The Highly Sensitive Child: Parenting Strategies
Parenting Patterns to Avoid with Sensitive Children
A very sensitive child is not an easy child to raise. Fortunately, certain parenting patterns can help this child mature into a creative, insightful person; and parenting patterns that intensify this child’s challenges can be avoided. With especially supportive parenting, highly tuned “antennae” on the world could become a valuable tool. A sensitive child can easily become the kind of person who can tune into other people and their feelings, and she may develop a deep sense of empathy and compassion for other people.
It is all too easy to get drawn into reacting in certain ways that, unfortunately, only dig the hole deeper for you and your child. It’s very easy for parents of sensitive children to swing from one extreme to the other. They may be quite empathetic, but not very disciplined about setting limits or giving their children structure. When this fails, they become rigid and strict, but not very empathetic. This pattern is understandable, of course. A parent may assume that if he or she were a “better” parent – more nurturing, more understanding, more patient, more responsive – then the child would be easier to live with. And so, the parent begins to indulge and overprotect the child. A mother may try desperately to calm her angry, crying seven-month-old with hugs and offers of juice and toys. Both parents may carry her around constantly, afraid to put her down for fear she will burst into tears again. They play with her continually and won’t leave her with a babysitter for fear she will get upset. The parents of a sensitive three-year-old may find themselves spending hours trying to get her to go to bed – reading to her, playing with her, singing to her, rubbing her back. The parents of an eight-year-old who is upset at being rejected by a friend may respond by arranging play dates with other children, and offering a constant stream of unsought-after advice. When an eleven-year-old complains over the amount of homework he has, his parents may step in and do part of the homework and then call the teacher up to complain about the volume of schoolwork.
Unfortunately, such actions may only teach a child to be more helpless and dependent. As a result, he or she may respond with even more whiny, demanding behavior. When that occurs, after the poor parents have exhausted themselves with trying to “fix” things for their child, the parents’ indulgent, protective attitude begins to fade, to be replaced with anger and impatience. After all, they had assumed that indulging their child would make their child “better.” But, after all their work and worry, she isn’t better! They may begin to yell at the child constantly and perhaps even spank her, and react with irritation to anything she says and does for a time. Some parents withdraw instead of getting angry. They relate less to their child, play less with her, in an attempt to stay emotionally distant from her. But the effect is the same. Then the cycle begins all over again. The parents revert to trying to protect and indulge the child before their anger kicks back in again. Depending on the parents and the family, these moods can occur over a few minutes, a few hours, a few days, or a few weeks.
Sometimes parents unknowingly split up the roles. One parent, often the mother, will be indulgent, while the father is angry and overbearing, thinking he can shout his troublesome child into submission. While the father yells, the mother may feel sorry for what now seems like her vulnerable little baby. Sometimes the mother is the one who gets angry and frustrated, while the father is the protective one. While each parent’s approach may be consistent, the child is aware of the vacillation between the parents’ approaches. When parents are divorced or separated, the vacillation may be even more intense. One parent may feel guilty about the divorce and become even more indulgent, while the other parent responds to the “spoiling” with anger at the child. Sometimes parents in this frame of mind will behave in a punitive manner; for example, in addition to yelling at the child, they may handle the child in a physically intrusive way. They may grab her, restrain her more firmly than needed, or order the child around (“You come here right now, or else!”). A thicker-skinned child would be affected by such behavior, but be able to minimize the effects. But to the sensitive child, a loud voice, a rough grab, may feel like a major calamity.
Vacillations between anger and overprotectiveness only worsen the situation. The child feels anxious and unsafe as she tries to cope with her parents’ unpredictability. It’s yet another way she gets confused by her world. At one moment, she is being fussed over and treated with kid gloves, and the next minute she is being harshly scolded or ignored. She may withdraw or rebel further.
Parents, for their part, feel responsible for their child’s behavior, and therefore incompetent and inadequate when they can’t “fix” their child. Because they can’t stand hearing that constant inner voice telling them they are incompetent, and the guilt it invokes, they may respond with anger or by withdrawing from the child. Some parents may also feel disappointed and sad that the child isn’t the easy-going sweetheart they had expected. Rather than acknowledging the disappointment to themselves, they may cover it up by blaming the child. They begin to see the child’s behavior as one big manipulation. “She’s just trying to get attention” is a comment I hear frequently from parents of overly sensitive children.
Parents may respond to these inner feelings by getting very rigid. “That’s the only cereal you’re going to get,” an exasperated mother may snap at the child complaining about the Cheerios. “So eat them. You don’t get anything else until lunch!”
Or they may attribute malevolent intentions to their child. “My child wants to break up our marriage,” I have heard parents say. Or, “He’s just doing that to make me feel bad.” Or, “I think my child is evil. He’s out to get me!” In the extreme, parents can even become physically abusive.
