I grew up in a time and a culture that valued men who were "real" men and boys who were "bruisers". Indeed my own household, despite my fighting back, was largely testosterone-driven. My children's father had brought that insidious way of being into our lives -in his twenties, he was powerfully built and traditionally male. Our children idolised him; he was a huge presence in our lives. He was our anchor.
"My daddy is the strongest man in the world," our children would announce proudly to their classmates. Never mind that other people's daddies were professional footballers or PE teachers.
I was secretly delighted when my youngest son Jack turned out to be different. It took us a very long time to figure out what 'different' was. For the longest time, everybody in the family thought Jack was a mummy's boy, because I spoilt him.
How that hurt me.
I cossetted him because he was different, not the other way round, because there was a certain fragility and a vulnerability in him that I saw but nobody else did. "Nonsense," my mother-in-law used to say impatiently to me. "There is nothing wrong with him at all!"
Just because he was a handsome boy, it did not mean that he belonged to the group where bruisers belonged. He did not even belong to the sub-group of quieter boys, the ones who are labeled 'wimps'. He was just different.
"You're my Apple Head Jock," I used to say to him, because in a strange twist of genetics, Jack has been blessed with the most beautiful Celtic colouring of his forefathers: creamy white skin and jet-black hair of the Celts. And no, he did not have to toughen up. He is beautiful just as he is. He is special.
A man who understands this is Toni De Coninck. Like me, Toni has a very special son. For Alex is a Highly Sensitive Personality (HSP), a little known condition that makes him 'different'. And like me, too, Toni has fought countless battles, simply because things are not what they seem.
How could 'sensitivity' ever be described as a symptom, even a disease?
HSP has the inability to cope with new situations, whether pleasant or unpleasant. It leads to meltdowns and awful situations that the public simply does not understand. In our world of unexpected changes and fluxes, it presents a huge, if not impossible, challenge to maintain constancy and predictability at every instance. A handful of sand - normality in the childhoods of others' children - caused a huge upheaval in Toni's life whilst on a holiday.
"Dad, there are other people," Alex had said to his father poignantly.
The main challenge for Toni and parents like myself is trying to get our special children to talk about their emotions, and trying to keep these emotions from overheating. And for us to know that it is OK, have faith, and love will guide the way.
Toni has written a deeply touching book about his relationship with Alex. It is called De Windvanger (The Wind Catcher). My only regret that the book is written in Dutch, but it has given me comfort to know that I was never alone in my difficult journey.
Photo: (c) Toni De Coninck - with permission.
First published in www.RaisingHappyStrongKids.com