A Letter to the World from a Highly Sensitive 7-Year-Old

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Five to Six Minute Read

Dear World,

Hi, I am a 7-yearold who is highly sensitive.  Well, that is not strictly true: I am actually a hypothetical child made up by a highly sensitive 41 (almost 42) year-old mummy to two highly sensitive children who is also a psychologist who has worked with lots of highly sensitive children over the years – so I hope you will allow the artistic licence used here.

I am hypothetical because I have been created to convey a message to the world, most likely coming from a mish-mash of all the voices that Julie has heard from highly sensitive children (HSC’s), their parents, Highly Sensitive adults ( many of whom are the parents of HSCs as there is a genetic component to being a Highly Sensitive Person – HSP) and from within herself - the highly sensitive child she used to be – and still is in some way.

So, with the artistic licence being applied here, I am actually a composite of all the characteristics of the highly sensitive presentation in childhood – you might not come across a child who is exactly like me – but you might recognise some of my characteristics, ways of seeing the world and proclivities in someone you know.  Maybe a son or daughter of yours, maybe a friend, a parent, a client, a pupil – or maybe yourself.

Because I am 7, I don’t actually know that the way I experience myself and the world is flavoured by the high sensitivity trait. Not that being any other age qualifies you for knowing this either.  Actually, Julie only found out about high sensitivity a few years ago (and she is a psychologist for goodness sake!). She says that it changed the way she felt about herself because she finally realised that there was nothing ‘wrong’ with her because she: (1) felt things so deeply, and (2) got so terribly upset over ‘small things’, and (3) got so overwhelmed with the world – especially when she was tired (not all the time by the way, but enough to create a core belief somewhere within her that she was not very good at coping with Life, and that she ‘over-emotional, ‘over-sensitive’ and well, inherently flawed).

So, because I don’t know that being highly sensitive is just a trait, like being born with green eyes, and that approximately 20% of the world’s population have this trait, I am beginning to receive messages from a world that is predominantly made up of non-Highly Sensitive People (non-HSPs), that I am all of those things that Julie believed herself to be.  And, because I don’t have any information to counter these messages, I too am beginning to believe them.

If I did know about the highly sensitive trait, I would know that a psychologist called Dr Elaine Aron, a long time before I was born, came up with the term to describe a cluster of characteristics that she kept stumbling upon in her research on Introversion.  She realised that a lot of the characteristics that psychologists had been associating with ‘Introversion’ were also found in people who seemed to be ‘Extroverted’ (up to 30% of HSPs are considered extroverted according to Elaine Aron’s research)*. I would know that the easiest way to remember the cluster of characteristics that seem to make up the Highly Sensitive presentation can be remembered with the following acronym (I don’t know that word by the way, Julie just couldn’t think of a better word to describe what an acronym is):

DOES

D - stands for Depth of Processing:  Neurologically HSPs tend to process information at a deeper level and so they tend to process more information compared to non-HPS (not necessarily in a better way – just differently – a bit like Neurodiversity – a word I have heard people use recently).

O - Over-whelm: Because of the depth and volume of information that HSPs tend to process on a daily basis, through all of the senses, they tend to get more overwhelmed, especially in busy, crowded environments. There is just so much information to take in – and what’s more, to THINK about, analyse, wonder about…that takes up a lot of energy!

E – Emotional responsiveness and empathy: HSPs tend to feel emotions more deeply and intensely. And guess what follows? Yes, we tend to show our emotions more intensely too (at least in the presence of the ones we feel safest with). AND! We tend to feel other people’s emotions too, usually without even being aware of it.

S- Sensitivity:  So on the whole, HSPs are generally more Sensitive to their environments and the stimuli in them – whether this is internal or external.

So now that I know these things, because Julie has fashioned it so, I can use my voice to give some messages to the world about what it’s like to be a HSC, and some helpful (I hope) tips for you to apply when you are engaging with me:

To the World in General:  you ( The World) are mostly comprised of non-HSCs (80% or so), so it follows that the ‘world’ that I find myself in has been primarily created by you and your way of experiencing. That means that it is not really set up for HSCs.  So, when we get over-whelmed, or we become ‘very emotional’, we tend to receive a message that there is something not right with us and we must Toughen Up, Cop On, Get Over it, Grow A Pair (not sure what that means), Get on With It or Wise Up (I am already wise actually). When in actual fact, we are just being ourselves, and it is the World that is not doing enough to accommodate us.  So World, perhaps you could Soften up, or Cop on that we are all a bit different ( look up neurodiversity) or Grow a Pair of compassionate eyes, and Wise Up (you are very wise after all, you may just need to look inwards a little more) to the fact that we can all get on in this world much more easily we if have more understanding of how different people’s brains work.

