Advice for Parents of Highly Sensitive Children
Does your child want all the tags pulled out from her shirts? Or enjoy quiet play more than big and noisy groups? Does she seem to read your mind? Or ask lots of questions? Is she incredibly perceptive, noticing all these minor details of life? Perhaps she has even been labeled as "shy" or "highly emotional" by someone close to her. If you answered yes to any of the above you may be raising a highly sensitive child—and yes, this is a great thing.
The Highly Sensitive Child
As a former highly sensitive child, I personally relate to Elaine Aron's description of one. She states, a "highly sensitive child is one of the fifteen to twenty percent of children born with a nervous system that is highly aware and quick to react to everything." Such children are incredibly responsive to their environments, whether it is the lighting, sounds, smells or overall mood of the people in their situations—these kids pick it up.
With a sharpened sense of awareness, these children are often gifted intellectually, creatively and emotionally, demonstrating genuine compassion at early ages. The downside is that these intensely perceptive kids can also get overwhelmed easily by crowds, noises, new situations, sudden changes and the emotional distress of others. Daniel, a 4-year-old client of mine, is a highly sensitive child and notoriously won't take naps because he is too "wound up" by his preschool peers. Another highly sensitive child, Lizzie, age 8, came home from school after seeing a bullying episode and broke down crying. Criticism, defeat and the distress of others is something sensitive children feel deeply.
A huge number of my private child clients are highly sensitive children. Since my expertise is children's emotional health—these kids need extra care and feeding so that they can learn how to see their sensitivity as a strength and begin empowering themselves with tools to tap into the "upsides" of their sensitivity, such as insight, creativity and empathy, while simultaneously learning how to manage their rich emotional lives.
What Are the Signs of a Highly Emotional Child?
When it comes to a highly sensitive child or hypersensitive kids, the signs are rather apparent in their behaviour. These are on the verge of an emotional breakdown and resulting in total loss of control of themselves. It’s best to bring these signs to the attention of your child so that they, too, are aware of them.
- Whining: Once the child starts crying, they cry for a long time either in bursts or a constant whine throughout the day.
- Fidgeting: Seemingly unsatisfied with how the situation is, they will try to engage with certain objects or even their own selves, constantly moving around.
- Begging: If their demands are not met, they start begging for it and may result in dramatic behaviour around you.
- Irritation: Any conversation with them will end up with an irritated reply or an answer for no apparent reason. Any slight actions might get them upset, too.
- Disconnect: The child completely shuts off contact with you. They don’t talk, don’t respond, won’t meet your eye, and be aloof and uninterested in anything at all.
Parenting a Highly Sensitive Child
Parenting a highly sensitive child can be extremely rewarding—however, some parents admittedly find it exhausting. For example, your son comes home from school with a scraped knee because he fell off the swings. The good news is he doesn't think much of it. But perhaps your other son, a highly sensitive child, fell off the swings and noticed someone laughed at him, and now he won't stop crying because of it. See the difference? Raising a healthy, happy and well-adjusted sensitive child is possible however it takes "sensitive parenting skills," such as:
•Seeing sensitivity as a gift - It's easy to get frustrated and angry with your son or daughter if they continually cry, withdraw and shy away from regular social situations. Instead of viewing your "sensitive" child as being inherently flawed it is more helpful to see your child as having a special gift. Sensitivity is typical of creative artists, innovators and children who are talented in various ways. Some of our great thinkers, like Carl Jung, Joseph Campbell, Abraham Lincoln and Eleanor Roosevelt are believed to have been highly sensitive.
•Partnering with the child - Sensitive children respond far better to being asked to do something and partnering with the adults in their life than they do to harsh discipline. Harsh discipline can elicit the exact behavior you are trying to avoid, like emotional meltdowns and outbursts of energy (i.e. temper tantrums, crying, yelling). Partnering with your child includes learning their triggers (like crowds), avoiding them and also giving them tools when they feel overwhelmed, like breathing exercises. Professionals like me can also be helpful in this process.
•Focusing on strengths - Learning how to remember that your highly sensitive child is an incredibly talented being is essential especially when he or she may be "acting out" because of feeling overwhelmed or emotionally upset. This is seeing the forest instead of the trees. Training yourself to see your child's strengths first—such as creativity, perceptiveness and keen intellect—is important because it helps you accept their challenges (i.e. highly emotional, introverted at times, picky, shy or overly active).
•Acceptance - Embracing your child as a highly sensitive child is step one. Many parents bring me highly sensitive children to "change" them into less sensitive, more traditional kids, and I cannot do that. You cannot do that either. Instead, you can accept your child's sensitivity as part of your shared journey—whether you yourself are highly sensitive or not.
•Creating calmness - Since highly sensitive children are majorly impacted by their home and school environments, it is worth taking the time to create spaces that match their type. Skye, one of a friend's girls, is highly sensitive and loves her "Peace Corner" at home where she relaxes with her headphones, favorite plush toys and markers to feel calm. It is this type of serenity that highly sensitive children crave, with just the right lighting, colors, sounds and surroundings.
•Gentle discipline - Because your child is highly sensitive doesn't mean they don't need structure and limits in their life. They absolutely do. Being able to give your child gentle structure and clear limits with respect goes a long way. For example, if it's Jenna's bedtime and she is resisting, you might say, "Sweetheart, I realize you want to play all night, but it's time for bed. You need your rest and we have agreed to the 8 p.m. bedtime, and it's 8 p.m.—please start getting ready for bed."
•Connecting - Highly sensitive children are drawn to "birds of a feather," and getting these kids together to nurture each other's strengths is a good thing. This may mean a little extra effort on a parent's behalf to help a child make play-dates and find other kids who play well with your highly sensitive child.
Being a highly sensitive adult may be helpful in understanding your child's temperament and particular needs. It is especially helpful if a highly sensitive child is born to a well-adjusted, healthy, sensitive adult who can steer them in the right emotional direction. Of course, that can be true of any child—sensitive children, though, need especially good role models because they are learning how to use their incredible gift in a world that sometimes doesn't value its inherent worth.