How to Raise a Highly Sensitive Child
I'm the mother of a sensitive child. He's gentle. He's compassionate. This pleases me greatly, because he makes part of my job (raising kind, thoughtful children) so easy. My boy, 9 years old, increasingly independent and not far from the first stirrings of puberty, is hardwired to care. I see this every day. He's a great friend. He's always the one to speak to the kid perched on the "lonely" bench in the school playground. He quickly picks up on other people's distress (adults as well as other kids) and he always wants to help.
But raising a sensitive child can also be a challenge. Mine is prone to tears when he's frustrated or tired. He's even-tempered and poised most of the time, but occasionally has extremely intense emotional outbursts.
His sensitivity can impact his schoolwork (feeling like a failure over a challenging math problem) and his sleep (inability to switch off from what's happening in his immediate reality, like a cutting remark from a classmate or the world at large — President Trump has a lot to answer for right now). So while I don't want any part of his sweet, sweet soul to change, I am trying to figure out how I can help him manage his emotions to make his own life easier.
Experts agree that the most important thing is to resist the temptation to change a sensitive child. I need to give my son permission to be sensitive, which means letting him feel and cry and process his frustrations and anxieties rather than try to quash them. "No amount of 'tough love' or forcing a child to be different (i.e., less sensitive) will be helpful to them and such an approach could, in fact, be psychologically harmful," warns New York-based clinical psychologist Jephtha Tausig-Edwards (aka Dr. Jeph).
"What the sensitive child needs more than anything is to be surrounded by adults who can truly empathize with the experience of being assaulted by the world," says Vancouver-based child psychologist and parenting expert Dr. Vanessa Lapointe. "Once we see what this is really like for the sensitive child, we are inspired to move on the child's behalf — at times in ways that are swift and fierce — to change what we can about the offensiveness of the world. We can then begin to give the child opportunities and skills for adaptation and resilience."
For example, if you have a child who is highly sensitive when it comes to social exchanges and finds it difficult to greet people they don't know well, they may hide behind you. Rather than force the child to step forward and say "hello," "nice to meet you," (or whatever nicety expected in polite society), you can support your child by saying something like, "I am sure she is happy to see you — she just likes to have a bit of space."
Another natural instinct as a parent may be to jump in and make it better, taking action to change whatever is causing our child distress. But doing this can undermine their emotional experiences and their confidence in their own problem-solving abilities.
"It’s so much better to validate your child, letting them know that you see that he/she is upset, and it’s perfectly OK for them to feel that," says New York-based clinical psychotherapist Dana Carretta. "The message is usually passed down to our children that if we cannot change something, then it makes no sense to be upset about it. This is completely incorrect. Just because we can’t change something, it doesn't mean we're not allowed to experience the emotions that arise."
With my own son, I've learned that he's often reluctant to talk about what's upsetting him, so I need to persevere — without making him feel pressured. If something's clearly on his mind, I'll spend a few minutes encouraging him to open up to me, stressing that I want to understand how he feels and that nothing he tells me can be "bad." If this doesn't work, I'll leave him for a short while, and then check in on him again. It can take time (and all of my patience), but we get there in the end, and I know he's sharing with me because he's ready to and not because I've browbeaten him into it.
It's a fine line, but one that's worth walking. "Parental communication is so crucial," says Carretta. "Children lack the life experience to make sense of what they are experiencing, and noticing your child is aware of what's happening and explaining it to them will help them understand what it is they are feeling."
That's not the only fine line involved in parenting a sensitive child. "It’s a delicate balance between taking their needs into account and letting them experience real-world parameters and rules," admits Dr. Jeph. This might mean building in more time for transitions, while not letting "normal" discipline and structure slide. I don't want my son to feel that he's ever being punished for being highly sensitive, but at the same time, I have to hold him accountable to the same standards of behavior I hold his sister to.
It's important to teach all kids self-care, but perhaps even more so when a child is sensitive. "It’s easy to take on the emotions of others and want to help them, but sometimes that means dismissing our own feelings or putting what is in our best interest aside," says Carretta. "If this happens consistently, it leads to a depressed or angry teenager, mostly because they are so exhausted from taking care of the emotions of others."
Perhaps we as parents can learn and grow from this too. "Parents may not be aware of their own emotions when their child is expressing sensitivity," says Carretta. "This lack of awareness can result in invalidation or dismissiveness because many, many adults find it difficult to understand their own emotions." Carretta recommends a mindful parenting strategy to help parents recognize their own emotions before reacting to their child's. "A great tool to remember is the acronym STOP," she says. "If your child is displaying an intense emotion, you as the parent should: Stop, Take a breath, Observe inside of yourself what it is that you’re feeling/experiencing and then Plan what the best intervention/communication strategy would be."