7 Things You Should Never Say to the Parent of a Highly Sensitive Child (by Megan Stonelake)

7 Things You Should Never Say to the Parent of a Highly Sensitive Child

Have you ever met a kid who always seems to dissolve into a puddle after being corrected, even gently? Do you know a child who can’t stand socks that have a seam or shirts with tags? Do you know a child who seems to intuit your thoughts and feelings before even you can identify them? These are all features of sensitivity, a personality trait found in about 20% of the population. 

Sensitivity is a quality that is often misunderstood and frequently judged. And because strangers and loved ones alike love giving unsolicited parenting advice, parents of highly sensitive children (HSCs) have heard it all. Here’s a list of actual statements made to parents of HSCs that would have been better left unsaid.

1. “He’ll have to toughen up someday.” 

Science begs to differ. People with a “sensory processing sensitivity (SPS)” as determined by a highly sensitive person (HSP) scale show heightened brain activity when exposed to various stimuli. “…HSP scores were associated with stronger activation of brain regions involved in awareness, empathy, and self-other processing. These results provide evidence that awareness and responsiveness are fundamental features of SPS, and show how the brain may mediate these traits.” Highly sensitive people don’t just “toughen up,” they are hardwired for sensitivity. They may develop emotional calluses as a defense mechanism, but they’re likely the same sensitive people under that persona. 

2. “She sure is emotional!”

This might be an accurate observation, but it’s not a helpful one. HSCs often experience emotions more intensely than other children. Ted Zeff, Ph.D who is an expert on sensitivity explains in an interview with the Huffpost that highly sensitive people “…like to process things on a deep level…They’re very intuitive, and go very deep inside to try to figure things out.” The good news is emotions aren’t inherently good or bad; they’re a neutral fact of life. We only experience problems when we attempt to control our children’s emotions or place a value on them. 

3. “You’re just projecting.”

There are data to suggest that sensitivity has a genetic component. As a highly sensitive person with many highly sensitive relatives, this couldn’t be more obvious to me. So when a parent intuits his child’s feelings, it’s mostly likely because he too has heightened sensitivity!  It isn’t so much a matter of my projecting my sensitivity on my son as my relating strongly to his experiences. 

4. “She’s manipulating you.” 

When a child expresses a need, they aren’t scheming; they’re feeling vulnerable and turning to their secure base for safety. HSCs typically have a lower threshold for stimulation and  express their feelings more strongly than less sensitive children. Plus as Dr. Deborah MacNamara points out, they often require more attention before their emotional needs are met. None of this is manipulative. If you have one child who needs a snack mid-day and one who doesn’t, you wouldn’t label the one who needs a snack as manipulative or read some dark intention into a request to eat. You’d take it at face value. Emotional needs should be treated the same. 

5. “He STILL doesn’t sleep through the night?”

Ask any parent of an HSC, and they will likely mention sleep woes. It’s difficult for HSCs to filter out information, including their own thoughts and feelings. One sleep expert on the Sleep Lady website observes, “Highly sensitive children may have even more difficulty shutting these feelings out when it is time to go to sleep.” I assure you, you’ve never met a person who has worked harder to try to get a child to sleep than I have. I remember the day I finally gave up the battle and decided to listen to my kid and not the books, experts, and lay people who love doling out advice. His sleep didn’t improve, but my attitude did.  

6. “Sometimes we just have to make our kids do things they don’t want to do.”

This is a valid argument if what your small child doesn’t want to do is ride in her car seat or hold your hand while crossing a busy road. This does not apply to social situations or experiences a highly sensitive child is not yet equipped to handle. This isn’t to say we should coddle our HSCs, but we should take their lead and only push gently when we’re confident they’re ready for a new experience in which they are likely to thrive. 

7. “You’re going to have to cut the cord at some point.”

Highly sensitive children often need extra time to warm up to new situations and people. They may not be ready for preschool when their peers are, and they may stick to us like glue in new situations. Listening to your HSC doesn’t make you a helicopter parent, it makes you one who is attuned to the needs of your child. I once visited a child psychologist to discuss my HSC. I was wracked with guilt that I was delaying his introduction to school by a year, and I was worrying he would be delayed in some profound and irreversible way. The psychologist reminded me that it’s a distinctly American trait to rush our children into each new phase of development. Allowing our children to grow at their own pace is a gift to them and ourselves; there’s no reason to put undue pressure on ourselves to make our children independent or self-reliant before they’re ready. 

The expert of sensitivity and originator of the concept of the highly sensitive person, Dr. Elaine N. Aron, encourages parents to view sensitivity as the gift that it is. She observes that highly sensitive children challenge their parents to become more emotionally aware, are capable of connecting on a deep and meaningful level, and if given the support he needs, a highly sensitive child will, “make an exceptional contribution to the world.”

