Ted Zeff, Ph.D.
Did you know twenty percent of the population has a sensitive nervous system, and the trait is equally divided between males and females? Therefore, 20% of all males are sensitive, or one out of every five boys has a finely tuned nervous system.
A highly sensitive boy (HSB) can be easily overwhelmed by noise, crowds, fearful of new situations, and shy away from aggressive interactions. He generally reacts more deeply and exhibits more emotional sensitivity than the non-sensitive boy, which unfortunately could result in being bullied.
According to the National Association of School Psychologists, 160,000 children miss school every day in the United States for fear of being bullied; more than 50 suicides have been linked to prolonged bullying; and approximately 85% of school shootings have revenge against bullies as a major motive. School-related bullying has led to depression and poor school performance in many children.
Although research has shown that infant boys are more emotionally reactive than infant girls, by the time boys reach the age of five, they have usually learned to repress every emotion except anger. Societal values emphasize that males should be aggressive, thick-skinned, and emotionally self-controlled, which is the opposite of a sensitive boy. When boys don't conform to the “boy code” and instead show their gentleness and emotions, they are usually ostracized and humiliated.
Bullies tend to target kids who seem different from others. Since the eighty percent of non-HSBs are hardwired neurologically to behave in a different manner than the twenty percent of HSBs, many sensitive boys do not fit in with the vast majority of boys and risk being bullied. Bullies also target kids who don't fight back and who react deeply to teasing. Research shows that 85% of HSBs avoided fighting, and most sensitive boys react more strongly to bullying than other boys.
How can we prevent our sensitive boys from being bullied?
Develop Confidence in your Son by Support from Mom, Dad and Other Adults
The unconditional love and support from parents and other adults will give your son the confidence he needs to face difficult situations. Unfortunately, when the burden is placed on one or two frequently stressed-out adults, it's difficult to give the unconditional love and support a sensitive boy needs. Studies have shown that boys who had positive, loving relationships with other adults (grandparents, aunts, uncles, etc.) reported having more positive experiences as a child than those who did not have these additional relationships. Sensitive men from India and Thailand reported experiencing happier childhoods than those from North America, which may be due to the role of the extended family and community in raising children in those cultures. So invite your extended family and friends to share their love with your son.
Some people believe that boys need stronger discipline than girls. However, your sensitive son can learn a lesson better when he is calm and receptive, so when you are disciplining your son it’s vital to talk to him in a gentle manner. When you set limits in a calm, yet firm manner it will not lower his self-esteem.
Mothers generally spend more time with their children, so they are frequently in a position to bolster their son's confidence. However, fathers (or uncles, grandfathers, or other male role models) need to spend special, positive time with their sons. While a father needs to teach his son how to stand up for himself, he also has to understand, protect, and encourage his sensitive son. Both the father and the son benefit when dad accepts his son’s trait of sensitivity instead of trying to mold him into a non-HSB. It's important to model setting limits with others so that your son will learn how to set boundaries if he is humiliated for his sensitivity so he won't get bullied.
Make School a Safe Place for your Son
Parents should regularly discuss their son's progress with his teacher, talk to other parents, and volunteer in the classroom. If you find out that a teacher is mistreating your son, you need to immediately let the teacher and principal know that their behavior is unacceptable. If the teacher is not receptive to changing his or her behavior, you should not let your son remain in the classroom.
If your son gets bullied in school, it's important to let him know effective methods to handle the situation. According to the Youth Voice Project, which surveyed 11,000 teens in 25 schools, the most effective solution to stopping bullying was accessing the support of adults and peers. Less effective strategies were ignoring the bullying, telling them to stop, and walking away.
Learning self-defense can give your son more confidence when confronted by bullying. You could ask the P.T.A. or the principal to arrange for a professional to come to the school to offer an anti-bullying program. If your son has tried the methods I mentioned above, but the bullying does not stop (or becomes violent), contact your son’s school. Your son’s safety and sense of well-being is of prime importance, so you have every justification to bring the issue to his teacher, school counselor, and/or principal. If your son’s physical safety is in jeopardy and the school authorities won’t intervene, you could contact the police. However, it may be more prudent to remove your son from a potentially physically violent situation if the bullying escalates to that point.
