When we had our first baby, we could immediately see that he had Daddy’s face and Mummy’s eyes. At age six it’s clear that he has Daddy’s maths and Mummy’s language skills (not the other way round, thankfully!) and a host of our other personality traits in different measure. With three children now, we could draw a Venn diagram of their personalities and see where they crossed over. It’s funny how three people, so identical with their blue eyes and blonde hair, could be so different: #1 is a bundle of nerves; #2 is a free spirit; #3 goes with the flow. Pretty standard for three children. Mum says my two brothers and I followed the same pattern.
But our #1 seems to have inherited both parents’ tendency towards introverted over-thinking and this personality trait is a huge factor in our daily lives. We have to plan around it and, although we don’t let it dominate our daily routines, we’ve certainly learned over the last six years how it can make or break a day out, so we choose what we do carefully to avoid certain triggers.
For example, he had a major meltdown over February half term. We were going on a nice sunny walk around a coastal path, with the intention of visiting our favourite bookshop and then our favourite café. But because he got fixated that there would be DOGS on the loose (he’s terrified of dogs), he walked 100 yards and then refused to budge. He screamed, he declared that he needed milk (a big comforter for him), and because he is so eloquent, a tirade of insults came streaming out, all directed at us and as loud and awful as you can imagine. We could have forced him to walk, I suppose, or carried him but we decided Daddy would take him back to base and do jigsaws, and let him diffuse. The hard thing is not to react to the symptoms (anger, negativity, refusing to eat) and try to support him to explore the root of the problem.
Let’s break it down. This thing, this extra sensitivity to everything around him, can sometimes seem like an interminable round of not eating, refusing to participate, sniping at his gregarious little sister, stubborn lack of cooperation and down-right awful behaviour. And yes, during a bad moment it ain’t pretty.
But actually our eldest is not a little tyrant, he’s an intelligent and sensitive little boy. If he’s not relaxed on a cellular level, I mean really unwound and chilled out, not just quietly doped up on iPad and telly, then he can get himself into a knot and barely knows a) how he ended up there or b) how to untie it, and crucially c) how to let himself ask for help.
Because he is a thinker and bottles things up, he has these seemingly random thought processes, usually stemming from an anxiety he’s been battling with, and sometimes his imaginary (to us) fear puts him in very real danger.
Rewind to a particularly stressful school run in January. One those moments us Mamans dread. I’d crossed the busy road from the roundabout with #3 in the pushchair and #2 on her bike, and realised that #1 was no longer there. I was surprised and (stupidly!) shouted his name in angst. He RAN ACROSS THE ROAD to me. I think he did it without looking. Thankfully there were no cars coming and he was fine. But oh. My. Goodness.
“What happened?!” I asked. “Why did you run?” His answer was unexpected. He wasn’t worried that I’d crossed without him. Oh no. He thought there was a robber behind him!
This robber thing has been going on for a year at least. Some nights he’s refused to go to bed in case a robber comes and takes him in the night. He’s adamant that there are grannies with sharp teeth that want to eat him if he goes into a room on his own, so at home I have a little shadow. He also thinks sharks will come up the plug hole and eat him if he has a bath. Somehow, showers are safer so he now has a shower. We always lie down with him at bedtime and let his most far-fetched thoughts come out in the half-light. His worries, locked up in the day, all flood out during that precious bedtime cuddle. It’s often when a crazy half hour of behaviour in the day suddenly makes sense.
He really does have logical thoughts but sometimes people/life/emotions are unpredictable and he finds that terrifying. So if A could happen, then why not Z? Even if it’s a mad, illogical thing to us, to him he’s extrapolated the logic, the mathematical pattern, and can’t deal with the terrifying conclusions he’s drawn. If one dog is bad and bit a child, that means ALL DOGS ARE POTENTIALLY EVIL and this makes the school run through the park quite tricky.
I never thought he’d cope with school, because it’s such a hotchpotch of personalities and routines out of his control, but he’s doing amazingly. We are super proud of him for finally trying the hot school meals after a year of consistently eating the same packed lunch every day, and very little of that. As he’s growing, he’s working out that he can control his response to his environment and, for example, if there is an unwanted part of his hot dinner he can ignore it and eat the rest rather than letting a stray pea ruin his year.
Here are a few things that work for us (sometimes) now that we are finally working out how to help him process the world and deal with its unpredictable side:
- calming-down techniques such as counting down from 10, breathing slowly in time with each other, and taking him into a quieter space if he’s really stressed
- avoiding triggers like hunger, exhaustion, overly-stimulating or noisy environments
- having a selection of mindful activities (join-the-dots, colouring, craft, sorting lentils into cake trays) that he can do after school at the kitchen table, when he will often chat and debrief me about his day
- building extra time into the daily routine: we know he’s going to be slow/distracted so we start his morning routine earlier, and avoid getting frustrated that he’s not ready for school yet – it’s better for all of us
- jar of happy memories to help us all focus on the little moments (a shared make-believe game, or bedtime story with all three) that make up the majority of the day, and not the big outbursts, even if they feel draining at the time
Emotionally, he pushes us away more, but he needs love and affection more than anyone and finds it hard to ask. When he’s unwound and relaxed, he’s the snuggliest kid on earth. I always have extra cuddles, a listening ear, snacks, and a bumper pack of patience ready for the school run.
So if you’re there with an unsettled baby, or a toddler who shies away from all sorts of tastes and textures, perhaps you’ve got one of these amazing sensitive babies too. Hang in there. Get a sling (wish I had held him more those first months!), do some sensory play, and they’ll know that you’re there for them, even when they are freaking out about someone across the room having banana on their hands!
A Guest Blog from Cate Hamilton
Cate Hamilton is the co-founder of Babel Babies; multilingual, multisensory music sessions and loves helping parents and children learn languages together. She used to teach reluctant teenagers French, but realised after having her first child that babies are total geniuses at learning languages, and adults often wish they could speak other languages, so we should pair them up. She is a maman of three and enjoys (school) runs, photography and baking elaborate birthday cakes.
Find Babel Babies on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter and join the little language revolution that started in Cheltenham nearly six years ago when two sleep-deprived mamans said to each other, “Know Twinkle Twinkle in any other languages? I’m so bored of singing it in English!”