To determine if you’re raising a HSC, you can take this quiz.


About the Author: Megan Stonelake

Megan StonelakeMegan Stonelake is a therapist, blogger, and mama to a sweet four year old. Most recently she has written for Scary Mommy, Huffpost Blog, Sammiches & Psych Meds, and Parent.co. Her fascinations include child development, empathy, and all things parenting. Head over to her blog, Empathic Parenting, where you can sign up for her newsletter to receive tips and musings on peaceful parenting. You can also follow her on Twitter and Facebook.

14 Comments

Angela

Very informative! I am highly sensitive (36yrs) and came across this page looking for tips to parent (and secure and nurture) my inner child. This has made me aware of how I wanted to be treated when I was a little girl, but I did not have the words for it. Thank you for helping my inner child voicing what she needs from me <3

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Kelly Ann

Hi, thank you for the great article. I often write on HSC having two myself! The more I learn, the more I realise that it really does take a change in attitude to parent a HSC. Thanks for the encouragement.

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Maria

My highly sensitive 5 year old daughter is truly a joy but it has been hard trying not to compare her with other “outgoing” children who dive into every situation. I worry that her shyness will hinder her.
She needs me to lay with her to sleep and will wake up during the night which will result in me just sleeping with her. I worry that I’m causing some of her anxiety by never properly teaching her to sleep independently. I’ve always co slept. Do you believe sleeping will naturally improve as our children get older?

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Tee

Hi All,
I am the mum of a gorgeous 26 year old daughter, and a wonderful 24 year old son. My son was the most content baby ever. However, my daughter was the most sensitive baby … a non stop grizzle – until she could talk! And she talked…. And I listened. She HATED those socks with the seam in the toe, and that once loved pillowcase that now has started to pill and that rug with the lumpy bits and that pink tee-shirt with the fairies because the scratchy tag rubbed on her neck. How I wished she could have told me (in words) when she was a newborn… She was a sensitive toddle, a sensitive child, a sensitive teenager, and now she is expecting her first child. And, yes, she’s a sensitive expecting Mum. I so love her, as she has made me a more sensitive, understanding person. She has taught me to listen, rather than complain. She has taught me that through my listening and understanding, I have the opportunity to make life a little better for those around me. These sensitive people in our lives are a reminder to us that we are all so wonderfully different, and individual and special. We are not all alike. We each have an equally real point of view and experience! Truly appreciate their view of the world, and it will widen and deepen your experience too. Yes, I too believe that sensitivity is inherited, but I pray my efforts to ‘break with generational cycle’ will be effective, not by toughening someone up, but because of my increased sensitivity – to listen, learn and truly understand. Love to you All.

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Ella

Dear Dee,

I so can relate to you. You sound exactly like me…I too cry when I’m happy, sad, mad etc. I too was and still am considered an “over-reactor”, I too am married to someone who thinks I’m “too sensitive” and doesn’t understand (since he can be highly insensitive and cold). However, I wouldn’t change being this way for anything though. No matter how many people don’t understand me (my siblings, my parents, my husand, my kids, my mother-in-law) I feel I offer what maybe tougher less sensitive people can’t…a lot of caring towards others, a lot of concern for others well being, empathy, as well as sympathy. Be proud of who you are and don’t let anyone including your husband make you feel ashamed for being you.

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Tammy McKenzie

I love this article ! As a child I grew up with a friend that was highly sensitive. One of my daughters and two grandchildren that are HS . She is so empathetic to others as well. My daughter is so good at loving and supporting them . She also has come up with some great ideas that have helped her daughters
conquer the sleep situation as well.

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Paige Strand

While I’m not a parent, I find it sad that people feel it appropriate to comment on any aspect of another’s parenting style. Its one thing to ask for advice and receive it, but another to be branded with the opinions of others.

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Barbara

I love the advice on this topic. As a HSP who was a HSC and introverted, with 2 parents who were very outgoing, extraverted and gregarious, I was often pushed to do things way outside my comfort zone. I would just shut down and then be told I was pouting, sulking, and my behavior was unacceptable. They thought there was something wrong with me and that is what I internalized. There was no term for this condition when I was growing up in the 1950’s/1960’s other than “shy.”

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Megan

It’s wonderful that we now have the language to describe this common trait, and I do hope it will continue to become a more accepted variation of normal.

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Dee

Not only do I have a daughter like this, this has been me my whole life. My family never understood and had no patience for it. They would get mad at me for being “over sensitive” and say “oh, don’t worry about D, she overacts to everything”. I now have a husband who is like that. He definitely falls into the toxic person category as well. The longer we are together, the nastier he becomes. He thinks I overreact and am too sensitive. I try to work with my daughter in being patient with her and telling her is alright to be sensitive. People like us need someone who understands our sensitivity. I cry when I’m happy, sad, mad, offended, etc. and I see my daughter doing the same thing. I wish I could change it for her. Being sensitive my whole life has been so difficult. Especially at work, but I know there is nothing I can do to help her. We are both just hard wired that way.

