Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Matthew...A Sensitive Soul.

In the number of weeks, two dear friends have told me how special and remarkable a boy Matthew is.  I've been thinking about that/him quite a lot.

When I think of Matthew, two things come immediately to mind.  First, I am so thankful that he and I have a very, very close relationship.  I know this kid so well, and I'd say it's reciprocated.  I understand his fears and heartaches, usually know how to help him manage and meet his needs, and we are great together.  I both love and really like my eldest kid, and I don't usually take for granted the bond that we have.

The second of many things that comes to mind when I think of Matthew is how sensitive a soul he is - and how he has been sensitive from pretty much day one of his life.  It is one of his loveliest and one of his most challenging characteristics.  He is quite a complicated kid.  In some ways, he is challenging to raise well because of how highly sensitive child he is as well as how philosophical he is.  He feels and thinks everything very deeply and is quite fragile in many ways.

His sensitivity used to affect him even physically.  As a toddler and pre-schooler, his hearing was so sensitive that we had to buy him special ear protectors for most special events (and many non-special events) because he simply couldn't handle volume.  I remember taking him to a circus when he was three or four and we spent all but the first ten minutes in the vestibule area where we could hardly see anything, simply because even his ear protectors weren't enough to keep out the loudest of the noises (think motors revving, the ringmaster's calls).  His eyes were extremely light sensitive to the point where we needed to have our vehicle windows tinted in order to allow Matthew a pain- and tear-free car ride.  His skin was sensitive to clothing labels and socks and things being tied too tightly or too loosely and he had very little tolerance of anything that tasted too strongly.  Even his body's inner workings were sensitive, so that if he ate too quickly or even a bit too much or didn't give himself lots of time between bites of food, he would throw up (and did, often, to the point where we had him checked out by our family doc).  He was so shy as a young boy and would often simply cling to me or want to be with me when we were out and around other people.

These things used to frustrate me from time to time, especially when I would see other kids his age acting more 'typically,' until finally (I'm a bit slow) I simply realized that everything about him was sensitive and I needed to accept that and meet his needs exactly where he was at.  That made everything easier.

These physical, senses-based aspects of his sensitivity have gradually lessened over time, to the point where we don't notice it too much any more and rarely have to take extra precautions:  His clothing has labels now; his ear protectors aren't used very often; he likes mildly spicy foods now; and he is able to eat faster than ever before without any ramifications.  He's still shy at times, but to me that means he's still well attached to his family, at least until he gets to know someone a bit better - and I'm more than ok with that.

Matthew's emotional fragility is still quite striking, though perhaps not readily apparent to those who don't know him well.  His sensitivity is something that I hope he never loses and that I hope we never drill out of him by being too harsh or un-accepting of it, but it's also the thing that's going to cause him pain throughout his life.

It is this aspect of his being that made most of the last year very, very difficult for Matthew - it was sooo hard for him to adjust to having siblings, despite how much he longed and waited for them and even though he loves them with everything in his big, tender heart.

The single hardest part of our first ten months at home with Seth and Lizzie was, for me, watching Matthew go through what he has gone through to make the adjustment to being a family of five.  This was far harder for me (and on me) than figuring out how to deal with Seth's and Lizzie's traumas.  So often, I simply knew that Matthew needed an escape, but he was unable to be without me "for fear of losing his place in the family" (his words), and I refused to pressure him to leave me when he had such insecurities.  He'd gone from having me all to himself for 7.25 years to having to share me with two other kids - kids who were highly needy, older, close to him in age (only sixteen+ months separate Matthew and Seth in age, and only forty months separate oldest from youngest), not cute little babies to cuddle with, very opinionated and unwilling to succumb to anyone else's will, traumatized, unable to communicate, and screaming all of the time.

It just about did Matthew in...which just about did me in.  I completely believe that watching Matthew transition and being unable to stop the worst of the pain of it for him was the single biggest reason for my depression last fall/winter; I still can't think/talk about this aspect without a knot tightening around my heart and a lump clogging my throat.

Do I think that it is the best possible thing for him to have two siblings and to have gone through what he went through?  Yes.  I do.  But oh, watching him go through that... that's one of the big top 10 painful things in my life...I can only imagine how he will remember last year.

Thankfully, oh so thankfully, most of those issues are behind him now.  Not all of them, and sometimes I think it will take another full year (or more?) for him to fully adjust.  I'm very thankful, too, for all of the years when it was just him and me together; somehow, despite how hard that made the transition, I also think it contributed to his ultimate feeling of security.

There are a lot of downsides to being such a sensitive person (in addition to having problems adapting to new siblings!).

For example, Matthew can be deeply wounded by someone treating him in a way that feels unfair.  Feeling left out by others, worrying if someone may have looked at him oddly...these things are magnified in his heart and can take a long time for him to work out.

Matthew is very heart sensitive to voice volume and tone; I have learned that I simply cannot yell in our house...even when I really, really need to. He reacts physically when someone speaks to harshly too him.

