A highly sensitive child is often bright, articulate, creative, and insightful, easily able to tune into other people and their feelings. She may display a deep sense of empathy and compassion for other people. Perhaps she is a budding artist, a future novelist. And yet, she is also clingy and whiny, sometimes bossy and demanding. Sometimes she’s all of these at the same time! She throws long tantrums over seemingly minor issues – shoes that feel “funny,” familiar cereal that suddenly tastes “different.” She shrieks furiously when you leave her with a babysitter, even one she knows well, grabbing desperately at your legs as you leave. Her teachers complain that she is “scattered” and seems to pay attention to too many things at once. It’s no wonder that parents of such youngsters feel frustrated, helpless, angry – under the thumb of a mercurial, moody “prince” or “princess,” as some describe their children to me.
To help you understand this child, let me walk you through how she may look and behave at different stages of development. You may recognize many features of your child. Of course, every child is unique, and you may see only a few similarities. If you are feeling discouraged, rest assured that I will soon discuss ways to approach your child’s challenges.
The Sensitive Baby and Toddler
A sensitive infant is often colicky, finicky, irritable, demanding. She may cry almost constantly for the first year of her life (or so it may seem to an exhausted parent) and want to be held continually. The normal activities of infancy – sleeping, eating, diaper changing – can become early battlegrounds between parents and baby. One seven-month-old girl I saw screamed in fury if her mother put her down for the briefest instant. She fell asleep only when her mother or father rocked her for an hour or longer. Several times each night she woke up crying and needed to be rocked back to sleep. She hated having her clothes changed and would even squeal indignantly when her parents removed a dirty diaper. Breastfed, she furiously resisted taking a bottle, and she angrily pushed away spoonfuls of rice cereal and bananas when they were first offered. She cried when the vacuum cleaner made noise or if her older siblings were loud. When she learned to crawl, she simply used her newfound skill to scurry over to her mother and cling to her leg, rather than venturing out to explore the world. She fussed when her mother tried to interest her in toys and threw temper tantrums when her parents tried to put her in her playpen. “I feel like the prisoner of a tyrant in my own home,” the baby’s weary mother told me.
These sensitive infants find the emotional skills that we expect them to master in their first year more difficult to learn than do other babies. Ordinarily, babies begin learning to calm and regulate themselves in their first few months and, at the same time, remain interested and engaged in their environment. They also learn to relate to people in a warm, trusting manner – by gurgling and cooing as they study their parents’ faces, for example. Especially gratifying to most babies is the ability to let their parents know what they want through vocalizations and gestures (reaching up to be picked up, pointing at a desired toy, and so on). But such goals can be elusive for a baby who is overly sensitive. New people, sights, sounds, smells, and the results of her own exploration and initiatives (touching daddy’s rough beard, for example) easily overwhelm her and make her cry.
As a toddler, the very sensitive child often continues to be demanding and clingy. Once she has mastered a few words, she may resort to whining. “Mama, mama, mama,” she may say over and over again as her exasperated mother tries to untangle her arms from around her legs so she can work. She throws monstrous tantrums if her parents try to leave her at daycare or with a babysitter. Now, her parents’ sleep may be disrupted by her shrieks as she wakes up at night feeling scared. New situations upset her, and she may avoid playing with other children, shaking her head stubbornly and bursting into tears if a parent tries to lead her over to a group of other toddlers who are happily rolling toy trucks and banging toy drums. She may act aggressively, but more out of fear than defiance: she may bite or hit other children who come too close, for example, or pinch a child who tries to take away a toy. She may not like to be held or carried in a certain way.
Rather than become more assertive and organized as she grows, by taking her father’s hand, for example, and leading him over to the cracker box, she may whine and passively expect daddy to guess what’s on her mind and get it for her.
As she approaches the ages of two and three, when children ordinarily start to engage in lots of pretend play with each other and begin to expand relationships beyond their parents and siblings, the overly sensitive child may be cautious, fearful, and clingy. She may not be comfortable in expanding her fantasy life, even though a full fantasy life is very important at this stage of development. She may feel cautious about exploring certain themes in her pretend play, such as coping with aggression. Her dolls or action figures may always kiss and hug, but never fight or tussle with each other, for example. Or the dolls or action figures may fight, but then the story line may disappear: she may simply bang her dolls and toys together in what looks less like pretend play and more like a direct discharge of energy.
As she learns more words, she may start talking about her fears, telling you about the witches under her bed or the monsters in her closet. Fear and shyness inhibit her from making friends, and she is very frightened of children who are more assertive than she is. When parents leave for work or an evening out, she may shriek hysterically, “Mommy, no go!” or “Daddy, come back!” even though she is familiar with her daycare center and acquainted with her babysitter.
The Sensitive Preschool Child
As she learns to string her emotional ideas together into emotional thinking, which we ordinarily begin to see at about the age of four or so, the highly sensitive preschooler may have elaborate explanations for some fearful or scary feelings.
“I know the robbers are going to come get me as soon as you put out the light, and I won’t stay in my bed,” she may argue. “Leaving the light on will only let the robbers see where I am!”
The sensitive child’s fears appear to be growing because she is able to use logic to build bigger sand castles in the sky. With enhanced logic, she may seem even more tyrannical, insisting that she will be safe only if you do everything she wants.
As your sensitive preschooler begins to approach the school-age years and becomes even more articulate, her bossy, demanding behavior takes new forms (the sensitive child is, after all, usually very verbal). “You didn’t buy the right cereal!” she may yell indignantly as she glares at her bowl of Cheerios from the newly opened box on the breakfast table.
“Honey, it’s Cheerios, the same as always,” the parent replies.
“But the box is a different color! And they taste different. I want the old Cheerios like you always get!”
And so it goes. “My new dress feels yucky!” she may say. Or, “These socks pinch my feet!” “This sandwich hurts my mouth!”
New experiences may cause her all kinds of concerns, and she may be quite articulate about her fears. “If I go to nursery school,” your four-year-old may argue, “that boy Kim will hit me and he will take away my teddy bear until you come get me!” She may worry that “bad things” will happen to her parents and may threaten and whine if she is taken to a babysitter’s house. “If you go to work and leave me at Mrs. Farwell’s house, I will be sad forever!”
As you can see, infants, toddlers, and preschoolers each convey their sensitivities in their own special way. Seemingly in no time at all, the clinging, fussy baby turns into the passive, avoidant, fearful toddler who, as she acquires the “gift of gab,” develops ideas, stories, and plots that elaborate this same sensitive core.
At this point, some readers are undoubtedly saying, “I’ve had enough. What can I do about it?” But let’s continue our journey through the school years. It will give you a fuller picture of our sensitive child – a picture that will enable us to discuss strategies to help her overcome her special challenges.