Tuesday, August 3, 2010

For Highly Sensitive People (and Those Who Love Them)

(Originally posted at Rational Jenn)

I read a very interesting article the other day, courtesy of a Facebook group of which I'm a member. It's called "Highly Sensitive People--Sounds, Smells, and Sentiments."

Apparently, sensitivity (the temperament trait) is not just social measure (as in, sensitive people get their feelings too easily hurt or lack Teh Social Skillz)--there's physiological evidence that shows that sensitive people (like me and Ryan, and possibly Sean) have more sensitive neurological systems (emphasis in original):

High Sensitivity and Introversion: Introversion is no longer "low sociability."

Modern personality researchers have done hundreds of studies on the personality traits of introversion-extroversion.

Early research treated it as a measure of sociability, later research looked it more generally as a physiological measure. The studies concur that introverts are:

    * More physically sensitive

    * More sensitive to stimuli and stimulants

    * They process information more thoroughly

    * They prefer to reflect before acting

    * More reflective when given feedback

    * More vigilant in discrimination tasks

    * Slower to acquire and forget information due to their deeper processing into memory

Greater sensitivity is found at all levels of the nervous system from sensitivity to pinpricks, to skin conductivity to faster reaction times

And even MORE interesting is this statement (emphasis in original):

Some highly sensitive individuals are still extroverts!

Usually these are people who have grown up in supportive extended families where social interaction was a source of comfort and the family "ran interference" protecting them from over-stimulation and anxiety until they had the skills to manage the world themselves.

They still typically report needing a lot of "down time" to recuperate after social encounters.

So sensitivity and introversion do not necessarily go hand-in-hand, though they often do.

I find this especially fascinating as Ryan seems to have become more extroverted over time. There was a time when I really worried that he'd be painfully shy, that he'd never want to talk to other people--kids or adults (I know), that he wouldn't learn how to interact with others appropriately, that he'd always hide behind my . . . well, I rarely wear skirts, so we'll just say jeans instead.

To add to my concern/distress over this (during his first four years or so), I encountered many, many people who did not (or could not) understand him. Doting grandparents (Ryan is the first grandkid on both sides of the family, and first great-grandkid on 3/4 sides) tried to connect with him, and were rebuffed time and time again. It upset them and confused them, I think.

They wanted desperately to play with him and talk to him and touch him--he wanted none of those things from anyone except me and Brendan. Many of our family and friends tried erroneously to "push" themselves into his space and his life, as if forcing the issue with him would make it happen. It did not, and in fact, made things more stressful for Ryan, for me and Brendan, and for them.

It wasn't just noise or touch either. He'd cry when he heard slow, sad songs. The first time I noticed this, he was less than a year old. Later, the teacher of our mommy-and-me music class noted that he cried any time he heard a song in a minor key (and it's still true today--he won't listen to anything in a minor key, especially if it's slow). It took him forever to warm up in a new situation--he preferred to observe and observe and observe, often not joining in a playdate at all, or not until the very end. It took him--and my fellow homeschooling moms at co-op will attest to this--MONTHS before he would confidently go into chess class without me.

A few people believed Ryan's reluctance to be touched, his amazing intolerance to loud noises and weird textures, his refusal to play with toys that flashed bright lights or made loud noises, the fact that he really didn't enjoy Day Out with Thomas (heaven-on-earth for most 3-4 year old boys) the one time Brendan took him . . . all of these things and more . . . led a few people to believe we were "sheltering" and "overprotective" and "controlling." Sigh.

So yes, especially in the first 4, maybe 5 years of his life, Ryan was on the track toward introvertedness (introversion?). But that's changed, and I think at least in part, that change has come about because Brendan and I have taken especial care to respect his sensitivity. His sensitivity is CHALLENGING. Ryan is not an easy kid in many ways, and yes, it's seriously trying at times, to have a kid "who is old enough to know better" freaking out at strange lights or sad music.

But we have taken care to send him the message: "Hey, this is a part of who you are. It makes you a neat person. We know that sometimes your sensitivity makes things hard to deal with, and it's our job to help you manage your sensitivities in an appropriate, rights-respecting manner."

What has this meant? It meant that we left "Touch a Truck," a super-fun event in the next town over where all kinds of peopleguys and their peopleguy equipment are parked in a big parking lot for everyone to go and touch and climb into and try out. Sounds like a perfect event for Ryan, no? It's beyond loud, all those sirens going off, and horns. Lights, too. It was overwhelming and horrifying to him, so we left.

It has meant that when we had a fun day taking the train into the city with Kelly and Livy (Morgan was a little baby at the time, so Ryan would have been about 3.5), I had to put the baby in the stroller, and hold Ryan on my lap, helping him hold his ears because the noise of the train was too loud. He didn't freak out, but he needed help managing and coping with this overstimulation. Thankfully Morgan didn't seem to care. Livy, as I recall, was climbing all over the place, completely unaware of the "loud" train (I didn't even notice the noise of the train until Ryan got upset).

It's meant that I've interjected myself between Ryan and other kids, and Ryan and other adults (strangers, family, and friends) when Ryan was becoming overwhelmed by invasion-of-space issues, touches, being scooped up without warning. I have helped him learn to say "No thank you. I need some space right now!" and I have said to others "Please put him down." or "He needs my help right now, thanks anyway." I have seen their hurt and confused expressions and I have done those things anyway.

I have cultivated a level of patience with this that I never knew could exist in my character (I am fundamentally impatient), and spent hours talking to him, explaining, teaching him coping skills and words to say, figuring out when to support him and when (and how) to gently tell him that it was time to try something on his own.

I have questioned myself and our parenting, our temperaments and styles, more times than I can count. Should I have forced him to go to chess class without me? Why doesn't he want to go on sleep-overs? Will he ever leave home? Why can't he just deal already?

But he can't, not without help, and I understand that most of all.

So many times I've heard the same thing: someone telling me "You're too sensitive!" or " Stop being so touchy." I couldn't walk down the laundry detergent aisle at the grocery store because the smell was overwhelming and nauseating (I can still hardly stomach it, though I'm a grown up and thus must suck it up cope). Couldn't stand to be touched by people I didn't know. In large noisy crowds, I can barely think or breathe (remind me to tell you about how I'm never ever EVER going to Taste of Chicago ever ever EVER again). I can't stand to have too many noises going on in the background (though having a few kids will help a person learn to get over that to a certain degree).

I need space, a certain measure of quiet, nobody touching me. Dude is just like me. :o)

It's taken me YEARS to get more in touch with my extroverted abilities--and I will be the first to admit I'm not a super-strong introvert. I spent my teens and twenties on purpose hiding from situations that would overwhelm me. I've spent my thirties learning how to go out into the world and cope with situations that overwhelm me. I am definitely happier now that I can cope.

Ryan has matured out of many of his specific sensitivities--or maybe he hasn't matured, but has managed (I hope with our help) to learn how to cope with overwhelming stimuli in a more responsible way. He is still apt to become overwhelmed, hates sad songs and movies, complains more than the others about smells or sounds. He still needs "downtime" after lots of big situations, but nobody meeting him today could call him "shy." He is confident and talkative, and he is managing his sensitivities much better than I could at his age. 

So I hope that Ryan will feel happy that he has learned how to cope, too, happy that we helped him learn to cope, that we were (mostly) patient with his sensitivities and (mostly) understanding. And that introvert or extrovert, I hope he knows we love him more than a little for this wonderfully challenging interesting aspect of his personality.

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