Tuesday, 8 October 2013

A Skin Too Few

    Since I wrote about the boy back in June, I’ve found myself silently observing him more, taking time to measure up his words and look for undercurrents. And I don’t know if it’s just because I am more aware of his similarities to me, or if he is changing, but he seems to have grown a skin too few.

     I said before that we have the same routine each morning when I drop him off at school, the hug, the kiss, the ‘Love you’ , another hug, the turning round to make the heart gesture at me. But last week, the final hug was lasting for longer and longer. I was having to prompt him to let go with ‘Come on, you’ll be late, there’s the bell, have a great day, love you.’ And I could see from his reluctance to say goodbye that something was wrong, although when he spoke to me about his day at school there didn’t seem to be anything out of the ordinary. But it was taking longer and longer to get him to go inside.

     On Tuesday, I had to take him into the cloakroom before he would release me.

     On Wednesday, I had to walk him to the classroom door.

     On Thursday, he still clung to me at the classroom door, and I ended up ripping a page out of my diary, writing him a little note to take in with him, telling him how much I loved him and all the good qualities he has, so if he felt sad during the day he could read it and feel better.

      All he would say about it was that he was missing me when he was at school, and he didn’t like saying goodbye. Yeah, nice try, I think it’s more than that. So after school on Thursday I sat down with him, and managed to coax the truth out of him. The New Girl.

     She’s been mentioned a few times, usually when The Boy is recounting something that’s annoyed him, and from what he’s said, it sounds as though being new has made her feel vulnerable, so she’s trying to establish a reputation for being a bit tough. Usually by causing problems for other children – kicking them, nicking their stuff, lying to the teachers about them, that sort of thing. The Boy’s been on the receiving end of it a few times, and my advice has been to ignore it, don’t respond, don’t give her the attention she wants when she’s being ‘bad’, but say nice things when she’s behaving better. Classic parenting advice from the school of pop psychology, along with, ‘Really, we should feel sorry for The New Girl, because she must be really unhappy with herself. You’re happy with who you are, so you don’t need to be nasty to other people.’ Yes, I actually said that. If I’d said ‘I think she’s jealous’ I would have won Middle Class Parental Advice Bingo.

     I very gently asked him if he was upset because she’d done something to him. And yes, she had, but it was also his friends. His friends were being hurt. And with tears in his eyes, The Boy burst out ‘It’s not fair! She made Other Children cry yesterday! I don’t care what she does to me, but she’s upsetting everyone in my class!’. I gulped back a few tears myself at that, and we agreed that I would speak to his teacher on Friday.

      So, feeling stupidly nervous, I went to see Mr G for the first time on Friday afternoon, reminding myself not to bark ‘Michael Gove’s Cumface!’ as a greeting. I needn’t have worried. The Boy’s teacher only qualified a year ago, and he’s ten years younger than me, but looks about twelve. I had to resist the urge to tell him to stand up straight and look grown ups in the eye. We had a quick chat, and without being unprofessional, he discreetly hinted that The New Girl had reasons for being The New Girl and that there were some ‘challenges’ to be dealt with. And then the killer blow ‘I know The Boy is a very sensitive little chap, his teacher from last year made specially sure to let me know that he takes things very much to heart. I’ll be keeping an eye on him.’

     So it’s not just my imagination. Other people see it too. And I’m worried. Because being the type of person who takes things too much to heart myself, I know how a simple throwaway comment that would barely register with most people stays with me. The one thing I’ve always tried to instil in my children is confidence, having been crippled by a lack of it myself. And it seems that whilst The Boy has the confidence to stand up to people, he has developed a tendency to take the weight of the world on his shoulders and let other peoples problems become his.

     I know that being a sympathetic person isn’t a bad thing, I should be proud of The Boy for caring about other people. But my concern is that by focussing too much on how other people feel and react, he’s going to always put himself last, just as he used to when he lived in his cousin’s pocket. And I want him to know that he is the most important person in his life, that it is ok to be selfish, up to a point, and he doesn’t have to fight on other people’s behalves.

     Take The Girl for example. One morning I was taking The Blondies and a classmate of The Girl to school (favour for a friend). The Girl was making up stupid jokes (‘What did the tree say to the cat? Aflimflam! AHAHAHA!’) and her classmate piped up ‘The Girl, your jokes are stupid and you’re not funny. If you don’t stop it, I won’t invite you to my party!’ The Girl just shrugged and carried on making up jokes. The Boy looked at me, aghast, his mouth a perfect O. Then: ‘Classmate, that’s a really horrible thing to say. The Girl would never say something like that to you! You should say sorry for hurting her feelings.’ (The Girl was at this point minutely inspecting a bogey she’d harvested, sublimely oblivious). I distracted them all by pointing at something, and considered it forgotten. Until…

     The following morning. ‘Mum? Are we taking Classmate to school today?’ ‘No, why?’ ‘Because she was so horrible to The Girl yesterday! What she said was really nasty, and she said it just to be mean!’ And every time we took Classmate to school after that, I could see The Boy watching her balefully, clearly on guard in case she said anything he could construe as ‘being mean’. Yes, I was proud of him for defending his sister, but at what cost to his ? Especially when the intended recipient of the remarks was wholly unbothered by them.