To Parents:  I really don’t mean to be contrary when I say that my socks are really annoying me  when we have to get out the door to school – it’s just that THEY ARE REALLY ANNOYING ME and I CAN’T THINK OF ANYTHING ELSE.  Nor do I mean to break up a fun family day out at the Zoo by ‘melting down’: it’s just that I got so excited about our day out, I have been counting down the days, and I couldn’t sleep last night with the excitement and then I got really hot in the reptile house, and there were just so many things to see, and so many people, and then someone pushed into me by accident and it was the straw that broke the camel’s back ( sorry we didn’t get to see the camels by the way), and I started to cry and then when I felt you feeling really frustrated and disappointed I took on all of your emotions too and I felt really cross and really bad about myself and then I said that SMART MEAN thing and then we ended up having an argument and then I got really, really upset and then THAT WAS IT. I really, really didn’t mean any of that to happen. And now I feel really crappy about myself, but because I am 7 I might not show it, or I might forget about it for a while, but it’s in there, adding to my core beliefs about the world and myself.  

Would it be OK if I asked you to be a little more spacious with me? Do you think you could step into my shoes a bit more? And when you notice that the BIG EMOTIONs are coming, do you think you could take a breath and stay present with me, and remind me to maybe do the same?

Also, would it be OK if I asked you to turn off the news?  It feels really scary to me that THE WORLD OUT THERE has so many bad things happening in it. I feel scared and worried for all those people and I THINK A LOT about those things happening to us, and how terrible it must be for those people they are happening to. 

Also, maybe if you have stuff to talk about that is very serious, could you make sure that I am not around?  I take it all in, even if I don’t know what the IT is…it’s like I eat up the energy of the conversation or the situation and I don’t even know what I’m doing, nor do I want it.  And in some weird way, I begin to feel responsible for IT - I don't know why, it just happens. That sense of responsibility feeds into my core beliefs about me, and I feel like things are my fault when they actually aren’t. Just because we can’t see core beliefs doesn’t mean that they are not there and they are affecting how I experience myself and the world around me.

I could go on, but I know that you are really busy and there is so much stuff and jobs for you to do, so I will stop here. But I do want to say that I love you very much and you are my world – still – even if I don’t show it all the time. And I know that you have lots of Big Emotions happening too sometimes - I TOTALLY GET IT! More than you may know.

To my Teachers: I am not actually shy…I just take my time scanning the environment in school to make sure that it is OK to proceed. Elaine Aron calls it the STOP AND CHECK function of the brain, that is predominant in my system. It’s a good thing, to stop, and make sure that everything is OK, because sometimes it is not, and if it wasn’t for us, what would those people who have the more prominent GO For IT neurological system do when there was danger? They need us. I do get anxious though in school, but primarily because I get overwhelmed and I so want to please you (I have very high standards and the external validation is so important to me).  The class room and the yard are so busy sometimes…it is a lot for me to process. And because I am conscientious, I work really hard at being ‘good’ in school and it is very tiring and I usually fall apart in someway when I go home (sorry Mum and Dad). I worry about my tests on a Friday because I so, so want to do well and I have set up this un-conscious Internal Examiner that expects nothing but the best and I get terribly disappointed with myself when I don’t 100% succeed. And I just can’t help it, but I take on the feelings of other people in the class room, including yours. 

That is a lot to carry.

I know it’s hard teaching a very big class, with lots of neurodiversity, and having to a teach a curriculum that doesn’t really accommodate neurodiversity, or emotional intelligence, or any of the other multiple intelligences that exist, but….. would you be able to read up a little more on High Sensitivity, and share with your colleagues? Elaine Aron’s website is www.hsperson.com and it is a really, really good source of information. Julie wrote a blog on this before, and it is pretty good, although she does say so herself http://juliemeehan.com/blog/2017/11/2/is-your-child-over-sensitive-or-simply-highly-sensitive.

Thank You for reading this World, and if you feel resonant with it in some way, please share it. My only desire is to let as many people know about HSPs as possible, so real children and people will benefit and hopefully feel more supported and validated. We have so much to offer (high creativity, sharp insightful thinking, empathy, deep compassion, intuition, lateral thinking etc. etc.) and so much potential and if we all work together more, we can really, really make this world a better place.

Love,

Julie Meehan © 2018

Image Credit: Jason Leung on UnSplash

Julie is running a workshop for Parents of Primary School-aged Children Who experience Anxiety: How to Support your Child When Anxiety Takes Over on Sunday 11/11/2018 in Dublin City Centre. Anxiety tends to show up a lot for HSCs and Julie will explore how best to support HSCs with this difficulty during the day. For more details and to book: http://juliemeehan.com/workshops-groups/

* http://hsperson.com/research/

Unmasking Ourselves as Parents: The Moments When We Allow Ourselves To Be Just As We Are

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This morning I woke after a very wakeful night. I was tired, agitated, cross and grumpy. This is a familiar pattern for me after such nights, and a heavy reminder of the years spent in this state when my children were younger (my children followed their own sleeping pattern which did not align with what I was used to or what appears to be culturally accepted – but that’s another Blog’s work 😊). It felt like the exact same state of being had returned: a dull depression I so often felt after countless sleep-deprived nights.

If felt the same, but it wasn’t quite the same.   I noticed the way I was being towards the children: snippy, bossy, resentful, givey-outty, intolerant. In the noticing a voice from The Committee in My Head came in: The Judgemental Voice. ‘You shouldn’t be like this’, ‘You are supposed to be a good mother, what are you doing?’, ‘See, this is the real you and you’re damaging your kids’ – was the general vibe. The difference this morning was that I noticed the Judgemental Voice, and to be fair, I did believe it for a time. But then I just let it go. I noticed it, and acknowledged it (‘Hello, Judgemental Voice’), and then chose not to believe it. And in so doing, more space was created for me to be more accepting of myself – just the way I was at that time – and therefore more accepting of everything and everyone.

