Originally published in Comfort Zone Newsletter: November 2006.
One of the pleasures of the holiday season is enjoying it through the eyes of a child. And you will certainly see more of the magic when your child is highly sensitive. Of course there are some special considerations, too. (And as always I recommend that HSPs read what’s written about HSCs. It helps us think about how we were treated as children and how we now want to treat that young, eager, easily distressed part of ourselves.)
Maintaining an Optimal Level of Arousal
It’s a time of great excitement and stimulation, so if the magic is not going to become mayhem, you have to pay extra attention to maintaining your HSC’s optimal level of arousal, and the more stimulation, the more arousal. (To review, everyone performs and feels best when in their optimal level of arousal–neither over or under aroused. But because the highly sensitive process more of the subtleties and implications of any situation, they are receiving more stimulation and thus are more quickly over aroused.)
Positive stimulation can be just as arousing as negative, especially as anticipation builds. The classroom, media, other kids tend to stir up just the right level of excitement for the 80% of children who are not so sensitive. For your HSC, you will have to temper this in whatever ways you have learned work best–for example, some extra quiet time after school and before bed, cutting down on other activities, asking friends and relatives to help by not overexciting this particular child, or declining some invitations in favor of quiet celebrating at home.
It can help to think of stimulation as being like calories–a child needs enough but not too much. And no matter how tasty and nutritious, there is a point where more is just sickening. Your sensitive child has a very efficient metabolism, so needs fewer stimulation calories. So think about each day as it progresses, or review it when you rejoin your child after school–how much more stimulation does he or she need today? How much more can he or she tolerate?
Sometimes the holidays arrive and there are already circumstances in a family creating high levels of stress (e.g. a divorce) or simply extra stimulation (e.g., a new baby). To manage it all, you will have to be a bit more creative. Find ways to “do less and accomplish more.” You simply can’t do the usual parties, meals, greeting cards, and pile of presents. That adjustment will be good for everyone in your family, even if you do it with only your HSC in mind.
Part of the solution is to use the holidays to help with the stress rather than increase it. Cut out everything that you can. Then focus on the original intention, largely forgotten in the hullabaloo, that the holidays should be soothing–a light at the darkest time. Familiar traditions can remind us of the constancy of the family. Religious stories can bring us back to spirit. Simple gifts can express the love each feels for the others. And if you do send out cards, mention the stress you are under to the people you would want to support if they needed it. Open to them. You won’t “ruin” their holiday. And if they ask you over, certainly don’t feel you have to reciprocate. At this time of year more than ever, people want to give.
Focus on Meaning
Even if you are not under unusual stress, you can focus on the meaning of these times, and sensitive children definitely provide an opportunity to do that. They will be thinking, feeling, and wondering about it all, and they will ask questions if anyone has time to answer them.
Why do we have a Christmas tree? Or, why do we light Chanukah candles? Why don’t the So-and-Sos do what we do? What does Santa Claus have to do with Jesus? Why were there only three wise men? Why do people give gifts? Why are the days so short? Taking the time to answer these questions thoughtfully is part of what the holidays should be about. We celebrate them to remind us of something, and to strengthen family bonds for all the other times when everyone is going their own direction. If we don’t follow the sensitive child’s lead and attune ourselves to all of this, the holidays truly can be just a source of over stimulation. A chore.
HSCs will also enjoy reading a portion from the appropriate scripture or story at each meal or at bedtime, making up other related stories (“The Girl Who Helped Santa” or “The Year There Almost Was No Chanukah”), or singing a traditional song or carol every evening after dinner.
Why Did You Lie About Santa Claus?
Here’s an example of a discussion you may find yourself having with a sensitive child. It comes from my own past. I was so delighted with all the fuss my family made about Santa Claus (hanging stockings, leaving food out for him, finding it gone in the morning) that learning that there was no Santa Claus was a huge shock to me. It was not just having been fooled, but that such a kind person did not exist. So the question of why my hopes were raised and dashed stayed with me, until I had my own son and figured out my own answer for him, improved upon here.
