The heart blanket: For dealing with a sensitive child


In the initial days of our marriage, even before we seriously thought about trying to have kids, we occasionally fantasized about our future children. These fantasy children would have the best of our genes. “Your curls for sure!” I would say wishfully, reveling in the luxuriant, springy bounce of the dark head next to mine. Apart from the hair, I also hoped for some personality traits from the husband such as patience and tranquility as well as the ability to do whatever the hell you want without the least bit of self-consciousness or worry about what anyone else might think.

Well, while I lucked out on the curls, Rumi has so far turned out to be a mini-me in person. Very particular and proper, she wants her cutlery on the table at just the right angles, her blanket facing a particular way up and matching underwear for all her frocks. Matching means exactly the same shade, so a pink chaddi on a pink frock is obviously the way to go for idiots because “Mumma the chaddi is light pink whereas the dress is Fuchsia”. Yes really, the child is obsessed with shades and we spend a lot of time looking up names hitherto unknown to us such as celadon and millennial pink.

Apart from a shared color obsession, we also share an impatience gene and the gene for setting impossibly high-standards and getting highly frustrated with the self when those standards aren’t met. (Rumi bursts into tears when she cannot fold her bedding into neat, crisp squares like I can, and my God, just 25 years back I was doing the same with my Mum. Yes, my mum is breaking into a jig and floating on a cloud of retribution right now.)

But the worst thing I could have passed on to my child is my sensitivity. It has taken me thirty years to kind of make peace with the fact that I will spend a lot of my time on Earth feeling hurt and wronged by things as miscellaneous as the grumpiness of the rickshaw driver or a blue-ticked message on WhatsApp without a reply, but I had hoped for a child with a thicker skin or a more cheerful, resilient attitude while navigating through inter-personal relationships.

Rumi is not merely as sensitive as I was. She has taken my sensitivity and squared it and multiplied it with my husband’s keen empathy to arrive at a state where anything mildly shouty or unkind or sad or hurtful or painful sends her into a state of agitation and hysteria.

A freshly-baked example:

Yesterday, she had her friends over in the evening. Her friends are a rambunctious pair of cousins who live only ten steps away from us and the girls had a fun time playing kitchen and building blocks, interspersed with the occasional shove and tantrum and argument. When it was time for dinner, they said their goodbyes and went home, at which point Rumi burst into tears. This normally happens at the end of a long day when hunger, exhaustion and sleep all pounce on her all of a sudden so I got up to get her dinner but she stopped me and crept up on my lap and her explosive crying turned into fat, salty, serious sobs. She seemed to be in pain, so I sat with her on our rocking chair and gently stroked her hair and I started probing after a few minutes. “Did you get hurt while playing?” I asked, wanting to eliminate the physical pain points. She was completely incoherent but she shook her head. “Are you feeling sad that your friends went home? Because you know we see them again soon.” No, that wasn’t it. 45 minutes had passed before she was able to whisper to me in between painfully, choked breaths: “I didn’t give Mihu my pink Minnie Mouse.” Slightly puzzled, I asked, “Oh. So did she shout?” “Uh-Huh”. “Did she pull Minnie away from you?” “No”. “Did she hit you?” Nope.

It took me a few minutes to comprehend that Mihira, that dear child, had done nothing. Rumi was rendered incapacitated because she had been unkind. She had cried inconsolably in my arms because she had not been kind by not sharing a stuffed toy with a friend, who had obviously forgotten all about it in a matter of seconds!

This is Rumi. Hours of crying for her own seeming ‘unkindness’. Hours of crying into the pillow because the teacher laughed at her two pigtails. Hours of crying because she saw a cat in the rain and the cat was wet, and “how would the cat be feeling all drenched and cold??” I find myself baffled at the things she can feel so deeply even as I viscerally remember crying because my dad shouted once at a salesboy or whenever I said goodbye to my cousins after a long vacation (And all my cousins lived in the same city!)

Goodbyes are painful and hard for Rumi. Not in a throw-a-tantrum and buy-an-icecream-and-make-it-right kind of way but in a real, deep pain where she says things like “I miss Nanu so much, it hurts me here” and points to her heart. When she said this to us in the car last week, my husband and I looked at each other and wanted to make it better so bad but we didn’t know what to do. That is when I spontaneously told her, “Your heart needs a soft blankie to keep it warm and safe. Shall we give your heart a fuzzy blue blanket?” “No, hot pink!” she mumbled. “Ok, hot pink” we said. “Let’s hold your heart in the hot pink blanket”. “And it has golden stars too” she added, momentarily distracted by how the blanket would look. “And orange half-moons”.

And so this heart-blanket is what we go back to when she finds something hard to deal with. It helps Rumi because she can separate herself from her emotions and find something smaller to take care of and comfort. She puts a hand on her heart and asks it what it wants. Sometimes it wants to hide in the blanket because it did not feel nice when someone laughed at Rumi’s ponytails. But at other times, the heart seems to uncannily want things like “blue slime” or “a big, big Cadbury bar” and Rumi naturally has to listen to it and fulfill its demands pronto.

I don’t know if this has been the most effective way of dealing with her emotions but it has helped us to teach her to stop and really listen to the message her heart is giving her. And there is a lot of information available on how to deal with highly-sensitive children who apparently make up 15 – 20% of the population, but the bottom line is acceptance. Acceptance of sensitivity, without looking at it as ‘good’ or ‘bad’, without trying to make your child ‘tougher’ or fretting about nonsensical personality traits such as ‘bold’ (I have no idea what a bold child even means; I’ve heard it used a lot while talking to people around me though). I want Rumi to be exactly who she is without attaching shame or apology to it. You want to cry when you see a wet cat? Cry. It’s perfectly ok, cry, then wipe your eyes, shoulder up and continue with your jigsaw. Every part of you is beautiful and beloved and sacred; these parts that make you cry are even more so. We love these soft-hearted parts and we want you to love them too and not go through life feeling apologetic about them.

I missed that growing up. I always perceived my own sensitivity as a setback, something I had to work on. I had to try to develop a thick skin so that I could lead a happier life. And I understood very late in my life that simply because I felt things more intensely did not mean that I was unhappy. I am one of the happiest people I know. Now I let my feelings exist peacefully, and they do not cause me the agony and misery that was caused by wondering why I was the way that I was. Letting my sensitivity stretch its legs out comfortably means that I experience something painful, shed my tears and then get up dust myself and romp through the day; only till the next thing comes along, be that as it may.

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