Tag Archives: highly sensitive children

The center cannot hold

I’m sitting on the floor in the hallway outside my son’s therapist’s office, and I’m crying.

I’m on the phone with my mother-in-law, telling her that Zachary is completely imploding.  He has been lashing out at his parents, his siblings, and his friends.  Earlier this week, we had a friend over and Zach kept yelling at him to stay where he had put him because otherwise he would cheat at some game they were playing.  Zach called his friend “rude,” which is astonishing because this is – and I say this having had a great deal of experience with kids in many different places – the nicest child in the Western hemisphere.

Yes, the nicest child in the Western hemisphere wants to be friends with my son, and Zach shat all over that gift.

Then, today, I pick him up at school, only to have the aide in the classroom inform me that Zach spent the morning telling kids he hates them and hitting.  She’s standing there, no sympathy in her voice, rattling off his list of offenses.  The teacher isn’t in, and so it has fallen to her to tell me that Zach has been having problems for a week.  A task she seems to delight in, by the way.

“Pouting!” she says.  “Like that.  See that?” pointing to him.  Because maybe I don’t know what my kid pouting looks like.

So, I’m sitting on the floor in the hallway outside my son’s therapist’s office, and I’m crying.

My husband doesn’t think this therapist is doing Zach very much good, and perhaps he is right.  After all, Zach is still just as anxious as when he started six months ago.  We are seeing no improvement in his behavior or his self-esteem.  Because it is all about low self-esteem.  He’s off-the-charts smart, and I mean truly off the charts, but all Zach can see is that for some reason he doesn’t fit in with his peers.  He doesn’t know why, so he figures it’s because there is something wrong with him.

Or maybe them.  Maybe there’s something wrong with them?  Yeah, that’s it!  If I don’t feel like I fit in with my peers, let’s blame THEM.  That oughta make me feel better.

I have a call in to a new therapist.  I am hoping she can get in to observe him before the school year ends, because he only exhibits these problems with other children, so she needs to see him in his native element.  In the meantime, the uncertainty of the end of the year is killing this kid.  We still haven’t found a house, creating more uncertainty, and since he has been moved so much, Zach puts no stock in our assurances that we are only looking for houses right here in town, near his friends.

If he keeps any friends.

I can’t figure out how to help him.  We get him therapists, we talk to him, we shower him with positive attention, we create boundaries – we do all the right things.  But sometimes – in moments when I am being honest with myself – I recognize that we are just chasing our tails.  Because we can’t help him.  He’s going to have to learn to fit in on his own terms, and we can’t show him how to do it.

Which is why I’m sitting on the floor in the hallway outside my son’s therapist’s office, and I’m crying.

The boy in fourth period

My first year of teaching, he was enrolled in my freshman honors English class, fourth period.  He was enrolled, but by the middle of November, I was getting used to marking a little X in the box by his name.  He was enrolled, but he almost never attended school.

Dan had school phobia, they told us.  After winter break, we all met with his parents to discuss how to help him come back to school, now that he had missed so much.  He showed up in January, then disappeared again.

I recognized Dan when I saw him.  He was a walking target.  Anxious, nervous ticks, shoulders slumped.  Walking targets are the kids who care too much about fitting in but don’t quite know how to.  The ones who want to be normal even though that just isn’t the way they are wired.  I knew all about walking targets.

I had been one myself throughout my childhood.  For a long, long time, I assumed that I had social troubles was because I had been abused in my home until I was ten.  No one had taught me how to fit in.  No one had given me self-confidence and ease and all that good shit.  As I get older, however, I have come to realize that much of it may just have been the way I was born.

My son cares deeply about fitting in.  My son doesn’t know how to.  And he fights me hard when I try to help him.  Not that I really know how to help him.

My parents, I have come to suspect, were much the same way.  Not freaks, but just different enough to stand out.  That, paired with a dorky sort of charisma that draws attention to oneself?  Might as well tape that “Kick Me” sign to our backs before we even leave for school in the morning.

So, I recognized this kid the few times he came into my room.  I heard rumors that his school phobia came from being teased, and I sure believed that.  Dan disappeared again in January, but we were assured he would try to return in February.

Some say he shot himself that day just so he wouldn’t have to return to school.

There were far, far too many kids who died from my first year of teaching.  There was a tragic car accident and another suicide, not to mention some other deaths in the school system.  But, lately his death has haunted me the most, even though I knew him the least.

I turned mean girl once my senior year of high school.  I had finally accomplished some level of social acceptance, after years of social scrabbling to try to get out from the bottom of the heap.  When a sophomore friend of mine started in with an ex-boyfriend of mine, I turned quite a few of the senior girls against her.  “Leave her alone,” the ex-boyfriend told me.  “She can’t walk down the halls in school without people taunting her.”

That was all it took to bring me to my senses.  I had been in her shoes so many times, and the last thing I wanted to do was be that kind of an asshole.  I had behaved very, very badly.

