Originally published at WonderfulMama online magazine
As a professional working therapeutically with families, I’m often asked questions by parents, like you, about how to promote children’s emotional wellbeing. This is especially true for those of you with a sensitive child.
High sensitivity as a character trait is found in 15-20% of the whole population. Sensitive children have an inbuilt propensity to show overwhelm and distress in a variety of situations. This can serve a wonderful functional purpose. It can also mean that you are constantly playing diffuser, protector, avoider, or a combination of all of the above.
You want to know what is developmentally appropriate and when there’s cause for concern. You wish you weren’t comparing your child, but you can’t help but notice that your son seems to overreact to things that your daughter doesn’t. You want to know, “Why is my child like that?” and “What can I do to support him/her?”
Dr Justin Coulson, a respected psychologist and parenting expert, explains the following five common reasons why a child shows distress: Hunger, Anger, Loneliness, Tiredness, and/or Stress. ‘HALTS’ is a helpful acronym to keep in mind when guiding or supporting your child through a particularly vulnerable moment.
Furthermore, here’s five areas for consideration that may help you to meet your sensitive child’s emotional and behavioural needs:
Rule out an organic explanation for why your child is demonstrating sensitivity. That is, check in with your GP, MHCN or paediatrician to explore your child’s hearing, eyesight, and overall development. I’m not a huge fan of labels but understanding the challenges your child faces and the reasons behind it can help alleviate angst and uncertainty. This professional will pursue an exploration of neurological reasons for presentation and behaviour if they deem it necessary. Otherwise, you can move into playing the next important role.
Promote understanding and acceptance. It’s likely that your child, especially as they get older, will start to notice their differences. As their parent, showing care, compassion and love will help them to accept their differences. Given innate traits tend to stay static over time, this is significant for building their confidence and self-esteem. Try to avoid shaming emotional expression, it will help give space for connection and support. Language that is reassuring, calm and identifies feelings can be especially useful here. Think about being a sports commentator for your child’s reactions – it might sound silly, but in the thick of distressing situations, you want to feel confident. An example: “I can see that you are upset; I wonder whether you feel that what happened was unfair; I’m just going to go over here to get something I need and will be right back; I can see you’re trying to be really brave”.
Involve educational settings in the conversation. Unfortunately, some educators may assign your child a label of ‘problematic’ or ‘difficult’, which is an easy go-to. It’s probably not entirely accurate or helpful though. Luckily, with increased understanding about children’s individual differences, most teachers are flexible and understanding. As best they can, they will be responsive to your concerns and wishes. You can also try giving insight into what has worked at home and what has not been so helpful. I know of instances where classrooms/childcare rooms have provided a designated quiet space for children to ‘tap-out’ of overwhelming situations. This can help build their ability to self-regulate their internal world.
Evaluate your own sensitivities. Are you able to empathise with your child’s sensitivity or does it feel very foreign to you? To be honest, it doesn’t really matter either way. If you can – try your best to reflect on, and regulate, your own emotions in heightened situations. Try not to blame yourself for the struggles your child is going through. Explore, grow and develop alongside your child. Reading picture story books that focus on social and emotional learning as part of your normal bedtime ritual is a great opportunity to explore feelings together. You can even use real-world examples of when and why you get frustrated sometimes, or what you do when you feel sad or scared.
Use your bond to build resilience and independence. Babies’ and kids’ brains are hardwired to interact with others. Kids need their (figurative) emotional cup to be full to grow and develop. Through positive interactions, you can fill up your child’s cup with a sense of being loved, secure, and connected. You can promote your child’s independence by encouraging play and exploration, but endeavour to stay close enough to be available to soothe them or delight in their learning. You could even try to designate time and/or a space in your home for safe exploration of uncomfortable feelings. A place for your child to take time out from any overwhelm.
As a parent, your heart may ache for your child’s daily emotional struggles. You might also feel exhausted from trying to be emotionally available all the time. Shifting your expectations, avoiding comparisons and allowing your child to progress at their own pace can alleviate angst. Accepting them as they are and showing insight and responsiveness affords opportunity to make those moments of vulnerability, ones of connection and growth. Above all, try to remember that every child is unique and you can play a significant role in reflecting on what you can do to respond sensitively to the needs of your child, and your child alone.
What strategies have you found useful to support your sensitive child’s needs? Please share in the comments. Penny x
Penny Gibson is a Masters qualified Mental Health Clinician with a specific interest in working with people to promote thriving relationships. She utilises what we know about the brain and development to help clients understand the ‘What’, ‘Why’, and ‘How’ of meeting the needs of others, particularly children.