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My son (3yrs 9 months) is bright and generally happy, but sensitive and sometimes acutely anxious. The sensitivity worries me a little for the future. If something in a social context doesn't go his way (example: he momentarily misses his turn at something because another kid has less regard for turn-taking protocol than he does) he'll immediately cry, withdraw from the situation, and be averse to trying again. I'd like to help him be "tougher" and more robust to rejection, failure and confrontation. Otherwise I fear he's at risk of having a really miserable time with bullies when he goes to school: his reactions (immediate, loud, visceral, genuine) strike me as being exactly of the kind that bullies seek to elicit and enjoy playing with.

I have little idea how to do this. Aside from in-the-moment reassurances that it's not so bad, and maybe if you try again it'll work, or maybe this or maybe that, my only systematic attempts in this direction have centered on role-play. A year ago, he was a gentle giant among his peers: though larger and stronger than most he would let smaller more-aggressive children push him (surprise/shock, fall over, cry). With moderate success I started practicing a rudimentary martial-arts drill with him, in the form of the "pushing game": I go to push him backwards onto a mattress but he can decide, each time, whether he wants to stop that happening by blocking my hands and deflecting them to the side. He enjoyed it, got quite good at it, but I've no idea whether he's been able to apply it in practice. In any case, it doesn't generalize to help with that immediate visceral reaction he has to any social negative.

Where to go from here? From what I can observe, taking a tough-guy approach to toughening up one's kids all too often seems counter-productive, in the sense of just entrenching sensitivity and neuroses, so I'm wary of that.

  • Have these behaviours been observed while neither parent was present? – Ian MacDonald Sep 25 '18 at 18:26
  • @IanMacDonald Interesting question (enough to make me want to dig into the reasoning behind it). For now, erm, pass. Reports of interactions from daycare generally paint a picture that's not incompatible with the one I have painted. Reports of Isolated incidents I can think of tend to confirm it (e.g. he told me that a friend had called him a baby for crying when some minor dispute occurred between them). But perhaps that's just that such anecdotes only stand out in my memory when they happen to confirm my impression/fears. I'll ask daycare, when the next opportunity arises. Why? – jez Sep 25 '18 at 19:45
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    Sometimes people tailor their performance to their audience. It might be that you're seeing it because he subconsciously tends that way when you're around. – Ian MacDonald Sep 25 '18 at 21:03
  • Is your child generally resilient to frustrations and disappointments, and specifically sensitive to social situations, or is he of a generally more sensitive or reactive nature even when playing alone? – Meg Dec 5 '18 at 21:46
  • @Meg I’d say he has a lot of patience for a child his age, which translates into having a pretty high threshold for such things. When his threshold is exceeded, though, I’d say he doesn’t deal with it well, and when that happens the incident will cast a long shadow. – jez Dec 7 '18 at 0:45
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I understand your fears. It's difficult to watch our kids struggle with rebounding from setbacks, especially with the looming threat of school bullies. For what it's worth, I think you're a good parent for understanding the importance of being careful with your son's emotions, and for seeking advice on how to be even better.

Two concepts I think will help a lot with your son's emotional growth are empathy and curiosity.

I think we parents often worry so much about trying to help our kids "get over it", that we don't help them "be in it" and "move through it".

What I mean is, rather than trying to convince him that an experience is "not so bad", empathize with him. Experience is subjective, and in his experience, it is so bad. You can simply acknowledge this and hold a safe space for him to feel what he feels. This could sound like:

  • "I see that your feelings are hurt. May I give you a hug?"
  • "I see that you're frustrated. Getting skipped in line is very frustrating!"
  • "I hear that you're lonely. Sometimes I feel lonely, too."

The empathy and validation will help your child identify his own emotions, and see that he is safe and understood with you. Feeling safe will allow him to move through the feeling until he is able to think about solutions. Your job at this point is not to fix anything. You are just the safe place where he can feel whatever he feels without judgement or expectations.

Once your son's raw emotions subside, and they will, it can be helpful to employ curiosity. Ask him questions about the experience, with the intention of both understanding and helping him understand. This could sound like:

  • "Do you feel sad when people are unkind to you?"
  • "Did you feel afraid that you wouldn't get a turn when that boy skipped you?"
  • "What are some things we could do to help you feel better about trying again?"

Questions not only show your son that you care about understanding him, they help him think about his experience in new ways. They can help the two of you work together and get creative with your solutions.

Your son is still very young. With your help, he still has many years to become a resilient, self-assured adult who is also emotionally intelligent, sensitive, and empathetic.

This is extremely simplified, of course, as all parenting advice is. There is so much nuance, it takes a lot of practice and trial-and-error, and you and your son are unique people with your own unique problems and needs. But I hope this advice is a helpful step along the path. I highly recommend "Unconditional Parenting" by Alfie Kohn: https://www.alfiekohn.org/UP/

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