THE INVISIBLE WOUNDS FOR THE EMOTIONALLY SENSITIVE CHILD
All children have certain undeniable physical and psychological needs. They have the right to safety, to be protected from harm, to receive love and attention, to be spontaneous and playful, to have their needs heard and recognized, and to have appropriate supervision, boundaries, and guidance. On top of these fundamentals, emotionally sensitive children face unique challenges, for example with sensory sensitivity and emotional regulation, such that they require a deeper level of understanding.
The developmental differences for sensitive children usually become apparent before 18 months old. From as young as a pre-verbal age, they can sense that the way they experience the world is fundamentally different from their family. They may feel an omnipresent sense of feeling like a Martian visiting the Earth, and this feeling of lacking a ‘shared reality’ with those they depend on – for example, their parents – can be terribly unsettling and frightening. Also, due to their natural perceptivity, they are more acutely aware of and have more intense responses to what happens to them and around them, which may exacerbate the impact of any childhood difficulties.
Parenting a sensitive and gifted child can be incredibly rewarding, but it requires a high level of maturity and awareness. Unfortunately, not all parents are equipped with these skills. In fact, many parents of sensitive children are not intentionally abusive or exploitative, but their struggles or limitations have kept them from sufficiently fulfilling their roles. For some sensitive children, their gifts are not celebrated but seen as threats or symptoms of a disorder. For many others, their parents simply do not have the capacity to comprehend their exceptional nature or to adapt to their unique needs.
Childhood wounding does not always take a physical form. Our society typically recognizes the horror of physical child neglect, but not the emotional pain that comes from inadequate or deficient parenting. Psychological damage can happen in all sorts of subtle and invisible ways, from a caregiver’s lack of awareness, subtle put-downs, neglect, and allowing toxic sibling rivalries, to over-control and restriction of the child’s freedom and independence. From the outside, these parents may manage to fulfil all the requirements society sets regarding primary care, such as providing clothing and schooling, yet in these cases, the lack of outside corroboration of what is happening can make the invisible wounds more psychologically damaging. In some homes, there is even the pressure to maintain the illusion of a happy family to ‘save face’ or protect the family name. If your parents and society told you that you were loved, yet you did not feel it, this discrepancy could create immense confusion or a sense of guilt for not feeling as loved as you should be.
The problem is further complicated if your parents were themselves vulnerable. Perhaps they did not set out to be abusive or neglectful but were held back by trauma and difficulties in their own lives. As a sensitive child, likely profoundly gifted with heightened sensitivity, compassion and maturity beyond your years, you may have felt protective of your parents. When you saw their vulnerabilities, your default position would have been to defend and protect them. However, this protective instinct has held you back from acknowledging the truth of what was lacking in your childhood. You may be reluctant to speak about the issue for fear of attacking your vulnerable parents or caregivers. Perhaps when any question is brought up, you jump to their defence and claim that they simply did their best and meant no harm.
Of course, not all sensitive and gifted children were inadequately parented, and our aim here is not to criticize or blame parents. It is likely that they tried their best using the knowledge, resources and capacities they had. At the same time, however, the effect of having inadequate parental support can neither be pushed aside nor does it simply disappear, as a myriad of psychological consequences will inevitably erupt in later years. This chapter might be a difficult read, but it will help us to understand the impact of not having our emotional needs met. It is critical that we do not fall into the trap of simplistic or linear thinking, of blaming or victimizing. Instead, let’s see this as an opportunity to come closer to ourselves and our inner truth, and to make room for new insights that will help us heal and grow.
FORMS OF INVISIBLE WOUNDS
‘Just because they didn’t mean it doesn’t mean it didn’t hurt.’
To be emotionally and developmentally injured, the wounds you carry did not come from a single traumatic event, but from a pattern of traumatic events or a dysfunctional family dynamic. Here are some of the psychologically damaging family patterns commonly faced by an emotionally sensitive, intense or gifted child.
According to Heinz Kohut (2009), the psychologist who specialized in understanding the development of our ‘sense of self’, certain needs must be met for a child to grow and develop. One such step in a child’s development is to ‘idealize’ their parents. At least for a period, children must believe that their parents are powerful, knowledgeable and emotionally robust people who they can depend on. At an early age, it is by looking up to and admiring the adults around you as figures of power that you get to internalize a sense of strength and learn to find your way in this ever-changing, complex world. If, however, your caregivers were absent, vulnerable, or otherwise erratic, then you would have been deprived of such an opportunity.