First, I would ask whether he was actually hurting about having been lied to, or if he is just curious why parents do this. If he was distressed by the breach of faith, I would let him talk about it and apologize in whatever way seems appropriate, hopefully without being defensive by explaining my good intentions, which would just make me the wise, good parent and him the bad, stupid child for being upset.
Eventually I think he would want a greater explanation, and I would say some things like, “I think everyone would like to think there is someone able to look after each one of us, personally, and know what we want and bring that to us. There’s God, but I guess with Santa people feel freer to play with their ideal–the reindeer, elves, jolly laugh, red suit. What do you think?
“And, I suppose the idea of Santa Claus is also nice at this time of year because no one has to feel guilty about receiving lots of gifts because Santa is said to come to everyone, rich or poor. He also dispenses justice: bullies and liars receive nothing. What a guy.”
I might say only a little of the above, or say even more than that if the interest was there. “In fact, there’s no actual person who can know everyone and deliver the exactly right present to everyone. But because of the idea of Santa Claus, there are many people trying to do that for the children around them. So we could say that the essence of Santa Claus lives at Christmas, even if not the super human version of him, and this essence has almost as much effect, maybe more. Look at all the gifts people want to give in the name of Santa! No other holiday equals the one ruled by Santa.”
Or I might say, “You know? These ‘lies’ adults tell children are not very different from what adults tell each other. Look at all the movies about Santa Claus. I think adults simply want little children to enjoy living inside that story, so they provide the men in the costumes, the stockings filled in the morning. The lies. Many people grew up with parents who did it this way and want to repeat it for their children, so it is also a tradition that we may do without even realizing we are lying. But I can see that it is very strange when parents who are always saying ‘you must not lie’ suddenly are doing just that. It is odd, isn’t it? What do you think about all this?”
I might also ask, “Do you wish I had not pretended to you that Santa Claus was real?” Then if he or she says yes, I would listen to why–showing my deep interest in my child’s needs and point of view–and of course apologize for this mistake in judgment with genuine remorse, but without shame. HSCs need to see one can admit to an error without feeling worthless. If the child tries to take it there, to a global judgment of the parent, it can be gently corrected. “No, I don’t think I’m a liar or always hurt your feelings. But I did this time, and I am sorry about that.”
Well, you might answer differently, or never face the question. But it is the kind of discussion you can expect to have with an HSC.
Helping Your Child Shop for Gifts
I still hate shopping and gift giving because of Christmas shopping as a child. I would have a certain amount of money to spend and be dropped off among the stores for a few hours. Soon I’d be overwhelmed. So much stimulation. So many options. I’d start looking for something for one person, then see a possibility for someone else. I’d worry endlessly about whether I was making the right choice, even after it was purchased. I’d be intimated by pushy sales people or the lack of anyone to help me. Often my allotted time would be up and I would have bought almost nothing, meaning I’d have more hours of it another day.
Now I advise others to do what I wish had been done for me. First, don’t make an HSC shop alone. It is so much easier for anyone if there’s a pal along who will just wander and look with you, not imposing, but catching on to your tastes and being your extra set of eyes and then offering a gentle opinion when it comes time to decide.
Second, help the child make a list. Do it before arriving at the stores. Let the child decide the amount to be spent for each person, and then suggest where items of this price would be found. Provide sizes. Encourage the child to ask what people want–that really saves worry. Or use catalogues or the internet to get ideas.
Third, if possible plan several trips, dividing them up as to who the child is shopping for today (e.g., just family today, next week friends and relatives) or into days for getting ideas and later days for buying. Encourage the child to make notes of possible gifts he or she spots, and where they were, so that it doesn’t all have to be remembered, because it won’t be.