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Hey Sigmund

Dee, you and your daughter absolutely need someone who loves you because of your sensitivity, not despite it. I imagine that being with you would be like living in full colour. You would have so many wonderful qualities because of your sensitivity, and the message for your daughter is to find be with people who want to embrace it, rather than people who want to change it.

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Susan

My experience, and that of many others, is that we chose a mate or significant other who models the toxic criticism we have not learned to separate from, that we usually heard from critical parent. Prevent poisoning another generation by working this out or dumping the s.i.!

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Dee

Thank you; I couldn’t agree more. I hope she finds someone who will embrace her sensitivity too. She has so much to give and she is so thoughtful and caring.

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Megan

I love the imagery of life in full color! I find sensitivity to be a strength rather than a weakness. The sensitive people are the ones attuned to our environment and can point out what needs to changed. We also can often intuit the feelings of other which is such an asset in relationships.

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Big feelings, and the big behaviour that comes from big feelings, are a sign of a distressed nervous system. Think of this like a burning building. The behaviour is the smoke. The fire is a distressed nervous system. It’s so tempting to respond directly to the behaviour (the smoke), but by doing this, we ignore the fire. Their behaviour and feelings in that moment are a call for support - for us to help that distressed brain and body find the way home. 

The most powerful language for any nervous system is another nervous system. They will catch our distress (as we will catch theirs) but they will also catch our calm. It can be tempting to move them to independence on this too quickly, but it just doesn’t work this way. Children can only learn to self-regulate with lots (and lots and lots) of experience co-regulating. 

This isn’t something that can be taught. It’s something that has to be experienced over and over. It’s like so many things - driving a car, playing the piano - we can talk all we want about ‘how’ but it’s not until we ‘do’ over and over that we get better at it. 

Self-regulation works the same way. It’s not until children have repeated experiences with an adult bringing them back to calm, that they develop the neural pathways to come back to calm on their own. 

An important part of this is making sure we are guiding that nervous system with tender, gentle hands and a steady heart. This is where our own self-regulation becomes important. Our nervous systems speak to each other every moment of every day. When our children or teens are distressed, we will start to feel that distress. It becomes a loop. We feel what they feel, they feel what we feel. Our own capacity to self-regulate is the circuit breaker. 

This can be so tough, but it can happen in microbreaks. A few strong steady breaths can calm our own nervous system, which we can then use to calm theirs. Breathe, and be with. It’s that simple, but so tough to do some days. When they come back to calm, then have those transformational chats - What happened? What can make it easier next time?

Who you are in the moment will always be more important than what you do.
How we are with them, when they are their everyday selves and when they aren’t so adorable, will build their view of three things: the world, its people, and themselves. This will then inform how they respond to the world and how they build their very important space in it. 

Will it be a loving, warm, open-hearted space with lots of doors for them to throw open to the people and experiences that are right for them? Or will it be a space with solid, too high walls that close out too many of the people and experiences that would nourish them.

They will learn from what we do with them and to them, for better or worse. We don’t teach them that the world is safe for them to reach into - we show them. We don’t teach them to be kind, respectful, and compassionate. We show them. We don’t teach them that they matter, and that other people matter, and that their voices and their opinions matter. We show them. We don’t teach them that they are little joy mongers who light up the world. We show them. 

But we have to be radically kind with ourselves too. None of this is about perfection. Parenting is hard, and days will be hard, and on too many of those days we’ll be hard too. That’s okay. We’ll say things we shouldn’t say and do things we shouldn’t do. We’re human too. Let’s not put pressure on our kiddos to be perfect by pretending that we are. As long as we repair the ruptures as soon as we can, and bathe them in love and the warmth of us as much as we can, they will be okay.

This also isn’t about not having boundaries. We need to be the guardians of their world and show them where the edges are. But in the guarding of those boundaries we can be strong and loving, strong and gentle. We can love them, and redirect their behaviour.

