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Understanding Your Son

Key to Understanding Your Emotional Son

Your 11-year-old son still cries in response to something not going quite right. Is this normal, appropriate behavior? Should you be "toughening" him up? He likes to read, play the piano, listen to classical music and isn't interested in what society tells us is "boy stuff." Does this make him unique – or is he considered odd?

It can be a difficult subject to broach with young boys: their super-sensitive side. Not all boys are created equal. Each is unique. Each needs the same guidance as they grow into mature, responsible young men. Learning how to communicate with your sensitive son, without making him seem "abnormal," is not always easy for parents.

The Way He Is

"My son is a very sensitive and empathetic boy," says Drue Ann Hargis-Ramirez from Pomona, Calif. "He's almost 10 and will cry if his father or I seem the least bit critical of something he does – even if it's not how we meant it."

Parents who have very sensitive boys find that it is often difficult for their child to remain unemotional when faced with a conflict. The immediate response is to cry or become emotionally upset.

"It's frustrating sometimes cause he gets so worked up so quickly," says Cindy Elliot of London, Ontario, Canada. "I try to be patient and understanding, cause I know that he has such a hard time, but I just wish he would not overreact. He doesn't always give a person a chance to help him before he becomes overwrought."

Elliot wonders if her 10-year-old son will have difficulties in handling stressful situations as he gets older. She worries that he won't be able to solve problems without becoming upset – and that could prove embarrassing as he ages.

Dr. Jonathan A. Slater, director of pediatric psychiatry and the Consultation-Liaison Service at Children's Hospital in New York, says it's important for parents of sensitive boys and girls to realize that anxiety is normal. "Children must be taught not to run from it and not to be incapacitated by it," he says. "The real task is to teach coping skills. This must begin with defining what the anxiety is about and dealing with the specific fears and thoughts behind those fears."

Dr. Slater points out that some fears or concerns may be irrational and may be dealt with more easily, while other fears may be more specific. Communication is a good way to help your child to face some of those anxieties.

"My son has always been a bit more sensitive than my oldest, and now even my youngest, son," says Carma Haley Shoemaker of North Carolina. "He would rather play his saxophone than joke with the other preteen boys in the neighborhood."

Shoemaker's son is involved in a lot of outdoor activities as well as writing and drawing but she feels he gets his feelings hurt far too easily over jokes made by friends. She has tried to teach her son to just let things go and not to worry so much.

"I don't want him to lose his 'sensitive' side," Shoemaker says. "He is considerate, kind-hearted, loving, attentive and will often help others in any way he can if he thinks it will make someone happy. This is a very rare trait these days, and I'm hoping that as he grows older, he will at least keep a portion of what he has." Shoemaker feels that being sensitive has its benefits and that it's just who her son is.

Growth and Maturity

"There's nothing wrong with sensitivity in boys and men," Dr. Slater says. "Actually, it is an advantage because sensitivity allows vigilance to one's environment and improved perception, which can help people see things more clearly and plan better. It can also enhance relationships."

According to Dr. Slater, the key is to "use" one's sensitivity and not wear it on one's sleeve where it can be perceived as a sign of weakness. "That is something we must teach our children," he says. "Parents should avoid 'shielding' a sensitive boy and expose him gradually to situations where he is stressed, even if he resists."

In this way, the child's coping skills have a chance to improve. Dr. Slater suggests that although he encourages opening your sensitive child up to new situations, he does not at all advocate pushing a child to do something that they do not have any talent for, as in a particular sport or activity that requires true skill. Certain experiences, like sleepover camps, can help foster a child's sense of independence. A little "push" won't hurt.

"My son was never into sports at all like some of his friends," Elliot says. "I never pushed him too far but did encourage him to take a chance. He is always so afraid of what others will think of him. It's sometimes debilitating."

Parents have to be sensitive to the signs that their son is struggling with issues because of his sensitivity. No child likes to feel like the "odd man out." Encourage your child to try new things, but explain to him that he doesn't have to be perfect at everything. Tell him it's OK if he is not great at baseball; focus on his strengths to build his self-esteem as he matures.

Masculinity: How Important Is It?

"Involve your child in experiences such as something like martial arts, where he can learn to harness his sensitivity without it compromising function of performance," Dr. Slater says. "This type of activity boosts a boy's confidence, assertiveness and self-esteem as well as teaching self-defense skills and coping skills for situations where he might be bullied."

For a pre-adolescent boy, feeling masculine is very important. Often it helps for him to have contact with an older boy (sibling, cousin or big brother) who can help with "style" issues as well as help develop specific interests.

"Looking for 'challenges' that a child can face is helpful," Dr. Slater says. "We must teach the child how to experience upsetting feelings without succumbing to them. As kids master challenging experiences, they can draw on the strength derived from these experiences."

Be Sensitive To It

Dr. Slater reminds parents that it is important not to make their son feel bad about being sensitive. Instead, tell them how much of an asset sensitivity can, and will, be if they learn how to harness their feelings.

"I try to get him to stop and breathe when I see he is about to cry about something he can't find or something someone said to him," Elliot says. "I know he has such a soft heart that sometimes he just gets carried away. He worries far too much, and I remind him that most things are not THAT monumental that it can't be [handled without] getting too upset right away."

If you encourage your child's individuality while introducing him to new things that challenge his 'norm.' It will help to build sensitivity muscles so that he can use them in a meaningful way. Work with your child in order to help him face the challenges that will come as he matures. Teach coping strategies, but cherish the sensitivity that makes him who he is.

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