     And this wasn’t an isolated incident. It happens most days, from what I can see. And I don’t want him to necessarily toughen up, or change who he is, I just want for him not to feel things so intensely. I don’t want him to have a skin too few.

(I've been blogging more than normal lately. It's because of this post. It's taken me over a week to write it, and I'm not sure why I've struggled so much with it, but in an effort to distract myself from it, I was happy to seize upon anything else to write about).


Meeshie said...

Wanting him to not feel so intensely is pretty much the definition of wanting him to toughen up, hon. It's not a bad thing. At this point he lacks coping skills that he is really going to need.

If you don't have those coping skills either then you are probably not going to be able to impart them. This might not be a problem that you, specifically, can solve. This might better fall to your partner?

Meeshie said...

And I didn't say that to be snarky and now it feels snarky when I re-read it. I just.. there are weaknesses in all of us.. things that we cannot teach because it'll never be our strength.

That's where the whole 'takes a village' idea comes from, I suppose.

Being sensitive is a good thing. Feeling empathy for others is a good thing. Letting it upset you to the point of paralysis is a bad thing. There has got to be a coping mechanism in place there to keep the good and stop the bad. I just haven't a clue what it is.

Good luck :)

Lucy Benedict said...

You're alright Meeshie, I knew what you meant!

Although you are right about my partner - he just shrugs bad things off and our daughter's the same. (we're a very balanced family that way!). I suppose because The Boy has a tendency towards being sensitive and spends more time with me, I influence him more than I'd realised.

Hmm... Perhaps some father-son time could be beneficial...

Meeshie said...

mama's boy and daddy's girl? Too cute ;)

I think we tend to teach children to be more empathetic and to not look out for themselves. We do it because we want them to be polite.

"Timmy wants to play with that.. share with Timmy" Even if your child is still really into that toy and sharing means no longer having fun.

"Buffy is just mean because things are hard for her" Even though she's hurting your kid and that should never be acceptable.

Society tells us that parenting that way is correct but I'm starting to think that maybe society can kiss my fluffy butt.

Anonymous said...

I haven't anything constructive to say other than this post really resonated with me and your relationship with the Boy is clearly something you both treasure. But yep, getting some Father-Son bonding time might help redress the balance and thicken the skin.
And when my boy was perpetually bullied at school for being 'different' it only finally stopped when he hit them. Partly because it was so unexpected, but it also got him some respect. Sometimes Jungle Law wins - even though we know it shouldn't xx

Anonymous said...

I have a very sensitive boy like that, he cries often at other people's distress. He cares (too?) deeply about other people's feelings and fairness.

We have told him that he is great fro being so caring, and there is nothing wrong with him (some kids tell him he cries too easily) but we helped him with coping strategies:
- walk away from unkind children
-standing up for your friends
- go to an adult (teacher) if something bad/unfair is happening in the playground/class
- you can always talk to me
- you can tell someone to "please stop doing that" without getting angry or upset. Just stating it is helpful.
- if targeted by kids trying to upset him, say "whatever".
- if he gets upset about poor children, homeless people, the sick we do something practical (a donation, or taking food to "shelter")

He feels a bit less helpless now.

Vicky said...

This reminds me a lot of my own relationship with my own son. He is very sensitive too ( like me ) and worries a lot. My daughter is much more resilient and reminds me more of my husband. In terms or nature/nurture I do believe that some of these attributed can be inherited and I'm quite shocked when my son talks about some of his worries or nightmares/night terrors, because they are so similar to what I remember as a child. I have tried a lot of things to try and help, including relevant literature for children about coping with anxiety, encouraging him to attend clubs and groups etc. These have all helped to a degree but the thing that has made the biggest difference is my son finding a new friend that he gets on with and doesn't feel under pressure with. I think his friend is more open minded than some of his previous friends because his mother has a disability. Just stick with it! Your son is very lucky to have such a caring mother. We just need to have faith that our children will come through it all and develop their own ways of coping with and enjoying life!

Lucy Benedict said...

For some reason blogger's gone all weird with notifications, so I didn't see these comments before - sorry for not replying!

I realised last week that I'm probably more the problem than the boy... I was chatting to another mum whose daughter (a friend of The Boy) had been very upset by something that happened at school. So having worried that The Boy is too sensitive and worries too much about other people, what did I say to him? 'M's been very sad about something, can you keep an eye out for her, and let the teacher know if she's upset?' Face met palm after that.

A lot of the advice here is really helpful and practical, rather than just talking to him, which I do a lot/too much. Will definitely be using a lot of it, but I think the main thing is to make sure The Boy spends more time with his Dad, so he can see there's more than one (neurotic, crazed, irrational) way to approach life.