Bringing Up Strong Sensitive Boys

By Evangelia Biddy

As greater focus is paid to the study of males and in improving the educational outcomes of all boys, new research continues to surface. New studies show that twenty percent of all boys have a finely tuned nervous system. What does that mean? How is an increasingly global society to respond to these boys in an environment that praises hyper-masculinity? What will become of these highly sensitive boys if parents, especially fathers, and educators do not respond to their unique learning styles and special emotional needs? Dr. Ted Zeff, noted psychologist and author of The Strong Sensitive Boy: Help Your Son Become a Happy, Confident Man, weighs in on the subject.


EB: What should parents look for to know that they are parenting a highly sensitive boy?

A highly sensitive boy (hsb) has trouble screening out stimuli and can be easily overwhelmed by noise, crowds and time pressure. The highly sensitive boy tends to be very sensitive to pain and violent movies. He may also be made extremely uncomfortable by bright lights, strong smells and changes in his life. The highly sensitive boy generally reacts more deeply and exhibits more emotional sensitivity than the non-HSB. However, the degree of emotional and physiological reactions varies in each boy.

“Many fathers need to question their own beliefs about what it means to be a man and be open to looking at new definitions of masculinity.”

– – Ted Zeff, PhD

Most sensitive boys tend to pause to reflect before acting and would not be considered risk-takers. This tendency can easily be understood as demonstrating a healthy caution. The HSB is conscientious, sensitive to his environment, and socially aware of others around him. Although many cultures tend to categorize sensitive boys as being unusual or not normal, the trait is basically neutral.


EB: Is there a biological cause for the HSB?

Having a sensitive nervous system is a trait. The HSB’s brain wave patterns are more frequently in a theta state whereby they are more open to intuitive feelings and to pick up light, sound and other subtle vibrations more deeply. There are different theories why some people have a finely-tuned nervous system, but there is no definitive research yet that has been completed.


EB: What are the challenges highly sensitive boys face on the playground and in the classroom?

Most boys are taught from an early age to act tough and repress their emotions. Whenever boys do not conform to the “boy code” and instead show their gentleness and emotions, they are usually ostracized and humiliated. So HSBs have to hide their feelings to be accepted by other boys on the playground. If they show their deep emotions, they risk being bullied.

The sensitive boy feels overwhelmed in a large public-school classroom with its stimulation, bright overhead fluorescent lights, and the pressure to perform well. Many HSBs have particularly difficult time learning in a noisy environment.


EB: Is the HSM limited professionally?

HSMs (highly sensitive men) tend to work best in a quiet, calm, and supportive environment, and often find it difficult to work under time pressure. They have a very challenging time working for an insensitive, demanding boss or with difficult colleagues. They should also carefully evaluate the physical environment in terms of noise, lighting, odors and stimulation. However, when they can work in conditions that suit their sensitivity, The HSM often produces better quality work due to their careful, creative, and conscientious temperament. HSMs make excellent employees since they tend to be creative, conscientious, thoughtful, and loyal.

The thirty highly sensitive men that I interviewed had a variety of jobs, with each man possessing different interests, abilities, and talents. Several men discussed how difficult it was for them to work in a competitive work environment. Self-Employment is a good option.


EB: Speak to the sense of alienation of HSB and its impact on those around him.

Given our societal norms, it may come as a surprise that one study showed that baby boys cry more than baby girls when they are frustrated; yet by the age of five, most boys suppress all their feelings except anger. The effect on males of having to conform to wearing a tough-guy mask creates suffering on both a personal and societal level and is particularly devastating for the sensitive boy, who has to try harder than the average boy to repress his emotions.

Since the eighty percent of non-HSBs are hardwired neurologically to behave in a different manner than the twenty percent of HSBs, highly sensitive boys do not fit in with the vast majority of boys. Unfortunately, most HSBs have internalized the false belief that there is something wrong with them because they behave differently from most of their peers. As they grow and become socialized, they begin to see their innate gentleness, emotionality, and tendency toward over-stimulation as abnormal and wrong.

This trend is reflected in my in-depth research with thirty highly sensitive men. Ninety percent of these men felt that their childhood was marked by feelings of alienation—that they didn’t fit in with other boys.

Most boys like to play in a rough and tumble manner and seem to enjoy watching combative scenes in movies and television. However, my research indicated that eighty-five percent of sensitive men always avoided fighting as a boy and ninety percent did not like watching violence on television or in the movies. Frequently, boys who don’t want to fight are humiliated by their peers, which contribute to poor self-esteem.


EB: How is the HSB viewed in the United States and around the world?

While biological factors may influence the behavior of boys, what a particular society values is an equally important factor in determining how the sensitive boy is treated. For example, a study of Canadian and Chinese school children concluded that highly sensitive children in Canada were the least liked and respected, while Chinese sensitive children were the most popular.