Psychological studies have found that when faced with life’s challenges, people who have internalized a powerful parental figure will be able to adequately sooth themselves, while those who lacked dependable parental figures are easily traumatized and experience negative emotions for longer periods of time (Kerns, 2007). Of course, no parent is omnipotent or omnipresent: absences and let-downs inevitably happen. The real difference between adequate parents and those who are not lies in whether they have enough stability to contain – to a degree – their personal stress. Did your parents possess a robust support network and the inner strength so as to not seek emotional support from you? Did they demonstrate at least some degree of resilience and the ability to bounce back from life’s challenges? Or did they consistently allow an emotional overspill where you felt you must step in as a rescuer?
In her seminal work The Drama of Being a Child, psychologist Alice Miller (1995) describes how parentification is sometimes a result of parents using their child to fulfil the needs that were not met in their own childhood. These parents inappropriately depend on their empathically gifted children to provide them with mental and emotional support as well as refuge in unconditional love. Doing so places the child in an impossible position of having to be responsible for their parents’ happiness and well-being.
When parents lack the stability to lead their family, it is often their emotionally gifted child who steps up to take over the caring role. This role reversal in the parent–child relationship is known as ‘parentification’. Parentification can be when the child is made responsible for physical and concrete tasks such as grocery shopping or taking care of younger siblings, but more often, it means meeting other family members’ emotional needs, such as serving as a companion, mediating conflicts, and providing support and comfort. In some situations, your intuitive gifts and natural interpersonal intelligence might have been the only thing that kept your family together. The burden of these responsibilities – that should rightfully belong to the adults – forced you to grow up too fast, too soon. In a way, you were both your own parent and also your parents’ parent, giving you no one to look up to, seek guidance from, or learn from. Defenceless, and unsupervised, the world might seem like a terrifying place.
As a result of parentification, you have learned to reduce and repress your needs to make room for others at home, to the detriment of your freedom and growth. While your energy was devoted to playing counsellor for others, you might have missed out on the times where you should be allowed to be playful, spontaneous, make mistakes, and focus on nothing more than your own growth and learning.
If your family life from childhood leading up to today were being put on stage, would there be a kind of ‘fixed role’ assigned to you? For example, are you ‘the responsible one’, ‘the golden girl’, or perhaps ‘the emotional one’, ‘the strange one’ or ‘the black sheep’?
Theorists of Systemic Family Therapy use the term ‘Identified Patient’ (Minuchin et al., 1975) to describe the scapegoated person within a family with an unhealthy relationship dynamic. Of the many types of childhood injury, being scapegoated is one of the most insidious. Often, pointing the finger at one person as the cause of all evil, is an unconscious strategy used by some family members to evade their own emotional pain and suffering.
The scapegoat role is not assigned by accident. It is often imposed on the innately sensitive and hyper-empathic child because they often are the ‘whistleblower’ who sees through and points out the facade. As the family members ‘discharge’ their resentment, the child becomes the carrier of all the angst and suppressed negativity in the family.
Once the pattern is set, the family typically goes to great lengths to keep the dynamic that way – the scapegoat must remain the scapegoat – otherwise, the others would be forced to face their own vulnerabilities. What this means is that when the scapegoat tries to walk away from this toxic dynamic, they may be met with subtle or not-so-subtle emotional revenge, manipulation or blackmail.
- Here are some of the signs that you have been scapegoated in the family:
- Your parents treat you differently from your siblings.
- Your mistakes are blown out of proportion or punished disproportionately.
- Your parents do not intervene or take notice when you are being bullied by others.
- You always have the feeling that you ‘don’t fit in’ with your family, and you didn’t develop strong connections with them.
- When you thrive, get stronger and more independent, you sense that your family members are intent on bringing you down or dismissing your achievements.
- You are bullied by your siblings, or they ‘jokingly’ mock you for your idiosyncracies.
- Name calling – you are always ‘the weird one’, the ‘wild card’, or ‘the trouble’.
- Your family do not know who you truly are beyond the superficial, and have shown little interest in knowing.
- You are criticized for your natural attributes, such as your artistic or sensitive nature.
- When this happens, it may not mean that your family members do not love you, or that they are intentionally trying to harm you. Rather, their need to label you often comes from their vulnerabilities and the fear of their own inadequacies.
Children naturally find their identity in what is reflected back to them by their parents. If your parents always treated you as the ‘guilty one’ or the ‘responsible one’, you might have found it hard to shake off this ‘identity’ in later life. Even when you eventually cut away from this destructive family dynamic, you may still carry with you mental or emotional repercussions caused by living out such a role. As an adult, you may have trouble feeling safe in relationships, due to the early betrayal of trust in your family. You may intellectually understand that you are not the cause of problems in your family, but to shift the internalized shame requires deeper emotional healing.