In short, I forgave myself through allowing myself. And in that moment I unmasked any image I was perhaps unconsciously (or consciously) holding up of being a Certain Type of Mother, or a Certain Type of Person. For that time, I let go of the burden of having to be an image of myself – and I let myself just be whatever I was being.

Absolutely nothing earth-shattering or glamourous about this, but it is in these quiet and almost imperceptible moments that the opportunity opens up to free ourselves from the weight of our own inner critic and connect more easily with the flow of life – however it shows up.  Whether it’s wiping a dirty nose, defrosting the dinner, settling a sibling skirmish, or trying to find your shoes for work, it doesn’t matter. What matters is that chances are, you may find that you can connect more easily in that moment with yourself, your children and whatever the moment asks of you.

Julie  Meehan © 2018

Image Credit: ClipArt Library, Superhero Clipart

Is your Child 'Over-Sensitive'? Or Simply a Highly Sensitive Child?

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Up until very recently, I often wondered in a rather self-disparaging way why I:

1) Found it difficult to cope when there were too many things happening at the one time (not so helpful for a parent!).

2) Got seriously over-whelmed in crowded places and/or shopping venues with aisles crammed full of choices (again, not so helpful on the parent front).

3) Found it hard to sleep after a lively night out (never helpful!).

4) Have always tended to think about things really deeply, to the extent that I would drive myself around the twist.

5) Always tended to ‘take-on’ other people's emotions and ‘stuff’ and carry it around with me (again, really unhelpful as a parent).

6) And why (oh why) I always seemed to get so upset about things that seemed to pass other people by.

To be honest, I just thought I was ‘over-sensitive’, I took things ‘too personally’, and I was making something out of nothing. I thought that I should probably just ‘get over it’ and be Resilient and Strong and Capable – all those qualities that we are constantly being told to aspire to in this society.

Turns out, I am simply a Highly Sensitive Person.

No fanfare, no justification or explanations to anyone needed.  Just a bit of validation for myself that actually, I’m not inherently unable to cope, or too-sensitive, or fragile or anything like that. I simply have the High Sensitivity trait. And so it seems, do my children.

According to research (see http://hsperson.com/research/ for more details) carried out by psychologist Dr. Elaine Aron and her colleagues, I likely fall into the 15-20% of the population that can be considered Highly Sensitive. This statistic is found to be consistent across cultures, gender, race and across many species in the animal kingdom. It is not a disorder, it is simply a trait, like being born with green eyes.  However, it is a trait that underpins a lot of our adaptive, social and emotional functioning, and so it has more implications for how we live in the world and how we relate to ourselves than a more neutral trait, such as eye colour.

And that seems to be where simply having a high sensitivity trait can get pretty complicated.

What Does Highly Sensitive Mean?

But first, what does highly sensitive mean? How do you know if you or your child have this predisposition?

There are different ways to describe the main characteristics of the Highly Sensitive presentation. I like the acronym 'D.O.E.S' that Elaine Aron uses to describe the four main clusters of qualities/tendencies of the highly sensitive presentation. According to Aron, Highly Sensitive People (or HSPs) tend to present with these four over-arching characteristics/tendencies (to a greater or lesser degree):

D – for Depth of Processing: HSPs tend to neurologically process information at a deeper level than non-HSPs. Research has shown that the brains of HSPs develop, and also process information differently. Not better, just differently. What that means is that HSPs tend to take in and process more information from their environment than non-HSPs. So they naturally seem to notice more, wherever they are. It also means that they have a tendency to think about things deeply, and so it is not unusual for a HSP or Highly-Sensitive-Child (HSC) to ask a lot of questions and tend towards the more existential ponderings of life. HSPs tend to be highly perceptive, taking in the subtleties of social situations and naturally reading non-verbal language, without really realising how or why.  It has been hypothesised that HSPs are the way they are due to evolutionary purposes: because they tend to scan the environment for information and stimuli at such a deep level, they are best placed to read approaching dangers, and register and evaluate the risk before they act.  This trait likely is (and was) very useful for hunter-gathers, and likely explains why the trait is found across cultures and species and has endured across the ages.  It is always helpful to have a few people around who can alert the tribe to incoming dangers.

O – for Over-whelm or Over-stimulation: Aaron suggests that HSPs tend to become over-whelmed quiet easily probably because their brains are taking in a great deal of information a great deal of the time. Our brains are constantly processing stimuli through all the senses (there are more than 5!) in our waking moments. Our sensory system is ‘run’ by a series of complicated and finely co-ordinated processes in the brain that help read various incoming sensory pieces of information, and co-ordinate them in such a way as to help us to feel regulated in our bodies/minds and  in our environment.  Sometimes this co-ordination in the brain tends to get over-worked: this happens for everyone, not just HSPs, but it seems to happen more for HSPs.  And so, HSPs can tend to struggle to multi-task, or be OK in busy shopping centres, or struggle to stay grounded when too many things are going on at the one time - to name but a few ways in which over-whelm can show up.

