Talking to Your Sensitive Child

Talking to Your Sensitive Child

Whether the term ‘highly sensitive’ is brand new to you or not, there’s no doubt about it: there is a growing number of sensitive children out there, and parenting and communicating with them, for most, can be a challenge.

Dr E Aron suggests that about 20% of the population are highly sensitive – people who notice and feel more of their environment and who have more sensitive nervous systems than those who are not sensitive. This may have been true some 10-20 years ago, but I’ve noticed an increase in children who are sensitive and an increase in parents who struggle to know what to do for the best – both in my personal life and my professional practice.

I grew up lonely and bewildered, never knowing where I fit in or why I was different. I had parents who desperately tried to toughen me up (to no avail) and was branded a “baby” by friends and was an easy target for bullies, all due to my emotional nature.

Fast forward 30 years, on the brink of an emotional (and possibly mental) breakdown, about to have a child; someone, somehow mentioned the term, ‘Highly Sensitive Person,’ and my life changed overnight.

Parenting my own sensitive child has been a learning curve, but I discovered the term ‘highly sensitive’ and found out that I was highly sensitive just after my daughter was born 6 years ago.

Awareness. Why it matters.

Just knowing I was highly sensitive (and not neurotic or ‘mental’ – terms I used to describe myself) helped me in ways I can’t even describe, If my daughter turned out to be sensitive, I wanted her to know as early as possible – so she didn’t grow up feeling alone like I did, I wanted to be able to explain and reassure her she was perfectly normal – the things I longed for as a child myself  – but how could I do that?

I knew I had to feel my way, taking it step by step and deeply trusting myself and that what I was doing was okay. I knew I needed to learn more about the term ‘highly sensitive’ and what it really meant. I knew I had to empower myself with the knowledge, if I was going to empower her.

I started to understand that being highly sensitive isn’t a flaw or a disorder – it’s a personality trait. Around 20% of the population have this trait and the world needs us! I learned that people who are highly sensitive have a more sensitive nervous system, making stimulating environments tiring and often overwhelming. I learned that her (and my!) emotional outbursts were due to the fact that she was often over stimulated and her system craved ‘downtime’ – alone time and quiet. I learned that highly sensitive people can also be empathic and intuitive and can easily pick up on the feelings and emotions of other people and their environments. I learned that highly sensitive people can manage their overwhelm, through simple techniques, tools and having loving and understanding support system around them.

I’m proud to say my now 6 year old, sensitive and empathic daughter, is thriving in the modern world she finds herself in. She has a set of tools she can use to manage her strong emotions, she knows she is understood and she is given space to BE the Highly Sensitive child she is.

Most importantly she knows she is sensitive; I’ve explained it to her and it’s become part of our conversation.

What I learned may be surprising to some. Albert Einstein said, “Everything should be made as simple as possible, but not simpler.” So don’t let the simplicity of my approach put you off.

Parenting a Highly Sensitive child means unplugging from what society projects onto you, it means being human and displaying human emotions like empathy, kindness, patience and understanding, it means teaching your child self-love and self-respect and self-awareness. Simple, BEAUTIFUL acts, which we are all capable of.

We don’t need to toughen our children up!

Getting your child to understand their own sensitive nature

From an early age (or as soon as I understood about highly sensitive people & children), I started to open the discussion with my daughter about her being sensitive too. I mainly did this so she knew that I understood her, and to help equip her with the knowledge she needed when I wasn’t around; so she could start to self-manage and self-soothe her own high sensitivities.

Sharing what you know and feel comfortable with, will help your sensitive child feel less alone and more understood; which is vital for highly sensitive people.

If you validate the fact that they are different and sensitive, it makes it okay, it makes it acceptable, and it helps them feel more secure in themselves.

If children learn about high sensitivity from an earlier age, they can learn to self manage overwhelm and recognise themselves, when they are out of balance. It empowers them to know they own needs and be in charge of their self care.

“Youre getting upset easily because you’ve had a busy day and you’re sensitive, so it makes you feel funny and get tired easily. What we need to do is go home and have some calm and quiet time, maybe a bath or do your favourite hobby …”

Oh how I wish my Mum would have said this to me …

Really, a highly sensitive person, just wants someone to show they understand them.

They want reassurance from us, their parents, that they are completely normal for feeling the way they do inside – even though it’s different from what everyone else is like. If they are empathic or intuitive they will be super aware of this.

It’s important to explain that being sensitive means that they feel more and notice more, and that this can make them feel emotional, uneasy, or tired, and that sometimes they just need to do nothing.

They don’t know unless we tell them right?

Follow their lead. Ask a few questions and see where it takes you. Don’t be afraid of talking about feelings!

Never presume your child is too young to have what seems like a grown up conversation to you. Sensitive children are often far more emotionally intelligent than they let on. And if you want your child to be able to come to you with their problems when they are older, you have to open the gateway NOW – or as soon as you can, in an age appropriate way.