The healing journey back from being the scapegoat can be a challenging one, where you zig-zag your way from denial to anger, and eventually freedom and release. However, you must realize that the cause of chaos is not you, but your family’s repressed anger and disappointment, and it should never have been your responsibility as a child to resolve anything. Once you can let go of this, and reacquaint yourself with people who see and cherish you for who you are, then you are on your way to living a vibrant and authentic life of your own.
THE EMOTIONALLY STUNTED PARENTS
Research has found that an important factor in the emotional development of children to a great extent lies in how warm, responsive and emotionally present their caregivers are. Just being physically present is not enough: they must be attuned to the children’s emotional states by providing feedback and connection.
In some cases, however, often due to their unresolved trauma, bereavement, and depression, the caregivers are emotionally stunted and cut-off. They are afraid of emotions and tender feelings and thus fail to connect with their emotionally intense child.
To fully understand the importance of emotional attunement, you may wish to watch a short video on YouTube of the ‘Still Face Experiment’. In the experiment conducted in 1975 by Edward Tronick, a mother was asked to keep a blank face and not respond to her child’s attempts to engage with her. When the baby received no emotional responses, he ‘rapidly sobered and grew wary’, made repeated attempts to interact with his mother, and – when his attempts failed – withdrew and turned away with a hopeless facial expression (Tronick, 1975). Though these events happened so fast that they were almost invisible, this study is a powerful indicator of the power of a parent’s consistent emotive attention. Since the original study, the ‘Still Face Experiment’ has been thoroughly tested and replicated, demonstrating that the impact of parental unresponsiveness is profound and far-reaching. Babies are not born with the ability to manage their emotions. Instead, they need to learn such skills by having another person provide them with emotional feedback. Without it, they are left with a sense of chaos, shame, dread, powerlessness and despair.
Children do not need to be severely abused; merely having no one to see and hear them for who they are can leave them psychologically damaged. You might have been clothed, fed and educated, but your parents’ robotic demeanour might have meant that you did not feel loved on an emotional level. If your parents were emotionally unavailable, they might have lacked the capacity to respect your intensity and natural passion. In fact, the depth of your feelings might have frightened them.
THE UNSEEN CHILD
For children to develop a sense of self-worth – a sense that they matter in this world – they must first have their parents validate their fundamental worthiness. This need is known as ‘mirroring’: children need to be shown by their parents, both explicitly and implicitly, that they are special, wanted and welcome. Mirroring can be achieved by explicitly praising, applauding, acknowledging and valuing the child, but it is the more subtle clues – gestures, expression, tone of voice – that can most often demonstrate to a child that they are loved.
No parents can be the perfect mirror all the time – after all, there will be times when they are not able to be there for their child. This too is natural, and not a problem if misattunement does not happen often and if the child is not left alone for too long. Children who have been sufficiently well-mirrored can draw on their own memories and internalize the positive messages from their parents into a healthy and stable sense of self. With enough good mirroring experiences, the emotionally healthy child will no longer need others to reassure them how good they are. As adults, they will have a firm sense of self-esteem and a belief that they are fundamentally good. If, however, the parents’ emotional distress or insecurities meant that the child did not get enough mirroring, the development of their sense of self would be disrupted.
A lack of mirroring and deep acceptance from parents is particularly detrimental to the development of sensitive and intense children, who need active support for the differences they already experience among their peers. Perhaps your parents only praised you for what aligned with their values, or when you performed well in your caregiving role – but not for who you are. If your parents only rewarded you when you conformed to their standards or fulfilled their needs, but did not support your growth towards your unique self, you might have come to the conclusion that your real self was not lovable, leading to deep feelings of worthlessness and insecurity in adulthood.
REFLECTION: FAMILY DYNAMICS
Let’s check in for a moment. Settle into a quiet place, and reread the above descriptions of various family dynamics in a receptive way. Notice your body’s response to them. Does your deeper mind resonate with some more than others? Does your mind want to pull away from some of them?
Jot down notes in your journal, or in an exercise book, on your emotional and physical responses. Notice how reflecting on your childhood impacts your perception of yourself, your relationships and the world at large.
If developmental inadequacy or toxic dynamics were present in your childhood, the process of reviewing your past can be tough and can trigger strong feelings. Resisting this process is natural and understandable.
At the moment you look into your painful past you must also, paradoxically, cope with sadness, anger and grief over what has been missing. Although we are not able to go back and change the past, recent discoveries in the field of neuroscience can provide us with the hope that we may recover from the impact these early deficits might have had. The continuing plasticity of the brain means that nourishing, healthy relationships and positive experiences can help heal these relational wounds. Despite what may have happened in the past, you have a choice now. By allowing yourself to acknowledge the pain of deprivation courageously, you can begin to reclaim your space, your voice and your place in this world.