E – for Emotional Responsiveness and Empathy: HSPs tend to feel things more deeply too. While the emotional range of experience is wide and varied for all of us, HSPs tend to experience emotions more intensely. And so, they often tend to show their emotions more intensely too (unless they have learned to inhibit or minimise their experience of their emotions, which is common). Things just seem to hurt so much (or feel really, really sad, or frustrating or unfair, or indeed happy or exciting – whatever!), and sometimes for longer. Perhaps not surprisingly then, HSPs tend to be able to feel other people’s emotional experiences more readily too. As mentioned, they can be skilled at reading the subtleties of emotional experience in others and be predisposed to more accurately reading non-verbal body language and cues when compared to non-HSPs.

S  - for Sensitivity. HSPs tend to be just more sensitive to their environments. There is typically at least one sensory modality that they appear to be hyper-responsive to, that is, they tend to experience the sense in a more intense and over-whelming way than the majority of people. This over-responsiveness could show up through one or more of the sensory modalities[1] 1) Touch/tactile (light touch, pressured touch, clothes against the skin, crunchy foods, dry foods, soft food, slimy foods etc.) 2) Taste (spicy food, salty foods, sweet foods, etc.,) 3) Auditory ( loud noises, high pitched noises, low humming noises etc. ) 4) Smells and 5) Visual ( bright lights, flashing lights, arrhythmic lights etc.). These experiences often tend to wax and wane, that is, they tend to be felt more intensely at one point more than another, and like all of these traits, most of us have had experiences of sensory over-responsiveness at some points, or in some domains (The finger-nails on the blackboard is a common experience of auditory sensory over-responsiveness that most of us can probably relate to!).

These four domains are like the broad brushstrokes that have been used by Elaine Aron and her colleagues to help people develop a framework for understanding how they, or someone they know, might be experiencing the world. Like any of these psychological descriptions, not every HSP presents with all of these tendencies. Likewise, non-HSPs experience many of these tendencies too at points in their life. We are all unique, and indeed, over time, we change and adapt. At times one particular domain may seem more dominant – at other times another domain may require more of our attention. These descriptions are not considered criteria to be used when making a diagnosis of a mental health disorder – rather they are here to simply allow people to get a sense of whether this might be a useful lens to understand their world through, or that of someone they know, such as their children.

Understanding the World of Highly Sensitive Children

In my work with children and their parents, difficulties relating to the experience of being a HSC in this busy and not-so-sensitive world often predominate. From reading the about the qualities associated with the four different domains of the Highly Sensitive presentation above, we can infer that many of the following difficulties that children and their parents tend to struggle with may be at least partially related to the highly sensitive predisposition[2], including:

Difficulties tolerating certain types of clothes; getting hair washed or cut; getting dirty, being in water, sand, muck; brushing hair or teeth; food refusal, ‘picky’ eating; aversions to loud noises; ‘melt downs’ ( a.k.a.., sensory over-whelm) in shopping centres etc.; anxiety, separation anxiety, school-related anxiety and refusal, ‘shy-ness’, social isolation, introversion, ‘tantrums’, acting out, bottling-up emotions, prolonged episodes of emotional displays ( crying, shouting, screaming, arguing etc., ), fluctuating self-esteem, low-mood, difficulties falling asleep, difficulties staying asleep, difficulties maintaining friendships,  etc., etc.

Using the Highly Sensitive Lens

While you could be forgiven for thinking that the above list of difficulties paints a pretty negative picture of the world of a HSC, I see is as a wonderful opportunity for re-adjusting our lens on how we choose to view ourselves or our children: it invites an understanding that this way of being in the world is actually quite common, and is not a disorder, or pathological in any way – it is simply how 15-20% of the population naturally tend to experience themselves and the world. With this understanding, or shift in orientation of how we see things, we can then open up to supporting ourselves and/or our children in a way that allows for compassion, space, permission and empowerment.

And so, being highly sensitive is not necessarily problematic in itself.  It just is what it is. However, how specific cultures (including micro-cultures such as families and schools etc.,) and societies regard, value and relate to sensitivity appears to be one of the primary factors in influencing how a HSP/HSC experiences their world. That is, they are likely to experience their way of being as something to be honoured, celebrated and nurtured if they grow up in an environment that supports, understands, and scaffolds their experience. On the other hand, if they grow up in an environment that does not appreciate or make space for their way of being, they may receive messages that their innate way of being in the world is somehow not OK or that they need  to be toughened up in some way so that they can become more robust and ‘able’ for the vicissitudes of this life.

For many HSPs/HSC, they have likely received a mix of messages from the external world about how to 'be' ( as we all have). This is not to invite blame, it is just how it is. Modern Western society, perhaps until recently, has simply not known to put on the highly sensitive lens to help understand a portion of the population from this perspective.