The good news is that there are options to attending public school, such as progressive private schools (i.e. Montessori, Waldrof, Steiner) that may be more conducive to your son’s emotional and educational needs than a large public school. Homeschooling is ideal for most sensitive boys since the HSB thrives in a safe, quiet, less-stimulating environment where they are free to pursue both core and creative subjects at their own pace. To compensate for the lack of social interaction, it’s important for your son to get together with other children who are also being homeschooled, hire tutors, and enroll him in special classes.
Help your Son Obtain Peer Support through New Friendships
Most boys prefer to socialize in large groups, yet our sensitive boys usually prefer to interact with only one friend or play by themselves. Since they shy away from aggressive, combative interactions, HSBs may have difficulties making friends with other boys.
It may be better for your son to have just one friend rather than trying to be accepted by a group of non-HSBs. However, it could be beneficial for your son to learn how to navigate through the majority nonsensitive boy culture as long as the friends involved remain respectful. Take some time to discuss friendship with your son and emphasize how important it is to be with friends who respect him. It’s important for your son to create a balance between spending time alone and with friends or he may not learn successful interpersonal skills.
Help your Son Become Physically Fit
When a boy becomes involved in sports, he feels accepted by his peers, which increases his self-esteem. Most boys are involved in some team sports but research indicates that 85% of sensitive boys did not participate in team sports and most preferred to participate in individual exercise. Since HSBs do not perform well under group pressure and may be deeply hurt by the cruel culture of malicious “boy teasing” while playing sports with other boys, they generally avoid such interactions.
Regardless of athletic ability, it’s important for your son to participate in physical exercise since it will help him become healthier, stronger and more confident. When an HSB has someone to teach and encourage him how to play various games, he could thrive, even in the insensitive world of male sports. However, before your son joins a team, you should talk with the coach and possibly other parents to make sure that the players are treated with respect and are not overly competitive. The key is to find athletic activities that your son authentically enjoys.
As previously mentioned, learning some form of self-defense can really empower a sensitive boy, helping him feel safe and better able to fend off bullies if needed. It’s important to let the instructor know that your son needs support from the trainer. The sensitive boy who masters some form of self-defense becomes less fearful, more confident and frequently more sociable.
Increase Your Son's Self-Esteem
Research has shown that the more dissatisfied a boy is with his body, the poorer his self-esteem. Therefore, a sensitive boy who reacts more deeply to teasing about his physical appearance than a non-HSB is at risk for developing low self-esteem. Though the media can be a strong influence on your son, as an adult in his life you are the stronger influence by letting him know that his body is perfect exactly as it is. Discuss how the media is perpetuating myths about what a male body should look like.
An important aspect of a positive body image involves good health. Stress affects health and since your son may be more vulnerable to stress than the non-HSB, it’s important to help him maintain a preventative health-maintenance program by making sure he eats a healthy diet, take supplements, gets enough sleep and regular exercise.
Finally, while your son's self-esteem may be diminished by his not fitting in with nonsensitive children, he will feel worthwhile as he receives nourishment from his spiritual pursuits. Since most HSBs have a proclivity toward spirituality, you can increase his self-esteem by encouraging your son to learn meditation, prayer, spend time in nature, or read spiritual books about the great sensitive and compassionate spiritual heroes like Christ, Moses and other saints and sages.
There are millions of parents of sensitive boys trying to help their sons cope in a world that does not appreciate sensitivity in males. I'm sure that as you begin using the suggestions in this article you will start seeing a positive change in your son as he becomes a strong, confident, and happy boy.
About the Author: Dr. Ted Zeff is the author of The Strong, Sensitive Boy
For more information please visit www.drtedzeff.com