There's no need to 'fix' a highly sensitive child: Author

Sensitivity, in many cultures, is seen as a weakness, said Ms Leila Boukarim, a former sales development manager who now writes full-time. Her first picture book is titled All Too Much For Oliver.
Sensitivity, in many cultures, is seen as a weakness, said Ms Leila Boukarim, a former sales development manager who now writes full-time. Her first picture book is titled All Too Much For Oliver.PHOTO: COURTESY OF LEILA BOUKARIM

When Ms Leila Boukarim was raising her first child, she and her husband struggled with identifying why their son was "different".

Even as a baby, he made it "excessively clear" that he could hear the slightest of sounds, and had trouble sleeping as a result. He would become agitated when people visited and would scream in a crowded mall. Being in school and daycare was a "constant struggle" for him, said Ms Boukarim, 37, who moved from Lebanon to Singapore in 2013.

"It became clear he much preferred being around grown-ups or looking through his books over having to deal with the unpredictability and chaos of children his age... His feelings were big, which was lovely when he managed to process them, but heartbreaking when he couldn't."

It was only when he was about four that Ms Boukarim realised her son, like one-fifth of the general population, was what psychologist Elaine Aron has described as a "highly sensitive" child. Such a trait is genetic, with people who were born this way having a finely tuned nervous system.

To help her son, Ms Boukarim looked for picture books featuring a similar protagonist, but could not find any. She came up with her own story for him instead, later published as a picture book titled All Too Much For Oliver in end-2015.

Sensitivity, in many cultures, is seen as a weakness, said the former sales development manager who now writes full-time.

"When a child is sensitive, the world wants to 'fix' him or her and make this child less sensitive, or 'stronger'," she said. But such sensitivity can be a strength, as children understand emotion and are extremely empathetic as a result. When parents know of such a trait, they can then manage their expectations, sympathise with their kids, and stop measuring them against others, said Ms Boukarim, who conducted two readings yesterday at the SWF, on top of launching her second picture book, Aiden Finds A Way.

What parents can do is to be "positive and gentle" when communicating with them, as they can get hurt more and for longer if the opposite method is used. She and her husband have learnt "when to gently push and when to back off" to get their boy, now eight, out of his comfort zone. They have another son, four.

"When you find your child perfectly capable of doing something but is too afraid to go ahead, try and encourage them to move forward. Remind them you've got their backs... And if it doesn't work then, it might give your child the confidence to take a leap on another occasion."

Yuen Sin

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on November 06, 2017, with the headline 'There's no need to 'fix' a highly sensitive child: Author'. Print Edition | Subscribe