Dear David Coleman: I worry that my sensitive son won't cope in secondary school

Dear David Coleman: I worry that my sensitive son won't cope in secondary school

Q I have an 11-year-old son who is very immature and over-sensitive for his age. If something doesn’t go his way, he breaks down in tears. He’ll do this anywhere, even in school, in front of his friends. I’m amazed they don’t tease him about it. He is the eldest of four children and honestly, his nine-year-old sister is more hardy than he is. I worry he’ll be more of a target next year when he starts secondary school so want to know how to help him before then.

David replies: It is tough being the eldest of the family, as parents often over-estimate a child’s relative maturity when there are younger children around. We can often have higher expectations of an eldest 11-year-old than we might have if the same 11-year-old was the youngest of four. I wonder if your perspective on your son might be different if he wasn’t your eldest.

Perhaps your son’s sensitivity is actually OK for him, at the stage he is at. It is interesting that his friends don’t seem to have a problem with it and they accept him anyway, irrespective of the tears. I’m guessing he has a lot of really positive qualities that are attractive to his friends which mean the occasional tears don’t matter.

It may also be that crying about something gets a particular kind of response from you that also offers him something valuable. For example, with four young children in the house, he may feel that crying is a way to be visible, or receive a caring response in the busyness of the household.

Comparing him to his sister won’t help him either. It might knock his self-esteem more to feel that you value his sister more than him, because she is “hardy”. It might also create some unnecessary sibling rivalry, as children are often attuned to the comparisons we make.

Sensitivity is a good thing, especially in boys, if it also means that they are emotionally more attuned to other people, as well as in touch with their own feelings. Perhaps his sensitivity is something you need to celebrate and promote rather than be critical of.

If his sensitivity is part of his temperamental character, then it might not be something he can change easily, nor might he want to. It will be much better for him, moving into secondary school, to value his sensitivity in terms of his self-esteem than to see it as some kind of character deficit that he needs to be ashamed of.

He will be young starting secondary school next year, so it might be a tough transition anyway.

However, holding such a negative outlook when there are still nine months for him to mature may actually do both him and you a disservice. I think he would benefit more if he feels you have confidence in his coping, rather than fear he won’t cope.

He might learn to deal with his upset in a different way, within that time, and he is more likely to achieve this when he knows that crying is an acceptable response.

Knowing that it is OK to cry allows us much more freedom to work out, and choose, when we will cry or when we won’t.

It might be great for him to learn that crying in public, for example, might draw negative attention, but it is also important for him to know that expressing his feelings is always okay, no matter where you are.

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