Celebrating High Sensitivity

By the very nature of their presentation, HSC/HSPs tend to have so many gifts to offer the world: their empathy and deep connection with themselves and others, their ability to see things more laterally, their appreciation for life’s beauty, their tendency towards helping others, their capacity to experience and perhaps express the full range of emotional experiences, etc.  Research has shown that HSPs tend to be highly creative and when they are in an environment that fully accepts and supports their way of being in the world, they tend to blossom and thrive in their relationships with themselves, others and in the various roles they find themselves in life. Of course, this is true for all of us:  when we are supported and nurtured and encouraged to Be what we really are, then we thrive.

Supporting Highly Sensitive Children to Blossom and Thrive in an Often Over-whelming World

If any of these descriptions above sound familiar to you, it might be helpful to check out Elaine Aron’s website www.hsperson.com. There you can complete a self-report standardised measure to explore whether you or your child might share some of the characteristics of high sensitivity. There are lots of resources and book recommendations on the site that might be helpful guides for you in learning more about navigating the world through the lens of high sensitivity ( I also found this short and accessible booklet helpful: Understanding the Highly Sensitive Child, Williamson, Jamie).

In my own experience, I have adopted various ways, strategies and approaches that have helped give me and my children more latitude, space and compassion when navigating the often topsy-turvy world of potential overwhelm.  As always, these following pointers are just that - pointers.  I invite you to feel into what might resonate for you and your child/children, and to play around with different approaches.

  • For You: Inviting Acceptance and Allowing: Just like the approach of allowing the emotions to happen that I pointed to in the blog post, 'When Big Strong Emotions Happen: How Can Parents and Children Befriend their Feelings?', when we can invite in acceptance that we, or our children, may have some or many of the High Sensitivity characteristics, it may allow for more space to open up in how we relate to ourselves ( I have ditched the self-disparaging inner talk - mostly ;) ) and our children. When my pre-school aged daughter refuses to put on leggings or whips them off her in a frenzy screeching, 'THEY ARE TOO ITCHY MAMA', I usually take a deep breath, and let go of the inner voice nagging me that she is going to die from the cold and I say 'OK'. Usually. Not always. But when I do, it doesn't feel like she has won some battle between us, it feels like I am inviting in compassion for her ( I have no way of actually knowing what leggings feel like against her skin) and giving us both some space. It feels easier and more spacious. And we can both go about our day with less intense emotion floating around inside us.
  • For Your Child: Adapting to the Potential Over-Whelm: Knowing how and when over-whelm happens for your child (or you) is a big one. It tends to happen most mornings in our house when around getting dressed ( see above ;) ). Birthdays and Christmas are huge ones for us: the excitement, the build-up, the continual questions about presents or Santa, the rehearsals for Christmas concerts, the parties, the extra outings, the buzz, the pre-occupied parents, and on and on.... Unless we attempt to pace events in the lead-up, down-play aspects of the occasion and bring in lots of down-time, it just gets way way too much for my school aged daughter. She starts to sleep fitfully, she wakes early, her mind buzzing with thoughts and questions, she is tired, she gets a look in her eyes where it is difficult to sustain her attention and the emotions come fast and frequent. When this happens, we try make early bed time a priority ( doesn't always happen!) and we try to become more discerning in where we go and what we do. And when the outbursts happen, we now know that they need to happen: the over-whelm needs a release.
  • For You and Your Child: Inviting in more Groundedness: Finding ways to feel grounded and settled in the body is really important for HSPs/HSC and their parents. It is such a simple yet often forgotten approach that we all benefit from. There are many ways to help us feel more 'in' our bodies: focusing on the breath ( especially belly breathing), bringing attention to the feet as they connect with the ground, practising a few mindful moments at the start of the day and throughout, running water on our wrists, giving ourselves permission to take a few minutes away from whatever we are doing, going outside, spending time in nature, turning off technology at least 30 minutes before bed, including a meditation ( from your imagination or from an audio) before bed. Some children can respond really well to deep pressure when they are feeling over-whelmed - it seems to call them back into their bodies. Ask  permission from your child if they would like a tight hug, or a relaxing massage, or they may respond well to a weighted blanket around their shoulders or on their bed. My school aged daughter loves wheel-barrow walking, which we encourage when she seems a bit all over the place, not knowing where to settle herself or her attention. It seems to help, in some way.
  • For You and Your Child: Tuning into your Wisdom and your Child's Wisdom: I have found using the High Sensitivity lens really helpful as it has been a great compass for tuning in when something doesn't feel quite right. Take swimming lessons for example. I wasn't really sure why my daughter disliked them so much. Until I really reflected on it through the High Sensitivity lens: the sensory over-whelm that is involved in going to a busy swimming pool ( the noise, the heat, the changing of clothes, the water, the shrieks, the whistles, the showers, the hair-dryers..), the pressure to follow the instructions from the instructor, the self-pressure to get it right ( yes perfectionism seems to be a trait found in HSC), plus her possibly feeling and carrying other children's anxiety too...all at the same time. And then I realised how over-whelmed I felt when taking her  - for most of the same reasons! Of course! Only by listening to her wisdom in her telling me that she didn't really want to go, and by then listening to what was going on for me, did we realise that we didn't have to do this. There are other gentler ways to learn swimming.
  • For You and Your Child: Balance, Balance, Balance: HSC often struggle with change.  At times they may begin to wish to control their environments as much as possible because they are trying to avoid over-whelm. So understandable. Anxiety might happen, or a rigidity around not wanting to do certain things.  This happens with me sometimes.  I avoid busy super-markets, I don't take up invitations at night sometimes because I feel worried that I might not sleep when I come home. Understandable. So I ask myself: when does something feel like too much, and when might I be letting anxiety and worry run the show? Easier said than done, but feeling into what works for me helps me to feel into what might be happening for my children when they say they don't want to do something. Sometimes the only cure for avoidance is to go and do whatever it is that they're avoiding - it empowers your child to know that they can actually cope and reinforces their coping skills. But sometimes they may just be too over-whelmed. And as far as I can work out, it is trial and error feeling into which is which. The balancing act of being a parent :)