She’s turned out OK and seems to have forgiven me, which gives me less absolution than you would think.  But, the incident stands out for me as a reminder that the tormenters are human and easily can be turned around, if only handled properly.

It’s that proper handling that’s so tricky to figure out.  Who needs to intervene?  How?  When?  When do we let the victim fight for his own self-respect and when do we step in?  What could have been done differently in eighth grade, sixth grade, kindergarten to have kept Dan from shooting himself on the roof of his house?

I ask you these questions, and so many more.  What should the parents do?  What helps a kid learn the trick for stopping the bullying?  I cannot tell you my story because we are in a small town, and details will not help my child.  Suffice it to say, nothing terrible has happened yet, but my kid is feeling the beginnings and he is trying hard to deal with it.

I cannot tell you the story, but you can tell me yours. What worked with your kids?  What worked with you?  Were you a bully, a bullied?  Both?  Were your kids?  Talk to me people.  Tell me what you know.

Because even now, thirteen years later, I still go to sleep some nights thinking about Dan.

Boom, boom, boom

I saw the sign as we scurried in the front door of the elementary school: “Tuesday March 2 Dress As Your Favorite Dr. Seuss Character.”  It was Tuesday, March 2.  Zachary was not dressed as his favorite Dr. Seuss character.  Or his second favorite Dr. Seuss character.  Or any Dr. Seuss character whatsoever.

The notice had gone home as an email through Virtual Backpack, but since no one had told us about Virtual Backpack when we moved here, I had no idea such a service existed.  The notice had been on the door Monday morning, but my husband had dropped Zach at school.  Perhaps J had been so focused on his upcoming business trip that he hadn’t noticed.  Perhaps someone had held the door for him.  I’ll never know.

All I know is that Zachary showed up without a costume.  And every other kid had one.

As I walked him into his room, I didn’t say anything, hoping he wouldn’t notice.  Which was moronic, because Zachary always notices.  He does not like being the odd man out, and when he is, we all know whose fault it is.  No matter that Daddy had missed the sign.  This was Mommy’s fault.

I peeked into the room and saw him, storm clouds over his face as he watched Things 1 and 2 comparing their costumes with a very cute Grinch.


See, he’d made a Cat in the Hat headdress at the Y just the day before, but it was at home.  And he was at school. Without it.

“I’ll go home and get your hat,” I told him.  “I’ll be back in ten minutes.”  Much as I do not condone running home and getting the shit your kids forget to bring to school, this one was not his fault.

What I did not know and would not find out till that afternoon was that there is some subtle teasing going on.  It’s not bullying (yet), but these kids are just learning about jockeying for social position.  One of the kids who is emerging as an alpha turned to Zach and told him, “You’re dressed as Nothing.”

Hell, that would send a couple of rain clouds over my face, too.

Zachary is tiny, the youngest in the class, new to town, and hyper-aware of social groupings.  That could be a very, very ugly little recipe.  Thus far, he’s defending himself alright, and his response to the kid with the snide comment was to stick out his tongue.  Sounds like a proportionate response to me.  Nonetheless, he was awfully relieved to see me ten minutes later, hat in hand.

My son is a big fan of Fitting In.

He has started to make friends with some very nice children, and by the end of the morning, he was much happier.  He ran out of the school, face alight, and said, “Mommy, it’s Dr. Seuss’s birthday and we’re supposed to read twenty books and you can read them to us or we can read them ourselves and some kids are making posters for a contest with your favorite Dr. Seuss book and you have to write ‘Dr. Seuss’ on it.”  Who needs Virtual Backpack? I have Run-on Sentence Man.

Zachary likes academics.  He likes challenges.  The concrete nature of schoolwork takes his mind of the endlessly confusing labyrinth of social nuances that make no sense to the new kid in class.  He’s starting to read, learning to measure, and coming home with interesting factoids about various endangered animals.

So, when we got home, he wanted to get started reading Dr. Seuss right away.  Unfortunately, his mother had her priorities screwed up.  “Dude, I can’t read to you right now.  I have to give your sister and brother lunch.”  Mothers are always saying stupid things like that.

I went into the kitchen and started pulling out the fixings for peanut butter and jelly.  Lilah had her first peanut butter two weeks ago, and now she thinks I’m some sort of asshole for hiding the stuff for so long.  She wants it every single day.  I sliced bread, stirred peanut butter, spread jam, and five minutes later came out to the dining room holding a couple of sandwiches, much to the delight of the pair who were banging their fists on the table.

As I shoved the plates in front of my younger two, the racket died down, and I looked at Zachary.  And, I’ll be damned if the child hadn’t walked over to the shelf, gotten down The Cat in the Hat, and read the first twelve pages.

