Christmas in school

Originally published in The Guardian UK a year ago.

There's a Hadeda in my Garden

At the end of November yuletide dinners are eaten in school and carol services sung (yes, in Autumn) and students head home for the festive holidays.

I work for a boarding school in the KwaZulu-Natal countryside of South Africa. Having left England for a gap year in Zimbabwe more than 20 years ago I am often surprised to find myself still in southern Africa. Moving south 10 years ago it was wonderful for our family to be integrated into the community that a boarding school provides; although work is pretty full on for the 60 or so full-time staff members who teach and live on campus, there is a lot of support, professionally and socially.

Working where you live has demands; in some staff houses you can hear the school bells ringing from around 6.30am through till 10pm and holidays are a much-needed break. During the term evenings and weekends…

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Helping sensitive boys

“Whether it’s fulfilling one’s promise on the sports field, or coping with a first term of boarding, being emotionally robust really helps.”

In this guest blog, psychologist and author Dr Rob Pluke gives advice to parents and teachers on how to help sensitive children rise to the challenges life throws at them.

Sensitive IMG_3515
Having a sensitive temperament is not a diagnosis

Same factory, different products

It is now widely recognized that emotional well-being and resilience are of significant benefit to a young person. But as most parents of two or more children know, we don’t enter the world with equal levels of emotionality. Instead, whilst one child seems to cruise through life’s challenges, his sibling is often overly cautious, too easily upset, and disconcertingly low on confidence. So for parents it really can be a case of ‘same factory, but very different products’!

Much of this difference may be due to temperament, by which I mean a child’s inborn personality. And it’s worth bearing in mind that roughly 20% of infants are born with emotionally sensitive temperaments. This is not a diagnosis – there’s nothing wrong with being sensitive. But when we appreciate the realities of temperament, we are more likely to understand that one can’t adopt a ‘one size fits all’ approach when it comes to dealing with children and teens.

Pause-to-check

Experts such as Elaine Aron and Jerome Kagan agree that sensitive children tend to be uncomfortable with the unfamiliar. For Aron, sensitive people have an in-built ‘pause-to-check’ mechanism, which perhaps explains why they don’t like surprises, or change, and are perhaps too quick to say ‘no’ to life’s opportunities. Teachers and coaches working with such youngsters would do well to understand that this ‘no’ need not be the teen’s final word, and that compassionate encouragement can go a long way towards helping sensitive boys to take up challenges they might otherwise have avoided.

Because sensitive teens can become moody or emotionally overwhelmed, adults who want to offer support need to be comfortable with negative emotions. But as John Gottman points out, we all carry unconscious rules about emotions, based on our own experiences as children. So take a moment to recall what happened when you were upset as a child. To whom did you turn and how were your emotions received? Were your upsets dismissed or even criticized, or were they treated with concern and respect?  Helping someone who is emotional can be demanding, but if we know our own default settings, then I think we can be less reactive and more available to the young person in need.

Pluke books
Rob Pluke’s book contains more detailed information on this topic

Two challenges

If I had to pick the two most common challenges for mentors and parents of sensitive teens, these would be:

  • How to cope with anxiety
  • Whether and when to push

Of course neither of these issues is by any means straightforward and this brief post can only highlight a few pointers that I think would be most usable and effective. More detailed information can be found in my book ‘Parenting the sensitive child’.

Coping with anxiety 

As regards the first challenge, I think that it can be tremendously helpful for anxious teens if they are simply offered a forum to talk. Within this forum, I would have three stepping stones in mind.

Step One: Just let the person talk about his worries. Make an effort to understand the issue from his vantage point. This builds trust, and the person feels understood. This is not to be underestimated! It’s almost not worth proceeding without this basis.

Step Two: Help the youngster to calm down. ‘Just’ talking helps a lot here anyway, but really stressed youngsters may benefit from taking a walk outside, or from being allowed a bit of a time out in a quieter corner of the campus. Once calm, people are better able to think, which means you can go on to the next stage.

Step Three: Help the young person resolve how to go forward with wisdom. We can’t always offer comprehensive solutions to a young person’s problems, but oftentimes simply focusing on the day ahead, filled with doable tasks and goals, serves as an excellent intermediate step.

I want young people to know that anxiety, although often highly aversive, is always only a part of who we are. Emotions may get big, but they need not define us. On the other hand, if a sensitive teen believes that he can only do life when he’s not anxious, then he is more than likely to be stuck.

To push or not to push?

As to the second challenge, Shoo! I think we have to accept that knowing when to push a young person past his comfort zone will always be debatable. If I push him, will he thrive or will he sink? Will he thank me or hate me? Surely this dilemma is best addressed within the three-step process outlined above. That said, I would think that without some buy in from the teen, one couldn’t go much beyond a single ‘push’ without resentment creeping in. Said differently, it’s very hard to help a young person meet a challenge if he has no intrinsic motivation.

But this is where trust and understanding are invaluable. If young people see that we understand, and that we are for them, then I have seen that they are able to reach beyond the murk of their emotions, and take hold of an outstretched hand.


Rob PlukeDr Rob Pluke is a psychologist in private practice. Over the years Rob has lectured part-time at UKZN and acted as supervisor on the Psychology Masters programme. Rob presents workshops and talks to parents and schools and earlier this year he presented a paper on his doctoral study at the 3rd Emotional Intelligence African Summit. He has also written several articles for parenting magazines. Rob has worked extensively with children and adolescents and is the author of the book, ‘Parenting the Sensitive Child’.