (but has trouble coping with frustration). Her skin is sensitive to the sun. You’d expect she’d also have tactile sensitivity — to clothes and tags and such — but surprisingly, she doesn’t. Her sister does, though.
Avery more likely matches your typical idea of what a sensitive child is. And it’s interesting how your first child informs your handling of things like this. Because Anna is emotionally and physically tough, I wasn’t prepared for handling a child like Avery. I think for a long time I dealt with her sensitivities poorly, in a “get up and brush yourself off” manner, which was probably, you know, insensitive.
Avery needs time to warm up. She’s uncomfortable around new people and in unfamiliar situations. Her feelings are easily hurt and she’s quick to cry. Imagine my shock when, instead of screaming angrily about being put in time-out like Anna did, Avery burst into tears. She’ll often cry if she knows I’m upset with her.
And she is the one who is sensitive to tags and seams. Again, I was surprised. We have a lot of hand-me-down clothes that have been washed a million times, so tags aren’t a huge deal, but when she wears something new she’ll ask me to cut the tags out. I’d heard about kids having issues with seams in socks, but didn’t connect her dislike of socks with discomfort, until she started coming home from school with her socks inside out. (Smart. We do that a lot now.)
Similarly, a boo-boo is often an earth-shattering crisis. She once sobbed all the way home from the park because of a scraped elbow (and hysterically claimed she couldn’t walk up the stairs or brush her teeth because of it). Yes, I’d love for her to toughen up a little, but I try to walk that line between sympathizer and enabler. After all, she is only three.
Oh, my girls. Never predictable. But this is just one of the things that’s reminded me how important it is to parent Anna and Avery as individuals, rather than by the same set of expectations. I hope it will teach us all to be a little more sensitive — in a good way.
In what ways are your kids sensitive? How to you deal with it?

This article was originally published on May 17, 2012

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