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Raising a sensitive child

Does your little one burst into tears at the drop of a hat? Does she always feel like someone’s laughing at her? Learn how to nurture your sensitive child and when you should talk to your pediatrician.

Handling your child’s emotions
Crying little girl

Kids are sensitive by nature. With very few exceptions, it’s perfectly normal for boys and girls to have strong emotions during childhood. Discover ways to handle your child’s emotions, and when it may be time to talk to your child’s pediatrician.

Don’t shame kids for outbursts

We live in a world that doesn’t always celebrate sensitivity. Kids are told to “grow up,” to stop crying, to control their emotions. Practice patience and acceptance with your child. For example, if you’re at a gathering and your child becomes upset and cries in front of others, don’t shame him for the way he feels. Give your child a safe place to calm down. Avoid using hurtful phrases like “cry baby.” Instead, talk about what upset your child. Anger, embarrassment and sadness are normal emotions during childhood. Some kids express these feelings more strongly than others, and they should never be made to feel ashamed of having big feelings.

Help kids feel safe

Sensitivity often comes in the form of having fears. You may have a child who hangs back in groups or who doesn’t want to do things that other kids are doing. Parenting expert Anastasia Gavalas recommends giving kids space and time to mature and get used to activities that cause fear and anxiety. “Sensitive children just need to feel safe but not smothered,” says Gavalas. “They need to be encouraged to explore and do [so] on their own so they can build up confidence and recognize their own strength.” Avoid arguing or pushing your child into doing things that scare her. A struggle will only make things worse.

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Teach coping strategies

While you should give your kids space to feel their feelings, you should also give them tools to cope with big emotions. Coping strategies can be as simple as teaching your child to recognize and accept feelings like frustration, anger and sadness. Try using charts with different expressions for younger kids. Encourage healthy ways to release anger, such as counting or throwing a ball. Parenting coach Dr. Richard Horowitz of Growing Great Relationships advises parents to be aware of their child’s triggers and rehearse ways to deal with meltdowns. “Help your child understand his triggers before he reacts and how to utilize self-calming techniques,” Dr. Horowitz says. “When a child is in full-blown emotional meltdown, do not try to reason with them. It can take up to 20 minutes for the emotional brain to calm down so that reasoning can take place.”

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Know when to seek professional help

A child who is frequently upset, anxious or depressed may be experiencing serious issues beyond natural sensitivity. If you’re concerned with your child’s behavior, talk to your child’s doctor about next steps. Make sure that your child feels safe at school and with other adults in her life. Impairment is a good measurement to use when deciding if you should seek a referral to a mental health professional. “It is an impairment when it significantly interferes with daily functioning,” Dr. Horowitz says. “If your child has a yelling tantrum in the car on the way to an activity but can calm down when you arrive, then the tantrum can be ignored because it has not interfered with the activity itself.” If your child’s emotions interfere with activities regularly, it’s time to talk to her doctor.

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