The HSMs in my study from India, Thailand, and most HSMs from Denmark stated that they were never or rarely teased at school for their sensitivity which differed from the malicious and cruel taunting that many HSBs experienced in North America.

The sensitive men who were raised in India and Thailand were more likely to have more friends as boys than those raised in Denmark or North America, perhaps since most Asian countries are more communally oriented than the individualistic Western countries.

In countries like India and Thailand, where the positive attributes of sensitive males are recognized, the HSB is often given a leadership position, since others recognize his innate ability to help achieve the group’s goals. The sensitive male in many cultures has been recognized as an “intuitive priestly advisor” and has historically been granted special status for helping the community thrive.


EB: Discuss the role of the mother in the life of the HSB. Share action steps and best practices for moms parenting HSB.

A positive and secure bond of attachment between mother and son is important in any family, but it is essential for the sensitive boy. When a mother reacts reliably and sensitively to her infant’s needs, he will form a strong, positive bond with her (what is commonly called a secure attachment). While insecure attachment is not more common among highly sensitive people, insecurity affects HSPs more adversely than non-HSPs.

It’s important for moms to recognize how challenging it may be for their son to make the transition from being home with mom to entering a new preschool or kindergarten class. It’s crucial that a mother lets her son take extra time to slowly integrate into the new environment if he feels overwhelmed and scared, rather than forcing him to be a “big boy” and expecting him to immediately join in with the other children.

Mothers of sensitive boys need to create a balance between giving her son the love and support he needs while encouraging him to pursue his own interests outside the home. Since many sensitive boys prefer to spend time at home, they may not learn how to relate with the eighty percent of non-sensitive children. A mom should encourage her son to engage in outside activities with other children while making sure that he feels safe in those ventures.

The HSMs in my study who had positive, loving relationships with other adult females besides their mom reported having more positive experiences as a boy than those interviewees who did not have these additional relationships.

Some moms may have internalized the false societal belief that boys need stronger discipline than girls. However, your sensitive son can learn a lesson better when he is calm and receptive, so when you are disciplining your son it’s vital to talk to him in a gentle manner. Sensitive boys generally tend to feel guilty when they make mistakes, so there is no need for harsh discipline. Your son will respond in a positive manner when he is praised for cleaning up his toys rather than harshly reprimanded when he doesn’t. However, as with any child, it’s important to delineate clear limits and expectations for your sensitive son. Mom should set limits in a calm yet firm manner.


EB: You address the tribe effect in your book. What is it and how does it help HSB.

A boy should belong to a tribe of three families according to Michael Gurian. “The first family: is the birth or adoptive parents, including grandparents; the second family: extended families-blood relatives or non-blood friends, day-care providers, teachers, peers, and mentors; and the third family: the culture, community, media, church groups, government, other institutions and influential community figures. In many cultures some kind of non-blood kin system is built into community life. However, since the 1950s, especially in North America, the nuclear family with no outside support has emerged as the dominant force where children are raised.”

This isolated form of childrearing where the burden is placed on two frequently stressed-out adults can be disastrous, especially for the sensitive boy. It’s no surprise that the phrase, “it takes a village to raise a child,” has become so popular. An isolated nuclear family generally is unable to give any boy, let alone a sensitive boy, the full support that he needs. Parents should investigate and pursue opportunities for their son to receive maternal and paternal nurturance from other adult figures besides mom and dad such as relatives, non-blood family friends, teachers, counselors, babysitters and community figures. Not only will these relationships help you son, but it will help take the pressure off of mom and dad having to be unconditionally supportive all the time.


EB: Share some best practices for fathering the HSB.

Most men remember incidents from their boyhood when their dad told them to “act like a man,” especially when the child expressed fear or cried. While being shamed for expressing emotions is hurtful for the non-HSB, this reaction can be devastating for the sensitive boy. A boy longs for approval from his dad. He needs reassurance from this primary male role model that the boy is masculine enough, just as he is. So when a father shames a boy for expressing his genuine emotions, the boy’s self-esteem plummets. The boy is given the message that he has to repress his true self to be accepted as a man.

Fathers need to spend special, positive time with their sons. It doesn’t matter what the activity is, as long as the father is available to and supportive of his son. A dad who fails to actively support his sensitive son can create a deep emotional hurt or “father wound” that the boy may carry with him throughout life.

Dads have the vital role of teaching their sensitive sons how to deal appropriately with the aggressive boy culture. Many fathers erroneously believe that their sensitive sons should become more aggressive in order to fit in with the eighty percent non-HSBs. While a father does need to teach his son how to stand up for himself, he also has to understand, protect, and encourage his sensitive son. Both the father and the son benefit when that father accepts his son’s trait of sensitivity instead of trying to mold him into a non-HSB.

Boys generally receive harsher discipline than girls by Dad including more frequent corporal punishment, which is particularly devastating to the sensitive boy. Hitting or harshly disciplining a sensitive boy is a shock to his nervous system that could possibly traumatize him. Dads need to be gentle when disciplining their sensitive boys.

