“He’s so touchy.”
“She’s just high-strung.”
“What a quirky kid.”
If your child could be described this way, you might be the parent of a sensitive child. Some kids are just a little different, marching to their own drummer and a little more sensitive to what goes on around them. Their reactions tend to be a bit more intense. Parenting can be challenging on a good day. On the surface they may look like kids who are too shy or too finicky or too fussy. They may even be labeled as a behavior problem. Look a little deeper and what you may find is a child whose sensitivity is simply higher than most.
What exactly is a sensitive child? A highly sensitive child is one whose nervous system is highly aware of and reactive to physical and emotional changes in their environment. They are quick to react and can become overwhelmed or overstimulated by sudden changes in routine, loud noises, intense odors or even changes in the emotional states of others around them. They prefer calm interactions, quiet activities and seek routine and predictability. Soothing them can be difficult.
A common misconception is that a child with high sensitivity has some type of disorder or learning impairment. Having an emotionally sensitive child is not unusual or necessarily indicative of a disorder. In fact, it is estimated that high sensitivity is a trait found in about 20% of the population. It is not a disorder, syndrome or learning disability. High sensitivity may be present with learning or behavior disorders, but it is not a disorder in and of itself nor is it a cause of other disorders that may be co-occurring. It is simply an innate trait of temperament and a part of who your child is. Rather than trying to change it, embrace the strengths and unique qualities that your child has.
In early childhood, emotionally sensitive children may not seem that much different from their peers. Differences start to become more noticeable around age five or six when tantrums generally start to diminish in their peers. While their peers are learning to control their emotions, sensitive kids tend to struggle with learning to manage their feelings. It doesn’t mean that they can’t learn that self-control. It just means that they may need different support.
Because this trait is in the minority, traditional models of parenting and behavior management may not work well for this child’s temperament. He or she may have difficulty fitting into normal expectations for behavior. It doesn’t mean that expectations should be removed. Just like any child, it is important to learn to make positive choices and be able to follow rules. Praise and rewards as well as logical consequences are powerful motivators. When parenting an emotionally sensitive child, the emphasis is on working with your child’s strengths and using parenting strategies that help him or her learn to manage the intensity of their emotions.
Highly sensitive kids can get overstimulated and overwhelmed very quickly. Bright lights, loud noises, “busy” environments and large crowds can trigger an intense emotional reaction. Minimizing their exposure to loud or chaotic environments when possible can help them to stay in control. Having lots of downtime built into the day can help them to get a break from that kind of overstimulation.
An important skill for sensitive kids to learn is how to self-soothe. One strategy that can be helpful is having a designated place that they can go to when feeling overwhelmed. Pick a place where your child can go and keep a “wind down” kit there. Stock the kit with quiet or soothing items like colors and coloring book, a soft pillow, a fuzzy blanket, a favorite stuffed animal, headphones with soothing music or books. Encourage your child to use this space whenever they need a break. This strategy can help them learn to recognize when they are getting overwhelmed and ways to soothe themselves.
Sensitive kids are masters at reading emotions and are acutely aware of the emotional states of those around them. They may not understand exactly what the problem is but if they see that the grownups are upset, it must be something to get upset about! Remaining calm models an appropriate response which is the very behavior you are trying to teach your child. A great way to stop a situation from escalating is to use a “stop and think” strategy. Staying calm, use a simple cue to drawn your child’s attention to you. Cues can be a word, a gesture or sign that means “stop and think.” This distraction stops the emotional escalation and draws attention away from the problem. Once you have your child’s attention, counting or deep breathing techniques can help the child to relax.
Intense emotional reactions are common with sensitive children. Because they tend to experience their emotions so intensely, feelings can be overwhelming. Being able to understand those feelings and knowing how to cope with them is essential. Children who understand their emotions tend to have stronger friendships, calm down more quickly after an upset, do better in school, and have better mood stability.
Parents can help their kids understand and cope with feelings using a technique called emotional coaching. Emotional coaching is a parenting technique that helps kids to better understand their feelings and ways to deal with them in socially appropriate ways. The technique involves a process of learning to connect with the child, learning to identify emotions and coping/problem-solving skills.
Sometimes being the parent of an emotionally sensitive child can feel like you’re the only parent in the world dealing with the unique issues a sensitive child presents. The good news is that there is plenty of help and support out there. There are a number of books, websites and other resources that can be great sources of information and guidance.
If you’re concerned about your child’s level of sensitivity or if the behavior is impacting his or her ability to function at home or school, you may want to consider consulting with a mental health provider. It’s important to seek a therapist who is trained in working with highly sensitive children and their families.
The most important thing to do when living with a sensitive child is just love them. Honor and respect them for who they are. Embrace and build on the strengths that they have. Teach and guide them with love and respect. You’ll build an unbreakable bond and your child will have the skills he or she needs to be successful.
As a therapist-coach, Dr. Ferrara specializes in personal and lifestyle coaching with special interest in Stress Management and Weight Loss/Fitness. She is an ACE-certified Health Coach and a licensed mental health clinician (LPC & LMFT). Her practice is currently limited to personal and wellness coaching.
Dr. Ferrara is a workshop presenter, blogger and author. She is available for speaking engagements as her schedule permits. To read more and for information about speaking availability, please contact Dr. Ferrara at her website.
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