Have you been racking your brain on how to raise a highly sensitive child? I know from personal experience that it is not a walk in the park!
You receive a luxurious dinnerware set as a birthday gift. Very posh, delicate, pricey, and exquisite. As you unwrap it, four words on the box stick out – “Fragile, handle with care.” You absolutely love the gift and can’t wait to dine with it. But you also know that those four words are not hogwash. You must take them seriously for the longevity of your gift.
This is the exact feeling I get every day as I raise my highly sensitive daughter. She is undoubtedly a precious gift in our family. She blows my mind with her empathetic nature and extraordinary abilities. But she guards a very brittle heart. Over time, I have realized that I need to nurture her with a little more caution.
Highly sensitive children (HSC) have a highly perceptive nervous system. They take in more sensory information and process it more intensely. They are therefore more prone to stress and anxiety. They do not adapt to change easily and may wince at the slightest physical pain. On the flip side, they are loving, empathetic, intuitive, and gifted–both intellectually and creatively.
Traits of a Highly Sensitive Child (HSC)
- Prone to anxiety, stress, and overwhelm
- Averse to change
- Uncomfortable in certain scratchy/rough fabrics and tags on clothes
- Prefer quiet play
- Low pain tolerance
- Startle easily
- Very careful and calculative
- Easily devastated by harsh discipline
- Have a witty sense of humor
- Often annoyed by bright lights and noisy places
- Can pick out other people’s feelings
- Loving and empathetic
- Seem wiser than their years
- Often need downtime
- Often perceived as shy or introverts
Highly Sensitive Children Are Not Oddballs
“What’s wrong with her?” That’s a question I have been taking in my stride for a few years. Being highly sensitive, my daughter is prone to meltdowns and tantrums. In school, she will bawl her eyes out if she doesn’t get a chance to sit next to her best friend. That may come across as a flimsy reason to her classmates, but at that moment, her world feels like it is caving in.
Because HSC perceive things strongly, they are unable to get a grip on their emotions. They are often labeled as “the child who is always whining or crying.” Society is often trying to figure out what is wrong with these kids.
Let’s pull the plug on that misconception once and for all: there is nothing wrong with highly sensitive children. Being highly sensitive is merely a temperament like any other; in fact 15-20% of people across the globe are highly sensitive.
Highly sensitive kids just need to be nurtured with a little more empathy for them to thrive. Here are 8 things that parents raising highly-sensitive kids may need to do differently.
#1: Respect Their Feelings
I hate to admit this but I am guilty of downplaying my daughter’s feelings. It used to frustrate me that she cried for very trivial reasons. I would constantly urge her to toughen up, to try and grow a thick skin. But all my prodding and nagging didn’t work. Why? Because she’s wired as a sensitive child and it’s not up to me to tinker with her internal settings.
Downplaying a highly sensitive child’s feelings communicates to them that you do not value them. It tells them that their feelings are not important to you. They start toying with the idea that perhaps they are not good enough. Ultimately, their self-esteem may shrivel up.
It is important to acknowledge and validate their feelings. For instance, I could say to my daughter, “Your teacher said that you got really upset because you couldn’t sit next to your best friend. I understand that must have felt awful.” Saying this affirms her emotions and lets her know that it’s alright for her to feel frustrated.
#2: Teach Them to Regulate Their Emotions
HSC are easily swept over by their emotions. Little wonder that most of them are constantly sulking, whining, or crying. Admittedly, teaching them how to get a grip on their emotions is not as easy as ABC. It won’t happen overnight. But with a bucket full of patience and practice, it can be done.
I am happy to report that my daughter has made remarkable progress in reining in her emotions. Here are five steps that we can all use to help our children master their emotions.
- Help Them Identify and Name Their Feelings: We can say things like, “I see you are disappointed that you can’t play outside because it is raining,” or “I see that you are angry because you feel your sister was mean to you.” As we label the feelings our children are experiencing, we are giving them tools to build their “emotions vocabulary.” They are therefore better placed to articulate their feelings in the future.
- Validate Their Feelings: We can avoid trivializing their feelings by letting our children know that it’s okay for them to feel overwhelmed. We can be empathetic.