Some parents fall into what I call an “escape pattern” with a child who clings constantly. The child stays wrapped around the parent so much that the parent feels suffocated and perhaps even angry by her presence. “I can’t get a moment to myself,” a mother or father says in despair. So the parents “escape” every chance they get: they talk on the phone, read a magazine, busy themselves with chores – anything to give themselves a moment’s peace. But this “escape pattern” only confirms the child’s worst fears – that the parent is trying to run away from her. So she may get even more vigilant, hanging on even more, causing her parents to feel even more suffocated and angry and increasing their desire to want to run away even more. And so the cycle continues.
How Parents Can Help the Sensitive Child
The goal for the parent of a sensitive child is to work around the child’s sensitivities in order to provide the basic psychological experiences that she needs for emotional development. But it takes a special kind of parenting to cope successfully with a child who is drowning in a sea of sensations. Even though she may be a gifted, brilliant child, her sensory system isn’t quite under her control.
Parents of such a child need to work together as a team. They need to create a parenting atmosphere that has four basic elements: (1) empathy, (2) structure and limits, (3) encouragement of initiative, and (4) self-observation.
Empathy: An extra-sensitive child needs more empathy, compassion, and flexibility than most kids. At the same time, she requires more firmness and structure than many other children. In other words, I am suggesting here that you use more of both the carrot and the stick.
“Why do I need to be more empathetic and compassionate with a child who is already so whiny and demanding?” parents often ask me. That is because such a child is feeling overloaded, ruled by the sensations constantly assaulting her. She feels her emotions more intensely than other children and is more disturbed by them. She needs parents who can react compassionately to her plight – just as they would to an adult friend who was having a difficult time.
That compassion takes different forms, depending on the age of the child. For example, let’s look at an eight-month-old who has been crying for hours, unable to fall asleep because she is so overstimulated. Her parents have rocked her, walked her, fed her. They know she’s tired, but she’s unable to cuddle down and drift off to sleep. How do you empathize with the baby? Of course, she can’t understand your words. But you can tell her how you feel by the way you talk to her, look at her, and hold her. “I know it’s hard to fall asleep, sweetheart,” you could say in a warm, soothing voice. “You want to fall asleep, but you just can’t.” Resonate with your child’s feelings. Hold her firmly but carefully. Let her feel your warmth and understanding. Use her sensitivity to touch and emotions: she will pick up on your soothing demeanor. Remember that her behavior is rooted in her physical condition: she isn’t doing this deliberately or maliciously. You may also want to experiment with different rhythms of rocking as well as firm pressure on her back as a way of calming her.
Of course, maintaining a warm emotional tone when you’re exhausted isn’t easy! But keep in mind that reacting with anger (“You better stop that right now!”) is simply going to prolong her crying by overloading her even more.
An eighteen-month-old who is overexcited by noise and touch may fly into long tantrums whenever she doesn’t get her way. Let’s assume she is being greedy with her three new toys, and she won’t let her older brother play with any of them. She has thrown herself on the floor and is rolling back and forth, screaming furiously. Here, you need to walk a fine line between dealing with her extra need for comfort and security, and helping her learn to cope with her greed. You can be empathetic, but with a firmer tone. “I know you’re mad,” you might say. “And I know you want to keep all the toys. But your brother just wants to play with one of them,” and you point to her brother. Then, in a firm, but supportive tone of voice, you can try to negotiate some trades. Maybe big brother will let little sister play with one of his toys in exchange for being able to play with one of the new toys. Again, you are empathetic, recognizing your child’s anger. But you aren’t rushing in with an overdose of hyped-up sympathy (“Oh, my poor little baby!”) and you don’t rush in with a punitive “police approach” either – grabbing one of the toys and saying angrily, “You can’t be so greedy!” In negotiating the trade, you are respecting her special needs, and at the same time you are teaching her to cope with selfishness. Again, your child may not understand all your words. But she can hear both the empathy and the resolve in your voice and read it in your face and posture.
To some parents, this attitude comes naturally. But, many of us have to work consciously at adopting it, especially when the child’s extra neediness, on the one hand, and greediness on the other hand pull us in the direction of either overprotectiveness or being too punitive.
What about a four-year-old who wants all the treats on the dessert table at the party, but has been told she can have only one? “I don’t want just one!” she begins to wail. “I want more!”
“Oh, I bet you could eat all the cake and candy on the table,” you might say. “I bet your eyes are telling you that your stomach is big enough to have every single thing at the table.” As the child gets angrier, your tone continues to be empathetic, but gets firmer. The key is to empathize with a child’s feeling even if it is a feeling you don’t like. Often parents think that if they empathize with a child’s feeling, they will somehow encourage that feeling in the child’s mind or intensify it. But recognizing what a child is feeling will help her recognize and label that feeling, rather than experience it as a vague sensation. Keep in mind that empathy creates closeness between you and your child. That is the important part. You don’t have to guess accurately each time which particular emotion to empathize with. The goal is compassion for how she experiences things – to create that atmosphere of closeness between the two of you.
