What was her experience with the human world? Pretty unpleasant. Her reaction was to cry, as if to say, “Leave me alone!” These difficulties played out at every stage of her development. As she got older, she was at times inattentive and easily distracted because she was so sensitive to the array of sounds, sights, and smells coming her way. When she found herself in a busy classroom for the first time, where kids bumped up against her sensitive skin, startled her with yells and screams during recess, and sometimes intruded into the well-defined, protective space she had set out for herself, her reactions ranged from tantrums to fearful avoidance. Jessica, everyone agreed, wasn’t an easy child.
While with Jessica and many other children, biology is important, it isn’t destiny. We have found that how parents relate to their children can make a huge difference in how youngsters feel about themselves and respond to their world. Imagine, for example, that because of her sensitivities to touch and sound, baby Jessica was easily overloaded and, therefore, fussed much of the time. Her mother, having similar tendencies, reacted to Jessica’s long tantrums with irritability and, more often, with anger and intrusiveness. When Jessica’s mother was very frustrated, she sometimes withdrew emotionally. Jessica’s father also felt frustrated. When his attempts at even gentle play overwhelmed Jessica, he began staying at work longer because he found it hard to face feeling so unsure of himself and his parenting skills.
On the other hand, imagine that her mother and father had been able to “read” Jessica’s physical makeup and signals and to help her learn new ways to cope. They found the right voice tone and rhythm, the most soothing touch. They discovered just the right way to hold her to give her a sense of security. Even when Jessica was upset and overwhelmed, they could console her by using firm pressure on her back, arms, and legs, for example. As she got older, they helped her comfort herself by verbalizing her feelings and engaging in certain activities, such as jumping and rhythmic games.
Most important, they gradually showed her how to take charge of her own environment. By introducing new experiences in small increments, providing extra security, and encouraging Jessica’s initiative, they helped her gradually become more confident and outgoing. Slowly but surely, Jessica was able to explore her world and the people in it. She moved from being easily overwhelmed and cautious to figuring out ways both to calm herself and to master new experiences. She even learned skillful ways to lead her peers into games that she enjoyed and which were not overwhelming for her. Eventually, her own emotional sensitivity became a basis for a developing sense of empathy and compassion for others, as well as leadership abilities. For many children, as they learn to deal with their physical tendencies and become more assertive, empathetic, and flexible, their own physical tendencies may change. Certain types of touch or sound, for example, may become more comfortable.