My apologies for the late post, I have been recovering from surgery, which brings me to my next subject…

Both of my children have a finely tuned emotional radar that picks up the slightest blip from the people around them but they react in totally different ways. My daughter responds in a socially acceptable, empathetic way because she is very emotionally demonstrative and socially in tune. My son however, doesn’t come across as very empathetic; in fact he seems to be emotionally oblivious to what is going on around him. For example, I recently had a surgery to remove a growth on my ovary. Ovarian cancer runs in my family, so I was pretty worried for the month that preceded my scheduled surgery date. I told my kids the basic facts and tried to keep their worries to a minimum for the nerve wracking month before my surgery date. My daughter reacted by writing me little notes, snuggling more often, wanting me to spend more time with her, and giving me lots of spontaneous hugs and kisses. She made me promise that I would wake her up before I left for the hospital so she could say goodbye. As I was leaving, she hugged me fiercely and told me she loved me. My son, on the other hand, didn’t act any differently the month before the surgery and didn’t want me to wake him up when I left for the hospital.

When I came home that afternoon from my outpatient surgery, I was so drugged from the anesthetic that I went straight to bed. The next morning my daughter was scheduled to go to a friend’s house at 9 AM and I forgot to tell my husband about the arrangement so he could help her get ready. When her friend arrived at the door she was still in her pj’s. She burst into tears and ran into her room sobbing. I went in to talk to her and she kept saying, “I should have been ready, I’m sorry Mom.” I told her that it wasn’t her fault, that we had all forgotten because of the surgery and but once she started crying it was a release valve and all her fears and tears came pouring out.

My son woke up later that morning and came running out and flopped on the couch where I was laying bumping by sore abdomen in the process. I gasped in pain and reminded him that I was recovering from surgery and he should be careful. He gave me a funny look, replied, “Okay,” and ran off to his room. Later I fixed him a bagel with Nutella and had to thaw the bagel out in the microwave. It got a bit warm so when I spread the Nutella on the bagel, it became runny. When my son tried to eat the bagel, the Nutella began dripping all over him. He started to cry hysterically and telling me over and over that I should never make the bagel warm before I put on the Nutella.

Both of my kids were experiencing the same fears and were basically expressing it in the same way, except my daughter’s reactions seemed empathetic and my son’s seemed selfish and unaware. So how did I know that my son’s reactions were really empathetic? Because later that day he came out of his room and proceeded to show me how he had looked up everything I had been through on the internet. He had educated himself about the laparoscopic surgery, what it entailed, the benefits and risks, the likely outcomes, and so on. He had also looked up all the pain medications they had prescribed for me, how they worked, what their chemical reactions in my body were, and how the body detoxifies itself once you are off the medications. He never once asked me how I felt or told me he was worried, but his time and effort spent on educating himself about what his Mom was going through spoke volumes. He also started pretending he had an “insta-heal” machine and would periodically run up to me and pretend to heal my surgery site. Maybe someday my son will be better at expressing himself in a way that more people recognize as empathetic, but I knew how deeply he cared.

The other part of my kids’ emotional radar is that they are extremely sensitive to parental disapproval of them. My daughter was in a play a few weeks ago and she was the narrator. She had memorized all her lines flawlessly and was fully prepared for the play. The volcano in Iceland prevented her fellow narrator from getting home in time for the play, so an understudy had to read her lines. My daughter held the book for both of them and proceeded to read every one of her lines too. When the play was over I congratulated her, hugged her, gave her flowers, but then I said, “You did a great job, but why did you read your lines when you had them all memorized?” Her little face fell and she said quietly, “I didn’t want the other narrator to feel bad that she didn’t have her lines memorized.” I felt like kicking myself, I had just undone all her pride and joy in completing the play with my stage-mom question. It made me feel even worse that her motivation for reading her lines had been altruistic and I had just judged her for being sensitive and kind.

The other day my son was telling me all about the different kinds of keyboards, who uses them, and how they work. He had been reading up on it and was excited to share his knowledge with me. As he was telling me about it, I offhandedly replied, “Yes, but you really need to learn how to type without looking at the keys.” His lip began to quiver and he said in a tearful voice, “But I have my own way of doing it.” This was not my most sensitive Mom moment, so I replied, “Yes but eventually you are going to need to learn to do it the right way so you can type faster.” He slumped down on the couch and tearfully said, “Now I am depressed.”

I consider myself a good, loving, sensitive Mom, but I often forget how a careless word or judgment can affect my kids. I forget that they are measuring themselves against my yardstick and a misspoken word can make them feel they came up short. I am learning to read between the lines so I can recognize each child’s unique way of expressing love and concern. I’m hoping to model for my children how to celebrate each individual’s unique qualities while teaching them what is recognizable and acceptable to the world at large.

I recently read an article about helping gifted and perfectionist children succeed at their passions and it basically said to leave them alone. I initially took that to mean you shouldn’t push them to succeed, but I realize that it also means you shouldn’t judge their efforts or impose your standards on their achievements. I’m not saying that you shouldn’t discipline your kids when they need it, or that you shouldn’t have standards for behavior; I’m saying that when it comes to their efforts towards their goals, you should provide only support and encouragement. The world is a competitive place and will impose plenty of judgment on their efforts. You have the opportunity to provide that soft spot to land when the world pulls the rug out from under them. I am working on being both a cheerleader and a mentor, to help my kids tune their emotional radar to recognizable frequencies, while still staying true to their vision of themselves.

3 thoughts on “Emotional Radar

  1. I admire your insight as a mom. As I was reading this I became acutely aware of comments I’ve made to my own children that I am strongly rethinking. Thank you for writing this!

  2. This post makes me cry! I could see my boy when you are talking about your son. My son, on many perspectives, are so similar to your son. I did not understand why certain words make him overreact. Now I understand that I am not alone and my son is not alone.

    My son is also asperger like, into math, lacks shared emotion with others.

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