Very sensitive and fearful child

My son is eight years old. He's a good child but he's afraid of everything. He's a very SENSITIVE child, if you yell at him he starts to cry. He cries about EVERYTHING!!!! If any kid smaller than him bothers him he cries. If you barely tap him he cries. It drives me crazy. I don't know what to do.


Gayle Peterson

Gayle Peterson, PhD, is a family therapist specializing in prenatal and family development. She is a clinical member of the Association... Read more

Your approach to your son is on the right track. Building his positive self-image is primary. Find activities he does take an interest in that have a good potential for giving him an experience of success. But seek also to define a redeeming side to his uniquely sensitive nature. It isn't his sensitivity that is the problem, but his tendency to allow fear to abort his exploration.

Sometimes it is necessary to structure our children's activities so that success is assured rather than left to chance. Both boy scouts and Karate could be promising activities. If his weight is causing him some lack of coordination at this time in his development, consider swimming as an alternative. Because his body would be supported by water, swimming might prove to be an activity he could learn to gain physical control and mastery. I remember encouraging my own child who was overweight at that age to join the swimming classes at the local YMCA. Even though he did not pass immediately into the "pollywogs" when he did master the strokes he became very proud of himself. I assured him that I knew he could do it if he stuck with it. This particular success became a turning point for him at about the same age your son is now.

Let your son know that you believe in him to continue learning and mastering activities that interest him. Try a strategy of insisting to him that you want him to "give himself a chance" by going to an activity for 2 months. After that time, he and you can reevaluate whether or not it is for him. By then he may have gathered enough confidence and mastered his fears sufficiently to continue.

Your son is building his sense of mastery at this age and does indeed need to feel he can be "good" at something. But perhaps his talent lies in other areas such as art, music or reading. Be sure to explore where his special "sensitivity" may be expressed in a positive manner, too. For example, if he is sensitive to how others feel and whether or not others may get hurt, emotionally or physically, then he is also a very "considerate" child. At 8 years old it certainly is hard to know exactly who this little guy is, but you must try to find out! You may find the beneficial parts of his sensitivity can be expressed in taking care of animals, as another example. See if you can identify the positive side of your son's sensitivity and reflect this to him with appropriate admiration. His self-esteem will blossom from an authentic reflection of that which is truly positive in him. A constant anxious focus on only the deleterious effects of his sensitive nature will cause him to feel negatively about himself.

Also, consider the possibility that you may be looking at him through a gender lens which may also make you view his sensitivity as negative because he is a boy. You want to "protect" him, and so you might desire him to be physically strong, emotionally resilient and able to compete as a male. But his sensitive nature may later reveal a man of a more artistic or spiritual bent. You serve your son to remain responsive to the stirrings of his unique nature, for he will experience greater success in those areas that are, afterall, genuinely him.

Finally, consider your son's experience in his life of 8 years. Has he been hurt in the past in some way that would have caused what you experience as his "oversensitivity"? If so, trust issues may have developed which need to be addressed before expecting him to "carry on". Is there any traumatic incident(s) in the past 8 years of his life that may have caused him to need to retreat from the world in order to heal? If none of the suggestions given seem to work, have your son evaluated by a competent child therapist to rule out any history or experiences which may have proved damaging and need attention.

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