- Teach Them Suitable Ways of Expressing Their Feelings: We can gently teach our highly sensitive children appropriate ways of expressing their feelings. We can let them know that they don’t have to resort to meltdowns and tantrums. We can suggest that they talk to us or an adult nearby when they are feeling frazzled, or that they walk away from an aggravating situation, grab some crayons and scribble away or draw a sad face.
- Teach Problem-Solving Skills: After our children are able to identify and master their feelings, it’s time to arm them with problem-solving skills. Unfortunately many parents flop in this practice. Our natural instinct is to obliterate the hurdles in our kids’ paths. But that does little in preparing them for life.
- Sneak In Some Calming Strategies: There are several calming activities that can help steady our children, including:
- Taking deep breaths
- Humming or singing a song
- Blowing bubbles
- Counting 1-10
- Squeezing a stress ball or play dough
Lynn Lyons, a psychotherapist, advises parents to start by modeling problem-solving skills to their children. Lynn points out that when parents are smack dab in their own crisis, they need to demonstrate the ability to stop, assess and plan. We can, for instance, say to our child, “I seem to have lost my car keys. I need a moment to figure out what to do. Do you have any ideas?” When our children see us tackling problems without caving in to anxiety, they will inadvertently mimic the same invaluable practice.
In addition, we can encourage our children to conjure up their own solutions. For example, if they are upset because their sibling refused to share a toy, we can ask them to think of ways to solve the problem. Together we can explore the solutions that our child suggests. We can offer them guidance but allow them to take the steering wheel in fixing the problem.
#3: Explore Gentle Forms of Discipline
My daughter is generally very well-mannered. As a matter of fact, her teachers are constantly gushing over her squeaky-clean manners. No surprise there; highly sensitive kids are careful and calculative. They don’t merely jump into mischief because their friends are doing it. They reflect deeply and can conjure up the consequences of their actions. They take fewer risks and love steering clear of trouble.
Because their emotions are fragile, they get devastated by harsh discipline. They are naturally hard on themselves when in the wrong. Highly sensitive children need gentle discipline strategies doused in empathy. Here are a few things we can do.
- Check Our Tone: We can use a gentle tone when correcting our highly sensitive child. Remember that they are already rattled by their misbehavior. Spewing harsh words on them devastates them and makes them cower in fear.
- Don’t Abandon Them During Meltdowns: Let’s say our highly sensitive child gets really upset and gives in to a sappy meltdown. We should not be tempted to walk out on them until they can get their act together. Abandoning them in their most vulnerable state tells them that we do not value them and ultimately fizzles out their self-worth. Instead, we can stay with them during meltdowns and offer them encouragement.
- Uphold Justice: Highly sensitive children are proponents for fairness and justice. They don’t take it kindly when they have to pay for their siblings/peers’ sins. Do all it takes to ensure they are treated fairly.
- Give Room for Natural Consequences: HSC have razor-sharp awareness of the natural consequences of their actions. My daughter for instance loathes getting to school late. On the evenings that she tries to dodge her bedtime, I gently remind her that sleeping late translates to her getting to school late. This instantly redirects her to the right behavior.
- Offer Rewards: Highly sensitive children thrive on praise and affirmation. Once in a while, offer them rewards for their good behaviour. This perks them up and helps tether them to the right behavior.
#4: Don’t Push Them
While at home, my daughter prefers playing alone with her dolls. She gets plenty of offers from my neighbor’s kids asking her to hop into their animated play; but she doesn’t fancy that. Rowdy play ruffles her feathers and makes her prickly.
Before I learned that she was a highly sensitive child, I would pester her to “go out and socialize.” But that only served to aggravate her.
Most HSC are picky with the activities they enjoy. They may get ticked off by noisy places and competitive activities. We should be careful not to impose on them activities that antagonize them.
#5: Harness Their Strengths
While the emotions of a HSC are often as fragile as butterfly wings, they ooze with extraordinary abilities. Due to their highly perceptive nature, they are often gifted creatively, intellectually, and emotionally with a sense of humor to boot. Many of them wind up as great thinkers, innovators, scientists, and artists.
And here’s the frosting on the cake: HSC tend to be very loving and empathic. Due to their intuitive nature, they can cherry-pick the mood of others with magical precision and offer empathy. My daughter is an expert at scooping me up in the tightest hugs whenever she senses that all is not dandy with me.