It’s when we own our stuff(ups) and when we let them see us fall and rise with strength, integrity, and compassion, and when we hold them gently through the mess of it all, that they learn about humility, and vulnerability, and the importance of holding bruised hearts with tender hands. It’s not about perfection, it’s about consistency, and honesty, and the way we respond to them the most.♥️

#parenting #mindfulparenting
Anxiety and courage always exist together. It can be no other way. Anxiety is a call to courage. It means you're about to do something brave, so when there is one the other will be there too. Their courage might feel so small and be whisper quiet, but it will always be there and always ready to show up when they need it to.
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But courage doesn’t always feel like courage, and it won't always show itself as a readiness. Instead, it might show as a rising - from fear, from uncertainty, from anger. None of these mean an absence of courage. They are the making of space, and the opportunity for courage to rise.
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When the noise from anxiety is loud and obtuse, we’ll have to gently add our voices to usher their courage into the light. We can do this speaking of it and to it, and by shifting the focus from their anxiety to their brave. The one we focus on is ultimately what will become powerful. It will be the one we energise. Anxiety will already have their focus, so we’ll need to make sure their courage has ours.
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But we have to speak to their fear as well, in a way that makes space for it to be held and soothed, with strength. Their fear has an important job to do - to recruit the support of someone who can help them feel safe. Only when their fear has been heard will it rest and make way for their brave.
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What does this look like? Tell them their stories of brave, but acknowledge the fear that made it tough. Stories help them process their emotional experiences in a safe way. It brings word to the feelings and helps those big feelings make sense and find containment. ‘You were really worried about that exam weren’t you. You couldn’t get to sleep the night before. It was tough going to school but you got up, you got dressed, you ... and you did it. Then you ...’
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In the moment, speak to their brave by first acknowledging their need to flee (or fight), then tell them what you know to be true - ‘This feels scary for you doesn’t it. I know you want to run. It makes so much sense that you would want to do that. I also know you can do hard things. My darling, I know it with everything in me.’
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#positiveparenting #parenting #childanxiety #anxietyinchildren #mindfulpare
Separation anxiety has an important job to do - it’s designed to keep children safe by driving them to stay close to their important adults. Gosh it can feel brutal sometimes though.

Whenever there is separation from an attachment person there will be anxiety unless there are two things: attachment with another trusted, loving adult; and a felt sense of you holding on, even when you aren't beside them. Putting these in place will help soften anxiety.

As long as children are are in the loving care of a trusted adult, there's no need to avoid separation. We'll need to remind ourselves of this so we can hold on to ourselves when our own anxiety is rising in response to theirs. 

If separation is the problem, connection has to be the solution. The connection can be with any loving adult, but it's more than an adult being present. It needs an adult who, through their strong, warm, loving presence, shows the child their abundant intention to care for that child, and their joy in doing so. This can be helped along by showing that you trust the adult to love that child big in our absence. 'I know [important adult] loves you and is going to take such good care of you.'

To help your young one feel held on to by you, even in absence, let them know you'll be thinking of them and can't wait to see them. Bolster this by giving them something of yours to hold while you're gone - a scarf, a note - anything that will be felt as 'you'.

They know you are the one who makes sure their world is safe, so they’ll be looking to you for signs of safety: 'Do you think we'll be okay if we aren't together?' First, validate: 'You really want to stay with me, don't you. I wish I could stay with you too! It's hard being away from your special people isn't it.' Then, be their brave. Let it be big enough to wrap around them so they can rest in the safety and strength of it: 'I know you can do this, love. We can do hard things can't we.'

Part of growing up brave is learning that the presence of anxiety doesn't always mean something is wrong. Sometimes it means they are on the edge of brave - and being away from you for a while counts as brave.
Even the most loving, emotionally available adult might feel frustration, anger, helplessness or distress in response to a child’s big feelings. This is how it’s meant to work. 

Their distress (fight/flight) will raise distress in us. The purpose is to move us to protect or support or them, but of course it doesn’t always work this way. When their big feelings recruit ours it can drive us more to fight (anger, blame), or to flee (avoid, ignore, separate them from us) which can steal our capacity to support them. It will happen to all of us from time to time. 

Kids and teens can’t learn to manage big feelings on their own until they’ve done it plenty of times with a calm, loving adult. This is where co-regulation comes in. It helps build the vital neural pathways between big feelings and calm. They can’t build those pathways on their own. 

It’s like driving a car. We can tell them how to drive as much as we like, but ‘talking about’ won’t mean they’re ready to hit the road by themselves. Instead we sit with them in the front seat for hours, driving ‘with’ until they can do it on their own. Feelings are the same. We feel ‘with’, over and over, until they can do it on their own. 

What can help is pausing for a moment to see the behaviour for what it is - a call for support. It’s NOT bad behaviour or bad parenting. It’s not that.

Our own feelings can give us a clue to what our children are feeling. It’s a normal, healthy, adaptive way for them to share an emotional load they weren’t meant to carry on their own. Self-regulation makes space for us to hold those feelings with them until those big feelings ease. 

Self-regulation can happen in micro moments. First, see the feelings or behaviour for what it is - a call for support. Then breathe. This will calm your nervous system, so you can calm theirs. In the same way we will catch their distress, they will also catch ours - but they can also catch our calm. Breathe, validate, and be ‘with’. And you don’t need to do more than that.

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