Since I have started to use this lens for myself, my children and in my professional work, it has allowed for much more space and compassion for myself and others. However, I use the lens lightly - that is, I use it as a light and flexible working model to understand my world and the world of others when it's called upon. I try not to attach too much to it.  It is what it is. Having said that, my sense is that we would all benefit from knowing about High Sensitivity. Certainly those who care for and/or teach our children would likely benefit hugely from learning about this lens: according to the stats, in a class of 30 children, at least 4-5 children will present with these tendencies. There are many simple strategies that can make a huge difference in supporting these children in whatever setting they are in.

I love imagining what it would be like if we could all apply this lens when seeking to understand those we know who might be highly sensitive.

Let's make that more than a possibility.

Julie Meehan © 2017

Image credit: N. Coen

[1] You may notice some similarities between what is described here and Sensory Processing Disorder.  My understanding is that while they share commonalities, and may be at least partially modulated by the same neurological processes, there are also differences.  This is explained well on http://hsperson.com/faq/spd-vs-sps/ .

[2] There may be many other reasons and factors why a child might present with any of these difficulties described, and I do not wish to exclude or minimise any of these possibilities, however, understanding a child’s world using the Highly-Sensitive model as a framework, might help you and your child view things from a different and more empowering perspective.

Listening to Ourselves, Listening to our Children

 Image Credit: Nigel Coen :)

Image Credit: Nigel Coen :)

When I became a parent for the first time, I was utterly bamboozled by all the 'information' out there on how I 'should' be parenting my baby.  Somewhere along the line of my life, I seemed to have adopted the belief that there is a greater wisdom that lies outside of myself with 'experts' in how I should be, and how I should be with my child. I seemed to have a model of the world running that encouraged me to look to others' opinions first when it came to certain aspects of caring for my child.  Not all aspects, but some.  Perhaps not surprisingly, these were areas where things weren't going so well, like how to best respond to my baby who struggled to settle, and to sleep.

Somehow, in my struggle to best meet the needs of my new baby, where the conventional approach didn't seem to work, I began to lose the ability to listen to myself, and I unwittingly gave my power away to others. What I mean by that is that I started to follow other people's way of doing things, rather than trusting and listening to my own unique way, and the unique way of my baby daughter. It is not to say that other people's way of doing things was not valid - there is such a wealth of knowledge and wisdom out there that so many compassionate people are sharing with the world - but I somehow started to believe that their way was better than mine.  There were times when I felt lost, confused and consumed with guilt as I applied some recommendation that I had sought and been given in how to settle my baby or help her sleep. Even when it felt wrong, I had some belief operating that somehow it must be the right way, because someone who seemed more experienced, knowledgeable and wiser than myself told me it was. Or, if it worked for someone else's baby, then surely it would work for mine.  Even when the tears were flowing and my body was screaming at me that whatever I was doing didn't feel right, that belief still operated.

Then, little by little, another way of being with it all began to glimmer through. I began to feel into my body and my emotions when something felt a bit off. I would start to ask myself, does this feel right? I would always get an answer.  Perhaps not the answer I wanted or hoped for, but some guidance would always be there when I tapped into how my body felt and what was happening with my emotions.  I was learning to turn towards myself and listen to my body, my emotions and the small, quiet voice inside.

This was a very slow process for me ( and still is at times).  It involved giving myself space so that I could step away just a little bit from being totally consumed by my thoughts, which raged, and went around and around in my weary but frantic mind. With that space, I could see that I wasn't defined by my thoughts, and that even though they sounded very convincing and plausible - that didn't mean that they were actually true. There are many ways of finding this space.  I found it through becoming still and practising various forms of mindfulness and meditation until I found one that seemed aligned with my way of being. I found it through connecting with experienced practitioners who shared their wisdom and experience with me but always reflected back to me that I had a choice to follow their 'advice'.  Their gentle, compassionate insistence that I listen to my own wisdom, to guide me in sensing whether their 'advice' was aligned with my unique way and my daughter's unique way.

It involved giving myself permission to listen to myself first and then feel into whether external advice felt right for me, my baby and my whole family.

Most of all, it involved learning to listen to my baby daughter ( and later to my two daughters when my second baby was born). I would wonder: What language is she speaking with her body? Her daily patterns? Her feeding? And her emotions? Later, this broadened to listening to her words, her behaviours, her different ways of being. My wondering is usually embedded with the implicit question: what is my child communicating, what is she expressing? Because we are usually communicating or expressing something to ourselves and the world.