Fourth, teach your child how to handle sales people–to ask for help, and also how to say no, firmly, or to say you’ll come back later after thinking about it. I once overheard a mattress salesman being trained. He was told to never, ever let a customer leave without buying. Lower the price, threaten it’s the last of its kind, say someone else is returning any minute to buy it, plead that you will not get your commission, describe vividly the health risks of not having this particular mattress–anything. Rather than being suckers, the highly sensitive can learn to be good at spotting ploys. Indeed, you might encourage the child to always leave the store and give it some time to incubate before making a purchase, and even to say that explicitly: “I never buy anything without thinking it over.” An older child can be taught about commissions and being courteous about seeing that whoever helps you receives what is due, as well as appreciating that helpfulness can have more than one motivation behind it.
Overall, use shopping as an occasion to help a sensitive child learn how to deal with decision making, something all HSPs find difficult. We don’t want to make a mistake; we’re aware of so many possibilities; and in the case of gifts we want very much to please. Again, advise your HSC to take some time to let a decision rest so that it can all be processed and intuitions can arise. But also teach how to make a quick decision when necessary–to finally chose, now–and how to deal with uncertainty. Sometimes there are things we just can’t know, such as whether the person already has this item. And teach how to handle all the second thoughts–“you made the best decision you could.” Or if a better item is seen later–“that was bound to happen with some things you buy, but we do the best we can, and things never work out perfectly all the time.”
Praise your child for well made decisions, not right decisions. Decision making can be a talent or a trauma to be avoided through indecision.
Finally, to reduce stimulation, consider helping your HSC do some of the shopping on the internet. The two of you can even do it together, going at your own pace, seeing things to add to a favorites file, and then letting it all incubate while you bake cookies and discuss it, or return to it the next day. Of course the internet can be equally overwhelming. Nor can you use all the senses to make your choice, adding more doubts. Furthermore, shopping amidst all the decorations and music may have its own appeals. So the internet might be the way to begin or end the task of shopping.
Make an End Run Around the Whole Shopping Absurdity
Some families choose to have presents be gifts of time and thought rather than something purchased. These gifts are really far more expensive and valuable. If you made a coloring book about your child and her friends at preschool, what would it cost in professional work not done? And what would it mean for your child, now and fifty years from now?
So perhaps your family would like to move in that direction, although might balk until they realize the possibilities. If enough creativity and thoughtfulness are put into a “personalized” gift (“homemade” is not cool), it can be better than anything in a store or found on-line. For example, if a child wants a pony and you can’t actually buy one, you might go to the nearest stable and arrange riding lessons or regular trail rides. Or make a connection with the nearest owner of a gentle horse, arranging for your HSC to learn to groom the horse and then come and do it as often as your child desires. Horse, child, and owner will all be happy. Now that’s a cool gift.
Could a child be as creative? An HSC could. You might begin with “gift certificates” such as “Redeem for a homemade chocolate cake” or “The bearer is entitled to a twenty minute foot massage” or “I’ll be your slave for one hour.”
Other gifts might be fanciful comic books, songs, poems, or adventure stories about the gift receiver. Super Sister Versus the Vampire or Dad the Deep Sea Diver and the Wreck of Doom. But have your HSC use a talent he or she already enjoys displaying, not something new–it’s not the time to learn knitting or a new piano piece. Look at whatever your child loves doing and consider who would like to benefit from it. (Let it be an early lesson about the rule that your chosen occupation should be such that “your own greatest bliss intersects the world’s greatest need.”)
Does your daughter collect rocks? Would someone like a simple collection of her spare rocks, each labeled with the name, chemical composition, and geological origin? Maybe your son likes to listen to others. He could offer his ears to a grandparent, listening to stories about the old country. Is he more the snow boarding type? (Yes, an HSC could like snow boarding.) How about offering one introductory lesson to Mother, going at her own pace. Or an hour of stories after dinner, entitled “Great Moments I have Known on my Snow Board.”
A great gift to the entire family would be a show of some sort, with puppets, magic, or stand up comedy about family quirks. Parents can do these, too.
It might even be fun to have a prize for the very best gift. But check with your HSC first about that. Mainly, it could be fun to be part of a family that creates culture rather than consuming it.
Happy Highly Sensitive Holidays
I hope these ideas remind you of your unique opportunities during the holidays to enjoy your sensitive child. Best wishes…