Embracing the numerous advantages of being a highly sensitive individual, this article offers guidance on how to support your sensitive child by providing strategies that assist in managing their intense emotions and teaching essential coping skills.
My three children were FaceTiming with their uncle Ivan one afternoon when my then 4-year-old started screaming. Between sobbing, he hiccupped, “He called me poopy-face.” What their uncle intended as an endearing joke, my son interpreted as cruel mocking.
My son has historically struggled to process intense emotions. A missed snack has him writhing on the floor and claiming he is ready to starve. A dispute with his brother over a toy can result in a minute-long bout of shouting.
Up to 33 percent of the population, according to Jadzia Jagiellowicz, Ph.D., founder of the Extremely Sensitive Society, is considered “sensitive,” meaning that they feel things profoundly and can become overwhelmed by emotional and physical stimulation.
Dr. Jagiellowicz, who provides mental health services to clients worldwide and conducts research on the neuroscience of sensitive individuals, asserts that their brains are more receptive to incoming stimuli and more reactive to physiological cues, such as an upset stomach or rapid breathing than those of their less sensitive peers.
On the other hand, Canadian psychologist Laura Greenberg states, “there are many advantages to being an emotionally sensitive person.” Sensitivity fosters empathy, self-awareness, and imagination.
There are numerous ways for extra-sensitive children to benefit from this feature while facing its difficulties. With effort and assistance, kids can learn to regulate their emotions in order to prevent being overwhelmed or overly reactive. These are a few easy strategies parents can adopt to assist their sensitive children in navigating a world that is often noisy and daunting.
Authenticate and Join
Sensitive youngsters frequently believe that their parents and classmates misunderstand or disregard their emotional responses. “The most essential and influential thing you can do for children with strong emotions is to validate their experiences,” adds Greenberg.
Put yourself in their position and express your desire to connect with them. Sit with them in their unpleasant feelings rather than attempting to remedy their situation (“What makes you think nobody likes you?”). “It must have been so terrible today when Bobby didn’t want to play with you.” Greenberg explains that by recognizing these sentiments, you assist children in “jumpstarting the regulation process of managing, relaxing, and tolerating them.”
As your children age, maintaining an emotional connection with them is vital. Greenberg argues that if kids do not have the skills to control “those intense emotions,” there is a risk that they will resort to less healthy coping habits. Keeping tabs on your children’s emotions allows you to determine if they require further support as their world becomes more complex. And they will know they can turn to you for assistance if necessary.
Recognize and Label Emotions
Recognizing and labeling emotions can go a long way toward assisting children with emotional regulation. Michelle Felder, a New York-based certified clinical social worker, advises, “Give them feeling words and then demonstrate how to express these feelings correctly.”
“If they are shutting down and finding it difficult to speak, draw an explicit connection between what happened and how they are feeling.” When your youngster refuses to eat their sandwich, for instance, because you sliced it into triangles instead of rectangles, you could say: “I observed that after I cut your sandwich, you became quite angry and ceased speaking. I wonder whether you’re dissatisfied with the way it was trimmed.”
For younger children or children who require more encouragement to express themselves, Harris proposes using nonverbal means of communication. Create faces representing various emotions (such as joyful, sad, and angry) on index cards, and have your children point to the one that best represents their current state of mind.
Instead, construct a stack of sticky notes with checkboxes for simple responses such as “yes,” “no,” and “maybe” for those who are too overwhelmed to talk but are able to write answers to direct queries. These minor adjustments to communication can assist in bridging the gap between frustration and communication.
Ready for All Events
Sensitive children thrive on routine and appreciate knowing what to anticipate. Before the first day of school, for instance, attempt to introduce your child to the teacher and the classroom so that the environment is immediately more comfortable. Alternatively, have your youngster walk to school with a friend they already know. “Try to maintain as much familiarity as possible and introduce changes gradually,” advises Dr. Jagiellowicz.
Sensitive children frequently worry about what others think of them, causing them to freeze in the present. To overcome this, Harris recommends that parents “prepare words that children can use to reply in various situations” and role-play these situations. Work with your child to determine suitable methods of stress relief.
“Come up with a small toolset of ideas that work for them,” recommends Harris, “whether it’s breathing exercises, ripping up paper, pounding play dough, stomping, or creating animal gestures.”
Establish Boundaries and Secure Places
Due to the fact that sensitive youngsters absorb more information from their surroundings and are more receptive to it, prevention is preferable to treatment. For newborns, this may involve maintaining a relatively calm sleeping environment. Dr. Jagiellowicz provides the example of coffee connoisseurs who “grind coffee in the farthest room of the house and close the door because the noise disturbs their child.”
Provide downtime periods for older children following active and engaging activities. Assist them in establishing limits that allow them to safely handle difficult emotions. “You may not want to send them to both hockey practice and a birthday party,” says Greenberg, because both require significant emotional investment. And provide them with a tranquil haven when they return home.
Employ Gentle Discipline
Highly sensitive children have a heightened awareness of hypocrisy and morality (“Is this scenario fair?” or “Why doesn’t Sally honor her promises?”). Dr. Jagiellowicz advises a cautious approach to discipline because “they’re already going to condemn themselves if they’ve done anything wrong.”
Gentle discipline communicates limits clearly and without judgment and ensures that repercussions are fair and consistent with family traditions and values. Above all, avoid making it personal.
Dr. Jagiellowicz notes that “emotional memories are maintained more profoundly [in sensitive children].” Shame is very poisonous. According to Dr. Jagiellowicz, it is normal for her adult clients to “remember things from their childhood” and that negative childhood experiences profoundly affect them. Sensitive children “experience all their feelings more intensely, thus it’s possible that they also feel shame more intensely.”
Greenberg explains that as parents, our initial instinct when our children are struggling is to “rescue them from those unpleasant feelings.” Sadly, although this attitude is motivated by love, it does children a significant disservice. Instead, support them, allow them to experience their emotions, be sensitive to their emotional needs, and equip them with the skills necessary to manage life’s inevitable obstacles.