Sometimes I find it easier to listen to my children than other times.  Sometimes I forget:  I am tired, my head is full of lists and to-dos and internal conversations; my heart feels full of frustration or anger or annoyance.  I react rather than respond at times.  I do and say things that I know are not helpful at times.  Of course, of course. I am human. But, somehow in learning to listen to my body, my feelings and that small quiet voice more, I have more space to forgive myself, take a breath and begin newly in the next moment.

And the dance of being a parent continues.

Julie Meehan © 2017

 

When Big Emotions Happen: How Can Parents and Children Befriend their Feelings?

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In my work with children of all ages and their parents, the central theme that we return to time and time again is what psychologists call 'emotional regulation'. 

Emotional regulation is the skill we develop as humans to literally regulate our emotional experiences.  It is the capacity to be OK with whatever feelings we are feeling and to be able to show and act on our feelings in a safe and hopefully helpful way for ourselves and others.

Easier written than done!

For a skill that is so essential to our human experience and how we navigate the world it is so curious that we receive so little formal input on it.  Most of us remember learning how to ride a bike and to read and write:  with lots of practice, time and hopefully the supportive guiding presence and patience of a parent/teacher.  Yet do you remember learning to name the feelings you were feeling, and how to show them in a safe and helpful way? For most of us, we stumbled through our early emotional lives learning for the most part in a haphazard and informal way what feelings seemed OK to feel and show and what feelings definitely seemed not OK to feel and show.

And that’s OK, it’s just how it was. There is nothing wrong with haphazard (check out my house on any given morning!) or informal, but in my experience, and according to recent neuro-scientific research (and indeed many of the ancient wisdom traditions), there are skills that we can learn that can help us be OK with – and ultimately befriend – our feelings (and those of others) and show them in a way that is safe, true to our experience and hopefully helpful to ourselves and others.

And just like learning how to ride a bike or to read and write, it takes practice, time and the guiding presence and patience of someone who is more experienced than us to mirror back to us our experiences of our emotions in a loving, spacious and contained way.

As parents we take on the role of the more experienced ‘Other’ to support our children in learning the skills to befriend their emotions.  But for many of us – perhaps because of the way we stumbled through our own experiences of learning about emotions, or because of the way we are neurologically wired or a mixture of both, we too struggle with being OK with our emotions and how we show them.  And so, when it comes to being OK with our children’s emotions and acting as a supportive guide to help them to learn these skills we might really, really struggle.

But looking at it from a ‘Skills acquisition’ perspective, we can hopefully let go of any self-criticism, self-blame and guilt, and say ‘Of course’.  Simply put, we may have never been formally shown the skills required to be OK with our own feelings – let alone those of others – not to mention acting as a supportive guide and container to our children as they learn the skills of emotional regulation.

Below I list ways that I have found useful in helping me to be OK with my feelings and in finding the space and compassion to be OK with my children’s feelings.  And ultimately to act as some sort of ‘good enough’ guide so that my children can learn these skills that are so essential to our well-being, our sense of selves and to how we relate to ourselves and everyone in our world.

In the coming posts, I will elaborate on these ways, padding them out with real-life examples.  What’s really important to know is that because this is a human experience, it’s not going to be perfect, or linear in how the steps are followed. (Emotions can be messy, they happen in an instant, they trigger other emotional patterns for us and before we know it, we don't know how we got from 0 to 90 in a few seconds!!). It might feel haphazard and informal ( great!); it might work sometimes and so not well at other times, but please remember that that’s all OK, and these words are here to help you feel into what works and feels right for you as a parent and for your child/children. These are broad brush-stroke steps, play around with them, have fun, take your time, experiment and be curious!

