How I talk to my sensitive son about what he’s feeling

box of crayons in forefront

By Lorna Rose

As I’m leaving his room after bedtime snuggles, my six-year-old son calls me back. “Mommy?”

I step toward his bed. “Yes hun?”

“What color is happiness?”

I climb up next to him, wanting to take my time with my response to a complicated question. I want to engage him in the right way. “You mean what color do I see happiness as?” In the dark, against his pillow, I see his blond head nod. 

“I think I see it as yellow. What color do you see it as?”

He hugs his stuffed monkey as I rest my arm above his head. “Your favorite color is yellow. Does that mean you’re happy all the time?”  

“Well, no, not all the time.”

“What color is love?”

“What color is it for you?”

He pauses to consider. “A deep red.” 

We lie there for a moment together, and I listen to his low breathing. Beneath the covers his knees bend and his legs shift. From across the room his white noise machine plays ocean sounds. Its home is now the closet, atop a small bookcase he has placed there as his “workshop.” He has arranged his lamp and a puzzle in there as well, and a Tupperware bowl from the kitchen, a “hotel for my smaller stuffed animals,” he says. Part of me thinks he’s too old for white noise. But still he wants it, has always wanted it. 

When he was an infant, I was terrified of losing him to Sudden Infant Death Syndrome, or SIDS. SIDS awareness is everywhere for a new mom. I chose carefully the blanket he’d use in his bassinet, something light and breathable. As he got older and started sleeping through the night, I’d check on him several times, feeling his little chest rising and falling. In the morning I’d rush in to see him. Back then, his white noise machine played a waterfall noise. Throughout his infancy, it was my connection to him at night. As long as the white noise was playing, I believed he was alive.

“What color is fear?” he asks me now, then offers, “I see fear as sunset orange.”

I prop my arm up with my elbow and rest my head on it. Our bodies lie next to each other. “I think fear is brown.”

This kind of conversation isn’t surprising to me. From birth I had intuited that my son was sensitive. He has a way of experiencing the world deeply, as though each crayon he picks up, each note that floats up from his toy piano, each drop of rain on his skin holds some sort of secret dimension of which he needs to examine in its entirety. 

It takes him forever to put on a sock. 

Sometimes, when I’m speaking to him, mid-sentence he’ll look at me and say “What?” as though he has just arrived back in this world from another. And sometimes when I raise my voice to him, he tells me that I’m teaching him to be angry. Which, despite my best efforts, is true.

He writes songs about experiencing burning, unrequited love, butterflies flying at night, and roses learning to grow; about carrying other people’s painful loads and wearing a purple sweater. He’s already moody like an artist, and often abandons projects midway through, if he’s no longer satisfied.  

I love that he’s different. He was the boy who, at age two, was reciting his bedtime stories to us. He is the boy who sneaks away at his own play date to assemble a marble run in his room, who nails his wooden blocks together because he wants to build a national park in the backyard (the park would have a wooden plank road), who won’t dance to a song until his imaginary friends have put in a request. He’s the boy who tells me daily how much he loves his family. 

He’s also the boy in school who few classmates understand, who got sent to the principal’s office several times last year, who often is physically aggressive with his little sister. I don’t love those parts.

My husband and I need to be more patient with him, because I know saying “Stop freaking out” is not an effective way to stop a meltdown. To my everlasting regret, in furious moments I’ve told him to stop being so sensitive. It’s hard when he’s falling to pieces over a mistake he made while writing one of his stories or accidently coloring the sky the wrong shade of blue. 

In quiet moments, when he’s bedding down for the night, I tell him that he is my heart. Indeed, he is. I don’t tell him that living with him is like living in a minefield, that his obsessions are exhausting. I don’t tell him that I worry about losing him someday, and not just the kind of loss that every parent fears. 

I worry about not being able to reach him in his world, that the opening will someday close. Will I always have the white noise? Or will he disappear into another reality?

I turn to him now. “What color is anger for you?”

“Black,” he answers right away. 

“Me too. And babe, it’s ok to feel anger for a little while, for whatever reason. But I hope it won’t eclipse the yellow and red inside you.”

We lie together for a moment, and I put my cheek to his. “Let’s do Eskimos,” he suggests. We rub noses. The white noise fills the room and I, with every fiber in my lungs, breathe it in. 

Lorna Rose’s poetry and narrative nonfiction has appeared in several magazines and anthologies. She often writes and speaks about overcoming adversity, motherhood and writing, and about raising two neurodiverse children. When she’s not wrangling her kids, she’s often fantasizing about being interviewed on NPR’s Fresh Air. More here.

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