Unfortunately, it is easy for parents of HSC to get fixated on their weaknesses and forget to nurture their strengths. Remember that nestled beneath their fragile hearts are exemplary abilities.
#6: Prepare Them Ahead of New Experiences
HSC are sticklers for order and predictability. Abrupt changes and surprises throw them off balance. It helps to wean them gently into big changes. Here are some steps we can take:
- Issue An Early Warning: Allow our children enough time to assimilate any impending change. If we are scooting off for a family vacation, we may want to allow that information to simmer with them a week or two before the day of our departure.
- Give Them a Sneak Peek: If possible, we should allow our child to catch a glimpse of the new place/event that awaits them. For example, if they are moving to a new school, we could arrange for them to visit the school ahead of time and meet their new teacher.
- Keep Their Daily Routine Intact: We can try our best to introduce only one big change at a time and ensure that our child’s daily routine remains unruffled as much as possible. For example, if our family is moving, we may need to put off potty training to a later date.
- Use Creative Play: It’s no secret that play is the way to a child’s heart. Discussing impending changes during play helps our children to freely express their feelings. We can use puppets, toys, roleplaying or a felt board to kickstart the discussion. For example, we can ask our child to construct a character that is going through a big change and ask them to discuss what the character might be feeling.
#7: Give Them a Peaceful Environment
HSC need more downtime than other kids, especially after a day brimming over with stimulating activities. Allow them time to unwind in a quiet and peaceful environment.
You can create a safe and cozy calm-down corner and pepper it with calming items such as pillows, stuffed animals, fidget toys, and books.
Your HSC will love retreating to their sanctuary whenever they need to blow off some steam and recuperate.
My daughter often asks me to read to her when she is feeling a little antsy!
#8: Affirm Them
HSC tend to be people-pleasers and suckers for affirmation. They are always scrutinizing other people’s actions, fishing around for clues on whether they are accepted and loved. These kids need hefty doses of affirmation to perk up their confidence, self-esteem and resilience. Affirming them also helps snuff out their anxiety. Here are a few ways we can affirm our highly sensitive children:
- Hug Them Daily: We can never hug our sensitive children too much. It offers them comfort and security, quells tantrums and fortifies our bond with them. Research also shows that hugging kids makes them smarter, healthier, happier and more resilient.
- Say “I love You” Daily: We can let our child know that we love them unconditionally. Assuring them of our love daily helps blot out any self deprecating sentiments they may have picked along the way.
- Lavish Words of Affirmation: Sprinkle our child’s day with words of affirmation. These include phrases like:
- I am proud of you
- You are intelligent
- You are so brave
- I am lucky to be your mom/dad
- You are beautiful/handsome
And then, Teach Them to Affirm Themselves: We can arm our children with positive affirmations from which they can draw when they are feeling dispirited. We can have our children write the words down or print the list and plaster it in their room. Such statements may include:
- I am unique
- I can do hard things
- I can forgive
- My feelings are important
- I can control myself
The 2-Minute Action Plan for Fine Parents
Nurturing a highly sensitive child calls for parents to be hawk-eyed and to constantly evaluate their own actions in order to nip any unhealthy practices in the bud. For a start, ask yourself the following:
- Are there ways in which I have been trying to change my highly sensitive child? What are some damaging words I have been using?
- How can I reassure my sensitive child that I love and appreciate them just as they are?
- How do other people treat my child when she/he is having a meltdown or unwilling to engage in some activities? Are there any labels that have been put on my child?
- How have I been disciplining my highly sensitive child? Are my discipline strategies doused in empathy?
The Ongoing Action Plan for Fine Parents
First off, don’t beat yourself up too much if you realise that you have been attempting to change your child. We all make tons of mistakes. But you now have a chance to make things right. The first step is to accept your child as they are. Focus on ways to harness their gifts and embrace their weaknesses.
Evaluate your child’s daily schedule and see if it may be overflowing with overwhelming activities. Taper down the activities to what your child can handle. Ensure that your child is getting enough sleep and squeeze in some downtime when your child is too knackered. Hug your sensitive child daily, pepper their lives with words of affirmation and teach them to stand tall in the face of adversity by affirming themselves.
Finally, help your child wriggle out of endless meltdowns by gently teaching them how to express their feelings and teaching them some problem-solving skills.