  • Allow the emotion to happen for you: When emotions happen, especially big ones like anger, frustration, sadness and disappointment for you and/or your child, they often take-over.  We often have no sense of what we are feeling, we just know that there is a big feeling happening and it doesn't feel good. Many of us have learned to push away uncomfortable feelings and/or act from the messy experience of over-whelm. By inviting ourselves to allow the feeling, whatever it is, we can give ourselves a bit of space to respond rather than react. 
  • For your Child:  All feelings are OK. When we invite ourselves to allow our feelings, we give messages to our children that it is OK for them to be feeling what they are feeling.  This is essential, as when we learn that some feelings are not OK to have, then we learn to push them away.  We don't make our feelings happen: they just appear and they eventually pass. When children know that it is OK to feel their feelings NO MATTER what they are, then they attach less negativity to them, feel less over-whelm and ultimately learn to respond rather than react in a safe and helpful way.
  • Naming the Emotion:  This comes with inviting yourself to allow your feelings.  When we can name them, even silently (I'm feeling so.....! ) to ourselves, it can lessen our felt sense of over-whelm.
  • For Your Child: Helping them name their emotions. This is a really useful tool, but it can be over-used.  As parents we help our children learn language by naming objects etc., ( do you want the cup?); we scaffold their learning process with prompts and cues in the environment.  Likewise we can help scaffold our children to name their feelings so that they can put a name to their experience.  Instead of just feeling this huge big unpleasant feeling, they can learn that these feelings have names - and that implicitly we all have these feelings, and that they are OK! Tentatively naming their emotion for them works well, because you are only guessing yourself at what they are feeling ( I wonder if you're feeling sad right now, rather than, you're feeling sad). 
  • Being Present with our children: While tentatively naming our children's emotions can be really useful, it is only truly effective when we marry it with our Presence. Our presence is an availability that we show our children that we are there for them, and in some way we understand. This could mean a hug ( I wonder if you're feeling sad, would a hug help?) or it could mean giving them space in such a way as they know that you're still 'with' them, supporting them ( I wonder if you might need a bit of space to feel what you're feeling). Knowing how best to be available to your child ( and to yourself!) can only be known in the moment, and it can take a lot of trial and error.  Children are amazing at feeling into whether you are really being present for them, so typically they will show you in some way if they have felt seen/heard by you: a shift in their body language, a change in their voice...something to indicate that they feel supported. 
  • Expressing/showing our emotions in a helpful way: Emotions require some sort of expression, even if that happens internally, in a quiet way, such as sitting and opening up to the emotion. But often, we simply need to show them externally! The difficulty lies with showing our emotions in a safe and helpful way, rather than bouncing off the big strong emotion we may be feeling in a way that can be hurtful or harmful to ourselves and others.  When we can tune into what we are feeling ( by allowing and naming the emotion) we can then express what we are feeling more clearly, with words and with actions.  We have more space to consider how our words/actions might affect the other ( whoever that might be). When we feel seen/heard, it allows for us to express ourselves more truthfully. I know well how difficult this can be, but when we learn to feel into this way of showing our feelings for ourselves, then we model it for our children, and they too will hopefully learn helpful ways to show emotions.
  • For your Child: Showing their emotions in a helpful way:  I encourage my children to name what they are feeling, and to express it in a way that allows the emotion to be represented in some way.  For e.g., for my pre-schooler daughter, I encourage her to stamp her foot when she is feeling angry, as well as say what she is feeling. That way, the anger finds a safe physical outlet.  This is rarely the only way she shows her anger, but it allows her to feel her way into whether it might be more helpful than hitting or wrecking the place! As parents it is our role to put in boundaries when our children are acting in ways that are either harmful/unhelpful for themselves and/or others.  This is also an essential component of helping our children to regulate their emotions. The rule of thumb I try to use ( this doesn't always happen!) is:  give them space to express their emotions as long as they are not hurting themselves or others (or wrecking the place too much!). I typically find with my school aged daughter that when she has the space to do this, it allows the feeling to pass more quickly with less drama, and then we can talk about it when everyone is grounded once again.

Essentially, the message I try to give them ( again, not always successful :0) ) is: All emotions are OK to feel; there are helpful and unhelpful ways to show them, can we find the more helpful ways?

And we are still - and likely always will be - learning the more helpful ways :)

Julie Meehan © 2017

The Butterfly Teachings

The idea of transformation seems to be deeply embedded within Nature as well as in our mythical and popular culture.  Of course, as children the butterfly is one of the first ways in which we are introduced to the absolute possibility of change that Life is capable of. The poster of The Life Cycle of the Butterfly hangs on many a class room wall and still hangs in my consciousness as a childhood memory. So too does my fascination at their lightness of being as they flutter here and fly there - resting for a brief moment with their wings closed together - as if they are hiding their splendour from the world as a little tease. They just seem so lightly connected with the space they occupy and the transient nature of their beingness (for most of them die in the winter) seems heart-breakingly beautiful and perfect.

Perhaps their lightness of being is because of the journey they have taken to become a butterfly. After all,  their journey to their butterfly-beingness is marked by a deep surrender to Mother Nature ( and their very own nature) as they ready themselves to not be a caterpillar anymore and dissolve into the unkowingness of the dark and enveloping chrysalis. There they must trust, and just be with whatever it is that is happening until the time when the chrysalis begins to crack and they emerge, covered in a thick syrup-like texture. Again, they must place their trust in the process until they are ready to open their wings and ascend as a creature reborn in the same lifetime.  Perhaps they feel no fear - only joy in their experience of their hereness - precisely because they know what it is like to truly let go of their old selves and surrender to the unknowningness of the chrysalis.

Perhaps they know there is nothing to fear precisely because they allowed Mother Nature to take care of things:  after all, they emerged transformed into a creature that is bound no more to crawling the earth but can choose to fly high into the air at one moment and rest on the earth at another moment. Many would call this freedom.

How can we as humans relate to a little butterfly? Do these little beings have anything to teach us - young and old - about the nature of being? 

As I see her doing flutter-bys past my window on this summer's day, I humbly thank the butterfly for her trust in herself, her path and in Mother Nature.  Thank You for showing me that transformation is not only possible, but it is an integral part of Life.  

Our Butterfly Boy

I would like to humbly honour and offer loving gratitude to a little boy who lived the essence of his butterfly being-ness so graciously, courageously and beautifully: Oisin Boland.  Oisin, your gifts to us all are so plentiful. The emergence of this website is one of them. 

Please see butterflyboyoisin.wordpress.com if you are drawn to learning more about Oisin’s butterfly being-ness and the depths of his family's Love, courage and humility.