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.

Reply

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When you can’t cut out (their worries), add in (what they need for felt safety). 

Rather than focusing on what we need them to do, shift the focus to what we can do. Make the environment as safe as we can (add in another safe adult), and have so much certainty that they can do this, they can borrow what they need and wrap it around themselves again and again and again.

You already do this when they have to do things that don’t want to do, but which you know are important - brushing their teeth, going to the dentist, not eating ice cream for dinner (too often). The key for living bravely is to also recognise that so many of the things that drive anxiety are equally important. 

We also need to ask, as their important adults - ‘Is this scary safe or scary dangerous?’ ‘Do I move them forward into this or protect them from it?’♥️
The need to feel connected to, and seen by our people is instinctive. 

THE FIX: Add in micro-connections to let them feel you seeing them, loving them, connecting with them, enjoying them:

‘I love being your mum.’
‘I love being your dad.’
‘I missed you today.’
‘I can’t wait to hang out with you at bedtime 
and read a story together.’

Or smiling at them, playing with them, 
sharing something funny, noticing something about them, ‘remembering when...’ with them.

And our adult loves need the same, as we need the same from them.♥️
Our kids need the same thing we do: to feel safe and loved through all feelings not just the convenient ones.

Gosh it’s hard though. I’ve never lost my (thinking) mind as much at anyone as I have with the people I love most in this world.

We’re human, not bricks, and even though we’re parents we still feel it big sometimes. Sometimes these feelings make it hard for us to be the people we want to be for our loves.

That’s the truth of it, and that’s the duality of being a parent. We love and we fury. We want to connect and we want to pull away. We hold it all together and sometimes we can’t.

None of this is about perfection. It’s about being human, and the best humans feel, argue, fight, reconnect, own our ‘stuff’. We keep working on growing and being more of our everythingness, just in kinder ways.

If we get it wrong, which we will, that’s okay. What’s important is the repair - as soon as we can and not selling it as their fault. Our reaction is our responsibility, not theirs. This might sound like, ‘I’m really sorry I yelled. You didn’t deserve that. I really want to hear what you have to say. Can we try again?’

Of course, none of this means ‘no boundaries’. What it means is adding warmth to the boundary. One without the other will feel unsafe - for them, us, and others.

This means making sure that we’ve claimed responsibility- the ability to respond to what’s happening. It doesn’t mean blame. It means recognising that when a young person is feeling big, they don’t have the resources to lead out of the turmoil, so we have to lead them out - not push them out.

Rather than focusing on what we want them to do, shift the focus to what we can do to bring felt safety and calm back into the space.

THEN when they’re calm talk about what’s happened, the repair, and what to do next time.

Discipline means ‘to teach’, not to punish. They will learn best when they are connected to you. Maybe there is a need for consequences, but these must be about repair and restoration. Punishment is pointless, harmful, and outdated.

Hold the boundary, add warmth. Don’t ask them to do WHEN they can’t do. Wait until they can hear you and work on what’s needed. There’s no hurry.♥️
Recently I chatted with @rebeccasparrow72 , host of ABC Listen’s brilliant podcast, ‘Parental as Anything: Teens’. I loved this chat. Bec asked all the questions that let us crack the topic right open. Our conversation was in response to a listener’s question, that I expect will be familiar to many parents in many homes. Have a listen here:
https://www.abc.net.au/listen/programs/parental-as-anything-with-maggie-dent/how-can-i-help-my-anxious-teen/104035562
School refusal is escalating. Something that’s troubling me is the use of the word ‘school can’t’ when talking about kids.

Stay with me.

First, let’s be clear: school refusal isn’t about won’t. It’s about can’t. Not truly can’t but felt can’t. It’s about anxiety making school feel so unsafe for a child, avoidance feels like the only option.

Here’s the problem. Language is powerful, and when we put ‘can’t’ onto a child, it tells a deficiency story about the child.

But school refusal isn’t about the child.
It’s about the environment not feeling safe enough right now, or separation from a parent not feeling safe enough right now. The ‘can’t’ isn’t about the child. It’s about an environment that can’t support the need for felt safety - yet.

This can happen in even the most loving, supportive schools. All schools are full of anxiety triggers. They need to be because anything new, hard, brave, growthful will always come with potential threats - maybe failure, judgement, shame. Even if these are so unlikely, the brain won’t care. All it will read is ‘danger’.

Of course sometimes school actually isn’t safe. Maybe peer relationships are tricky. Maybe teachers are shouty and still using outdated ways to manage behaviour. Maybe sensory needs aren’t met.

Most of the time though it’s not actual threat but ’felt threat’.

The deficiency isn’t with the child. It’s with the environment. The question isn’t how do we get rid of their anxiety. It’s how do we make the environment feel safe enough so they can feel supported enough to handle the discomfort of their anxiety.

We can throw all the resources we want at the child, but:

- if the parent doesn’t believe the child is safe enough, cared for enough, capable enough; or

- if school can’t provide enough felt safety for the child (sensory accommodations, safe peer relationships, at least one predictable adult the child feels safe with and cared for by),

that child will not feel safe enough.

To help kids feel safe and happy at school, we have to recognise that it’s the environment that needs changing, not the child. This doesn’t mean the environment is wrong. It’s about making it feel more right for this child.♥️

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