He is very hurt and remembers if someone breaks a commitment to him, even a very small one.  Those wounds need tending (usually with help from his mama) and usually lots of discussion.  I am extremely cautious about making commitments/promises to Matthew, quite frankly because I want him to be able to trust that when I say I will do something he can know that I will do it; this is one of the things that has led to a high degree of trust between us.  Just the other day, when Seth was mad at me because he didn't think I would remember what I said I would do the next day, Matthew piped up and said to Seth that "really, Seth, Mommy is great at doing what she says she'll do. Really."  That did my heart a lot of good to hear...and Seth accepted the word of his brother with a simple "ok"...also good to hear.

Behaviourally, being sensitive also means that Matthew can have a sudden and fierce temper when something doesn't work out for him; he will lash out at other people (usually his family) out of his hurt or anger.   As he gets older and has begun to develop mixed feelings, he is more and more often to stop himself from using his fists to express his hurt or anger, but that's been a work in progress over the past year of adjustments.  And, like many children but sometimes more extremely than other children, he usually needs time to transition from one thing to the next, or time to adjust to changed plans. (think of this in context of going from one child to one of three!)

There are lots of pluses to being sensitivity, though.

Matthew's sensitivity leads him to be extremely non-competitive (he is the opposite of Seth in this way!).  This can be a little frustrating at times, and not everyone will view this as a strength of sensitivity, but there is a way in which it is very endearing.  For example, he almost entirely refuses to participate in any competitive game - not because he is worried about losing, but because he worries about all of the kids who won't come in first and how that will make them feel.  He feels more keenly about others not winning than about himself coming in second/third/last.  When we were at Disneyland in December, it took all of the thirty minutes that we stood in line for the racing car ride to assure him that, despite the name of the ride, the cars weren't racing against each other - that they were, in fact, on a track designed to keep one car behind another.  He doesn't want to be on a soccer team (we tried that route for two springs in a row) because he doesn't want to have to steal the ball from anyone else and feels hurt if someone tries to take it from him...he'll just let them take it, but then feels frustrated by not having time with the ball.  Same with hockey.  So we've let those sports go for the time being and are happy to work with him in areas where he can enjoy himself and excel a little more easily.

From a parenting perspective, another plus of having a sensitive child is that I have never, ever had to deal with issues of lying from Matthew.  His conscience is very powerful.  In fact, he would tell you himself that he has lied one time to me...and that's it.  That happened when he was four or five, when I had asked him not to eat dessert when visiting his cousin for supper (an impossible task in the first place, I wager!) because we were having a special dessert that night when he came back home and I wanted him to be able to participate in that.  He confirmed later that he hadn't eaten any dessert.  Well, a day later, Matthew tearfully and inconsolably confessed that he had had one bite of dessert at my sister's house and he felt absolutely TERRIBLE about it.  If reminded about that even today, years later, he might still be moved to tears about it.  He sometimes gets his facts or his story wrong, and he regularly misunderstands something and puts his misunderstanding out there as a truth, but it is not an issue of willingly telling me an untruth.  He just doesn't lie, even when telling the truth is to his own detriment, and it bothers him hugely when others do.

One aspect of his sensitivity that has amazed and moved me for many years is how Matthew's sensitivity leads him to talk to God from the quiet of his heart.  He asks great (and often hard!) questions about God and often has incredible insights into the spiritual realm as well.  He amazes me with the straightforwardness of his faith despite the questions he poses.  I hope he never loses this.

With all of the changes we've had around here in the past year, one thing that Geoff and I have tried to do fairly carefully is to have time with Matthew when it's just him.  Thankfully he's the oldest and a night owl, so he can go to bed later than the other kids - that fits into this plan and meets his sensitivity needs quite regularly.  Geoff or I will occasionally take him out to Tim Hortons during this time, or to run an errand.  But very often we just stay home together.  Usually I'll read to him or, lately, as Matthew's interest in reading picks up a little, he'll even read out loud to me.  We cuddle up on one of the chairs in our home library and cover up with a blanket, and we just talk or read out loud.  Sometimes we'll sit at the kitchen table - me reading and Matthew eating peanut-butter-smeared bananas.

I've increasingly realized how crucial a time these evenings are for Matthew.  In the past couple of months, I've more and more often made the decision to simply let go of needing to get chores done during that time (or Geoff will clean up the kitchen while I'm reading with Matthew, or something like that).  It often means that things stay undone for a long period of time around here, but everything runs more smoothly if this time is spent with Matthew.

Because of Matthew's sensitivity, how our days go at home on a day-to-day basis depends on how Matthew is doing.  I've seen this pattern over and over.  I've changed how I greet him in the mornings, ensure we have time together in the evenings, and am very careful with him during the days...simply because his emotional fragility can have a huge impact on both him and the rest of us.  I would not call Matthew a low maintenance kid!

But those friends who have recently spoken to me about how terrific a kid Matthew is are right.  He truly is.  He's a heart-felt kid, intelligent in a philosophical kind of way, and a kid who is very caring and a delight to be around.  Sometimes I look at him and just think "wow - how lucky a woman am I?"  His sensitivity can be a lot of work, but I wouldn't have him any other way!

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