Emotional sunburn: What rejection sensitive dysphoria feels like to me

“He doesn’t seem that bothered when other kids tease him.”

I was literally speechless when the school social worker said this of my 8-year-old son, who has ADHD and autism. Everything bothers him. And on top of that, he has a “tell.”

When my son is upset or hurt about something that he thinks others will say is “no big deal,” he purses his lips together so they don’t tremble and blinks his eyes very, very quickly.

I guess if you don’t know him well, it’s subtle enough that you might not see it. At first, even people who do know him well — like my husband — didn’t see it.

But I’ve never missed it. I never missed my son’s tell because I have a similar one. And, more importantly, I know the feeling that’s behind it.

It’s knowing you may be overreacting to something small, but also feeling it with such emotional intensity that it hurts. I’ve heard people call it an “emotional sunburn.” The idea is that when you have a sunburn, even a light pat on the shoulder is jarringly painful.

An emotional sunburn completely disrupts your ability to self-regulate. It short-circuits your ability to produce a typical emotional response. That’s why my son’s tell is subtle. He’s frozen.

In technical terms, some researchers refer to this as rejection sensitive dysphoria (RSD). It’s very common in people with ADHD and sensory processing issues — both of which my son has. I have sensory processing issues, too.

People who experience RSD get very upset when there’s conflict or when they think they’ve been rejected. Just like sensory processing issues and ADHD can cause sensory overload, they can cause emotional overload, too.

It’s why I panic when someone says to me, “Can I talk to you later?” or schedules a meeting without telling me what it’s about. I always worry they have something bad to tell me or are unhappy with me.

When I write something online, I obsess or worry over what someone on the Internet might think of me, even though intellectually I know they don’t know me or the specific circumstances of my life. (So, please be kind in the comments to this post — I’m running low on emotional sunblock.)

I don’t like it when people say to me, “Your kids are so lucky to have you as a mom. You know just how to help them.” It’s right up there with “What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger” in my list of top 10 phrases that may be true, but that don’t make me feel any better.

As a parent with learning and thinking differences, I see things in my kids that I know I’ve passed down to them and wish fervently that I hadn’t. RSD is one those things. It’s hard for me to watch my son feel things as intensely as I do.

That’s what’s so frustrating about that phrase. I feel guilty. I feel responsible. I guess that’s the whole point — I feel. I feel it all, and there’s no quick remedy for an emotional sunburn.

Still, it’s true. I do know how to help him.

Knowing how little things can sting has often helped me figure out why my son reacts to things that nobody else thinks is a big deal. Things other people don’t even notice.

I’m often able to see what’s at the core of why my son is upset, even when my husband doesn’t.

I’m never going to be able to stop the emotional sun from beating down on my son. But I can teach him to find and create shady spaces inside himself where he doesn’t let the sun burn him. I can apply my best dose of empathy to help relieve the sting.

And I can show the school social worker what his tell looks like and watch her face change as she recognizes it and says, “Oh, I’ve seen him do that! I had no idea that’s what it meant.”

Read what a mom wishes others knew about parenting a child with ADHD. Download a one-page sensory processing issues fact sheet. And learn about different types of emotional help for your child.


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