When that four-year-old grabs for an extra piece of cake, father has to intercede, blocking her rapidly advancing hand with a firm tone of voice and stern look as she begins to fly into a tantrum. Father quickly says, “I know it’s hard with so many good things at the table.” And he puts his hand on her back and rubs it a bit as she whimpers. What father didn’t do was to yell and overwhelm his daughter. Nor did he patronize or overindulge her by giving her three extra pieces of cake. Father was firm, yet warm and compassionate. Easy to say, but hard to do!
As the sensitive child enters the school-aged years, her sensitivity may express itself in clinging and terror at leaving your side. You may want to empathize specifically with her uncertainty about where you are going to be while she is in school.
“I know you don’t want me to walk out that door,” you could say gently, “because you don’t know just where I will be.” You can then help her picture where you will be. One strategy would be to use pretend play to help you in this. You could recreate her school with blocks, for example. Using toy cars and buses, you could act out how mommy and daddy travel to and from work, home, and school. You could also take her to your work and then to school so she can begin to grasp just how far away you are. This will help your child picture her parents when they are separated from her.
Sometimes you may feel like escaping from your clinging child. However, your child will sense this urge in you, and she’ll only watch you more vigilantly, holding onto you with a tighter grip and watching you with an eagle eye. Compensate for your wish to escape by providing your child the security she desperately needs. Spend extra time with her to reassure her that you are willing to be with her. A very useful way to spend extra time is in what I describe as “floor time.” Sympathize with her need to be close. After that, having relaxed and compensated for your own desire to escape, you have essentially “earned” the right to set limits, teaching your child that sometimes mommy and daddy need time for themselves.
Empathy can be especially hard with a child who has an angry clinginess (“Don’t you dare leave me!”). Some children, for example, are quite willing to be separated from their mother or father, if they themselves are going off with a friend and her parents for ice cream or a visit to the park. However, they become enraged if the parents dare to go out for fun and leave them with the boring babysitter. But parents can still empathize. In their words and emotional tone, they need to direct their empathy at the child’s predominant feeling. When this is outrage rather than fear, it’s helpful to try to empathize with that rage. “I know you hate it when we go off to have some fun,” you could say. “But, you know, mommy and daddy need to go out sometimes, also.”
As your sensitive child advances in the school years, the politics of the playground – that is, peer relations – will be a challenge to her many sensitivities. A nine-year-old who, in growing up, had been sensitive to touch and easily overwhelmed by her feelings, may now feel exceedingly disappointed because she has just learned that she is only the number two best friend of someone she considers her number one best friend. Many parents have an especially hard time when their children are feeling sad and disappointed. Since these feelings are some of the hardest human feelings to cope with, parents hate to see their children suffer through them. It’s an especially hard situation for parents of sensitive children and the children themselves, because these children feel emotions so strongly. But parents can help their children come to grips with these difficult feelings, learn to tolerate a sense of loss and disappointment, and move on.
No matter how extreme or unrealistic your child’s feelings may seem to you, try to empathize with them. “I feel empty – like no one will ever like me again,” she may sob.
As you see your child going from a feeling of emptiness to overgeneralizing with “No one will ever like me,” try to help her examine the emotion for a moment. You might, for example, comment that you’ve had times when you’ve felt “empty” inside, too, and you know that feeling seems like it will never go away. This may help your child go on and describe related feelings, such as “I just can’t stand it. I feel so lonely. I feel embarrassed, too, when everyone else is with their friends and I’m all by myself.”
As you help your child express her plight, you may see her go back and forth between feelings of being “ugly,” embarrassed, enraged, and empty. Don’t try to analyze the feelings; instead, just help her become a “poet” of her feelings, particularly ones that to you seem associated with loss, such as “emptiness.”
A child may not be able to reveal much of her feelings the first time. The next day, perhaps, a little more may emerge. The key is to help your child experience your warmth and acceptance alongside her own painful feelings of emptiness, humiliation, and rage. Just hang in there. Don’t try to say too much. Just maintain a soothing, comfortable presence. This lets your child know that feelings of loss and emptiness are part of the human drama. Eventually, as your child begins to talk about new friends or different groups that she is beginning to get to know, you will be in a position to support her and the beginnings of more positive feelings.
Some emotions are painful, there’s no doubt about that. But if those feelings are experienced as part of a relationship, then the child no longer feels alone in trying to cope with them. She learns to tolerate the feelings and not be devastated by them.
If your child were to tell you “No one will ever like me,” and you were to change the subject too quickly, or give your child a pep talk too soon, flooding her with practical suggestions (“That’s too bad about Alicia. But you have lots of other friends. There’s Beth and Stacy and Leah. I’ll call them up and invite them over!”), you could deprive her of a valuable opportunity. The message becomes “I don’t want to hear those sad, lonely feelings.” The emotion then gets pushed down and becomes more a private feeling, to be endured alone.