Many fathers need to question their own beliefs about what it means to be a man and be open to looking at new definitions of masculinity. Dads need to be aware of how damaging it can be when aggressive male behavior is extolled in the media. Discuss with him these notions of masculinity and how and why they exist; reassure your sensitive boy that he doesn’t need the approval of aggressive boys, athletes, or the alpha male to feel good about himself. It’s also essential to frequently affirm your sensitive son’s positive qualities.

A sensitive child will sense when you’re tuned out or not paying attention and this will likely wound him. One to one time with dad and son instead of with the entire family is very important. Since sensitive boys are naturally compassionate and concerned about the welfare of people, animals, and the environment, an excellent father/son activity is to get involved in service projects such as serving food at a soup kitchen, volunteering at an animal shelter, or planting trees. Not only will you be raising your son’s self-esteem by spending quality time with him, but you will be helping uplift society.

Make sure that you always defend your son if others shame his sensitivity. Frequently praise your son’s sensitive attributes, and let him know that you really understand him. Model setting limits with others so that he will learn how to set boundaries if he is humiliated for his sensitivity.


EB: Speak to the unique challenges of the HSB at school. What is he up against in today’s super sized school environments? What should educators know about teaching HSB?

Many teachers think there is something wrong with a boy who pauses to observe, since they may believe the myth that all boys should be aggressive sensation seekers. Some teachers rigidly promote stereotypical boy behavior, even in young boys. Instead of chastising shy, sensitive boys, teachers need to learn to appreciate their special qualities. Educators need to know that sensitive boys rarely fight, bully, lie, or create disruptive behavior in school.

Many teachers subscribe to the false belief that boys need to be treated rougher and punished in a stronger manner than girls. They don’t realize that twenty percent of the boys in their class are sensitive and that severe discipline can be counterproductive and possibly traumatic for them. Teachers need to know that HSBs require a different teaching strategy and that high levels of stimulation will exhaust the HSB. Teachers need to be aware of their culture’s bias toward shyness, quietness and introversion and to encourage the HSB’s creativity. Finally, a sensitive boy may need increased one-to-one bonding with his teacher in order to feel emotionally safe in the classroom.


EB: Speak to the importance of friendships in for the HSB.

Most boys prefer to socialize in large groups, while many girls prefer dyads and triads.

This tendency stands in stark contrast to the social habits of the sensitive boy, who has a natural tendency to pause to reflect before engaging in a task and may feel overwhelmed in group situations. Unlike most boys, sensitive boys usually prefer to interact with only one friend or play by themselves rather than interacting with a large group of boys.

Since they shy away from aggressive, combative interactions, HSBs may have difficulties making friends with other boys. My initial research indicated that most sensitive boys tended to avoid combative and competitive situations. This form of male interaction puts the sensitive male, who feels emotional pain deeply, in a tenuous position since he is not able to easily shrug off insults. This is a prime reason why the HSB has a challenging time making and keeping friends. Even the athletic sensitive boys who played on sports teams never felt like they were one of the boys.

Several men told me that it’s better for the sensitive boy to have just one sensitive friend rather than trying to be accepted by a group of non-HSBs. Instead of trying to push your HSB to befriend neighborhood non-HSBs or to get into group activities that don’t interest him, encourage his interest in one-on-one time with friends by inviting friends to the house. Help facilitate your son and his friends to experience activities that interest them and let your son know that you like the friends he’s choosing.


EB: Discuss the challenges and benefits of non-sensitive friends for the HSB.

Learning how to be with non-HSBs can also be of great value as he grows. These interactions may produce some discomfort at first, but as long as the friends involved remain respectful, it could be beneficial for your HSB to learn how to navigate through the majority non-sensitive boy culture.

Some HSMs in my survey told me that, even though it was sometimes uncomfortable hanging out with non-HSBs, having had non-HSB friends ultimately helped them to be stronger emotionally. Take some time to discuss friendship with your HSB. Emphasize how important it is to be with friends who respect and understand his sensitivity.


Evangelia Biddy, Editor-in-Chief of Junior, The Magazine about Bringing up Successful Boys, is also a contributor to Raising Boys World, an expert for,  and an educational consultant. She can be reached at

Posted in boys on May 18th, 2011 | Permalink | 2 Comments »
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2 Responses to “Bringing Up Strong Sensitive Boys”

Terry says:

May we quote excerpts from your article—with proper attribution, of course—in presentations to parents at Northwestern University Center for Talent Development summer program for parents of students from preK to grade 3 on “Strong Girls/Sensitive Boys”?
Terry James Mohaupt, e-mail
Consultant and Parent Affiliates Chairman, Illinois Association for Gifted Children
Member of Illinois State Board of Education Advisory Council on the Education of Gifted and Talented Children

FamilySummit says:

Yes, Absolutely! We’re so glad you found our site!

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