Raising a Sensitive Child: What Do You Do When Your Mood Affects Their Own?

This morning Anders and I played a game of true or false. As it turns out, he has more than a few misconceptions about the sea (Thanks, Spongebob.) and the predominance of his questions centered around the ‘lifestyles’ of its inhabitants. After sharing my limited knowledge on squids and starfish, our discussion concluded at the door to preschool with the mutual agreement that it is quite disappointing that squirrels do not actually don scuba gear and live amongst fish.

It felt good to have a conversation with him, even if it did give me an inconvenient insight into just how much cartoons can rot his brain. Unfortunately, this casual banter back and forth between the two of us has become infrequent in the last few weeks and, until recently, I was unsure of the cause  for the shift in his personality and our dynamic.

Anders has been quick to shed tears, withdrawn, and restless. It’s a list I ticked off over the phone to my mother when I called to ask for advice.

“I understand your concern and frustration,” she said. “I’ve been experiencing something similar with my daughter.”

I’m certain my eye roll was audible. “Please don’t start with me, mom. I don’t want to talk about it. You know I’ve got a lot on my plate right now.” My words came out at a hiss.

“I’m just saying, attitudes are contagious, you know. If you think his mood has changed maybe you should examine his surroundings.”

Then, without a thought or a moment’s pause, I hung up on my mother. I did it because how dare she! How presumptuous! How rude!

I did it because she was right. Deep down I knew she was right and I didn’t like it.

As parents, we are constantly on the receiving end of a wagging finger of  blame. Our children’s weight, their academic success, their manners at the dinner table — whether they maintain, excel, and behave or fail by society’s standards is a reflection on our ability to parent and I am failing on the most basic level.

My child is unhappy. Is there anything more important in parenthood to provide our children — food and shelter aside — than an environment that fosters happiness?

For any other child, the mood of a parent would not weigh so heavily on their own. My daughter, for instance, seems relatively unaffected by my ups and downs, but Anders has always been, and I suspect will always be, sensitive. He is an emotional sponge, absorbing the moods of those around him.

This brings me to a question that has plagued me since Anders began to communicate, how do we teach our children to cope with or combat a quality of their personality that we ourselves have been crippled by for most of our lives? This sensitivity to the troubles of the people around him, the tendency to internalize the woes of the world at large, it is both the birthplace of compassion and the death of joy if he fails to find a way to revel in the small differences he can make.

Sometimes I feel like I have infected my son with my shortcomings and, despite a lifetime of experience, I have no cure to offer him. I am the blind leading the blind, but at least it is a darkness I know. While I may not be able to open his eyes, I can help him feel his way through it.

That, and smile more. We could both be doing more of that.

Read more from Amber on The Daily Doty and Babble’s Strollerderby.

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