Dear Rachel,

Our 10-year-old son is a very sensitive boy. My husband is not an overly sensitive person. He has very little patience for our son’s gentle nature; in fact, he calls him a wimp. Yes, he gets upset quickly! It can seem that if someone talks to him the wrong way, or looks at him the wrong way, he gets upset. This means a range of different things: he could start to cry, leave the game that he’s playing, give his friends the silent treatment, or even all of the above at the same time.

His father finds it frustrating and annoying. He feels that as a guy he’s got to be strong, that it’s a tough world out there, and he needs to be ready for it. In my husband’s family, the men have always been strong, and that’s what he expects from him too. I like my son's sensitive nature, though at times it can be a little much. We have tried either ignoring it or punishing him, but neither works. What can I do to get him to shape up?

My Husband Thinks It’s Boot Camp

Dear My Husband Thinks It’s Boot Camp,

It must be hard for you to see so much acrimony between your husband and sonAs a mother, it must be hard for you to see so much acrimony between your husband and son. Your husband feels frustrated (and, perhaps, disappointed) that his son is so different than him. He has very strong expectations for him, and, because of your son’s nature, he is getting disappointed again and again. While his feelings are justified based on his upbringing, we need to see what we can do to help your husband and son have a better relationship.

One of the most essential things that you can do for your husband is to help him reframe the way her sees his son. You said that your husband calls him a wimp. At a calm moment, help your husband think of some other ways to describe him. Sensitive, thoughtful, sweet, caring, insightful and perceptive are all different and more positive ways to describe the same thing. Remind your husband that everyone has strengths; try and open his mind to his son’s alternative strengths that he has not yet been able to recognize. Your son is different than your husband, and difference is not bad. Rather, your husband should bear in mind that people who share the same genetic material may not always share every single other attribute.

However, your description of how your son responds to rude or mean behavior seems to be strong and, perhaps, a little immature for someone his age. On many levels you are correct: it is a tough world out there, and, especially for a boy, he needs to be a little bit tougher. The question is: how do you go about helping him?

When your son first gets upset, feelings need to be acknowledged; let him know that he has a right to feel bad. When someone’s feelings are automatically dismissed, the person usually shuts down, and they become unable to hear anything else. Acknowledge that the kids with whom he was interacting displayed behavior that left a little (or a lot!) to be desired. Make sure that you are sincere when you tell him this. If he feels that he has your understanding, then he becomes instantly more responsive to you.

When your son first gets upset, feelings need to be acknowledgedRemind your husband that there is a concept in Judaism of “educating a child according to his way.” You both need to look at your son, and try and communicate with him in a way that he can hear you. Since he is a more sensitive child, he obviously needs kinder and calmer words from you. There are ways to give over the same message without raising your voice or being critical.

Here is where you need to be encouraging and honest. He’s 10; that’s a big boy. He needs to know that there are now more expectations placed on him. He is growing up, and it’s his job to have more control over his emotions. You are not telling him not to have these feelings; rather, he needs to control them. Help give him alternatives as to how he can respond to upsetting situations. Try role-playing with him, with you being the other kids, and he being himself. By letting him practice in the safety of a training session with you, he will gain the confidence he needs when the situation becomes real.

Instead of punishing or ignoring the behavior you don’t like, reward him for being strong. Think about what will speak to him as an incentive. Money? Toys? Video games? Create a point-and-reward system toward which he can work. You don’t even need to witness him doing it. Rely on his word for things that happen in school that he tells you about at the end of the day.

By reminding him that it’s okay to have these feelings, while giving him the tools to be stronger, you will ultimately help your son have the best of both worlds.