Since we’ve not read that book in quite a long time, I knew he hadn’t just memorized it, especially as he halted to figure out some words.  No, there was only one conclusion to draw: the child knows how to read, but he hadn’t seen fit to share that information with his parents.  The ability to read was apparently some sort of big fucking secret, and he had no intention of spilling the beans.  Until, of course, he had the proper motivation, in the form of a reading challenge.

In the last three days, I have read a total of twelve Dr. Seuss books, and Zachary has read a book each day.  To himself.  And, while it’s all well and good that he is developing cognitively, I must say there is a much, much larger benefit.  When Zach is reading, he does not fight with his brother.  For the length of the entire book.  In fact, Benjamin sits next to him, listening to the story, completely fascinated by this bizarre ability to decipher stories from those weird little markings on the page.

Plus – and this goes without saying – the greatest benefit is that now Zachary can be responsible for reading the damned signs on the schoolhouse doors.

So, fix it

Last weekend was pretty a continuation of the week that had preceded it.  Whining children, flying laptops, angry kindergartener.  By the end of the weekend, I was spent and J was looking forward to getting back to work, where no one snaps his teeth at him and people rarely threaten to poop on the floor.

J was upstairs, bathing the younger two.  Zachary was on the kitchen floor, doing something completely unlovable, I am sure.  If we had a cat, I suspect he would have been pulling out its hair or setting its tail on fire.  As it was, he was probably whining and throwing things.

I sat down and pulled him into my lap.  “Are you angry at us for moving here?” I asked him.  Usually, I don’t like to put words into his mouth, but every now and then I think kids have a hard time figuring out why they are feeling the way that they are.

“Yes.  I don’t like it here.  No one pays any attention to me.”

“What do you mean?”  I asked.  “It seems like the other children are always talking to you.”

“No.  They never pay any attention to me.”  Now, I know Zachary well enough to know there is a grain of truth in everything he says.  Usually, he completely misinterprets a situation to make himself into the hero in some sort of a three-act tragedy, but there is always an actual event that prompts his misery and despair.  I needed to dig further.

When exactly don’t they pay attention to you?”

“After snack.  During the free time.”

Fuck.  The damned free time.  While parents the nation over bemoan the loss of free time for their children, I think there is still entirely too much of it.  Recess is getting shorter?  Fantastic.  Free play in the classroom is being replaced by worksheets?  Excellent.  I won’t feel this way when Benjamin gets to kindergarten, but free time is the fucking viper that bites Zach in the ass.  It is so nebulous, so unrestricted, so… free.  He spends the whole time anxiously watching the other kids for cues on what he’s supposed to be doing, then kicking himself for doing it all wrong.  Damned free time.  It’s been screwing with my kid’s head since he was two.  All the poor child wants is a row of desks and a clear-cut assignment.

“I thought you were joining the other boys in the marble play during free time.”

“They don’t do that anymore,” he replied miserably.  “Now they play cards.”  He emphasized the last word, as though it clarified everything.  Cards.  Cards…  I wracked my brain, trying to come up with all the ways card-playing could be interpreted as complete and utter social ruin.  “They play cards and I just watch.”

“Do you want to play?”

“Yes.  But I don’t know the rules.”  Well, that sure explains it.  Nothing wraps this kid up in knots more than knowing there are rules and he doesn’t know them.

“What game are they playing?  Is it Go Fish?”

“No, it’s grown-up cards.  Like with a Queen and a Joker.  Like in Alice and Wonderland.”  Great.  That clears it right up.

“Well, maybe you could ask someone the rules.”

Now his despair was deepening, because not only were the kids playing a card game that made no sense to him, but his mother was clearly a complete and utter moron.  “No, because no one pays attention to me.”

And there’s a hole in the bucket.

“OK, kiddo.  I’ll tell you what I am going to do.  I am going to send an email to Mrs. T.  I am going to ask her to help you learn the rules of the game so that you can join into the card game.  Does that make sense?”

He smiled.  “Yes.”

“Maybe next time you could tell me sooner when you are having a problem like this, OK?  That way, we can find a solution a little faster.”

Once the kids were in bed, I was as good as my word.  I emailed his teacher, explaining The Great Card Crisis.

Monday, Zach came home, all smiles.  One of the boys had shown him the game.  He had been included; he was part of the pack.  After a week of acting out his abject misery, all it took was a little email to fix the problem.  But, I worry, because he is getting older.  Miniscule though he is, he simply is not a baby anymore.  We have one, maybe two years – tops – left during which I can still email his teacher about this kind of thing.  And, yes, he is slowly learning to handle things himself, but tiny social slights feel like colossal failures to him.   Sooner or later, he’s going to feel like the pariah in the classroom because the kids are not including him exactly as he would like to be included, and there will be little I can do to fix it.

By Tuesday, he was miserable again.  “All the best friends are tooken up,” he told me.  “I don’t have a best friend.”

“You have to give it some time, sweetheart.  Just play with lots of kids and see who you like.”

“I can’t,” he replied.  “No one pays any attention to me.”