I have found that listening to their little problems and empathising with how they feel is crucial:

“One night my daughter, at bedtime, was a little more clingy than usual. I asked her why. She came out with some rambling about how she had been challenged to run a race with some children in her class, but she didn’t want to. The children continued to ask her to join in with this race but she didn’t want to (fear of failure/she never wanted to in the first place/she was now playing nicely with some friends etc). It would have been so easy to say, ‘Oh well, you should have just joined it, don’t be silly, just ignore them next time.’ But instead of sweeping this under the carpet in an attempt to toughen her up – I asked, ‘Okay, so how did that make you feel? Why do you feel sad (I picked up on the sadness in her voice) about that?’

Asking, ‘so how did that make you feel?’ is key to opening up that communication line, opening up that relationship, and helping them to feel understood.

It sounds so simple, right? It may sound a little scary too. It’s hard at first, for younger children to articulate and communicate how they feel. Shrugs of the shoulders can make you think they’re just making it up (and sometimes they will be, just to get that extra few mins of attention – they are after all children, and they need you more sometimes!), but try putting yourself in their shoes; how would their scenario make you feel?

I suggested that the boys pestering her might have made her feel a little uneasy and threatened and that I was sorry that they had been giving her a hard time. They probably had no idea it made her feel uneasy, because they can’t tell when people are afraid, like she can.

She then opened up and discussed little more about how she felt. I responded with empathy and gave her a little nudge, ‘It’s OK for you to feel that way, I would have felt like that too. Maybe next time you feel like that, how about trying to feel okay with saying no to people, Say, ‘No thank you, I don’t want to,’ in a loud and proud voice, knowing that’s okay.’ We ended up making it into a joke and laughing our socks off as she imagined her self telling these boys, “No thank you!” in a loud and proud voice.

It took less than five minutes. It wasn’t very taxing, but she was calmer, more confident and I instantly felt her clinginess dissolving. She went straight to bed and fell sleep – no issue.

Taking the time to communicate, even when there is 101 million other things to do, even at bedtime and even when you just cant muster up the strength to, will reap benefits. Asking, listening and delving into feelings is just where the magic is.

We’ve been gifted with emotionally intelligent, sensitive, empathic, caring, deep, thoughtful and amazing children – who need to know its okay to talk about feelings, and that it’s okay to feel how they do inside. So let’s encourage that. Let’s empower them and let’s create deep and meaningful connections with our children now. Don’t wait until they’re older.

You can learn more about Parenting a Highly Sensitive Child at www.kathrynpearson.co.uk/the-sensitive-subject.

You can take a simple quiz to find out if your child is Highly Sensitive at www.hsperson.com/test/highly-sensitive-child-test


About the Author: Kathryn Pearson

Kathryn PearsonKathryn Pearson is a qualified Teen Yoga teacher, EFT practitioner and mentor to teens and young people, specialising in helping sensitive teens, children and parents of Highly Sensitive Children feel more empowered to love their sensitive nature and shine their Sensitive Superpower into the world!

5 Comments

Barbara

Nice article, useful for parents of HSCs and professionals who come into contact with them. The first two paragraphs were a bit confusing to me, not sure why the author thinks there are more HSCs nowadays – it’s genetic and numbers remain 20%-ish – maybe it would be more accurate to say we notice more HSCs lately? Or is there a study showing there are more children being born with sensory processing sensitivity nowadays? Really interested to hear if there is ? x

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Nandi

My 5 year old is highly sensitive. I struggle to find a way to discipline her or say no in a way that she doesn’t find crushing. Sometimes even the slightest reminders for her to do things like clean up after herself, said in a carful way send her into tears and convince her I don’t love her. Friends says she’s just being manipulative but I don’t think it’s that simple. Her feelings seems truly hurt but I don’t understand why or how I can parent her through situations when she needs to be told what to do.

Reply
Barbara

I have four HS children and two HS grandchildren. I don’t think it’s a case of avoiding hurting them when we correct them, but teaching them how to self soothe and question themselves when/after they sustain a hurt. In particular, it’s important to talk, when they are in a calm, quiet state, about how everyone in life learns from others – from parents, from friends and sometimes w need to be helped to understand that something is not ok. You can give examples of when she corrects you (reminding you about which food she doesn’t want on her plate for example) and how important it is that you don’t react like she doesn’t love you when she is only trying to help you to get something right. HSCs are fairly good at understanding the importance of fairness, kindness and truth. But age 5 is also a hard age for HSCs – attending school full time, often over-stimulated and on the receiving end of one-size-fits-all discipline at school – helping them to make normal corrections a part of life instead of a personal hurt is not an easy lesson for parents to teach. I do think HSCs are more affected by the intensity of shame, but nevertheless, we owe it to them maintain boundaries in a loving way so that they don’t lose the use of their gifts of empathy and discernment to fear, self-focus and unwitting insensitivity to others reasonable needs. Dr Elaine
Aron’s book on HSCs is very useful for dealing with things like this. It’s tough isn’t it? 🙂 x

Reply
Beth B.

I’m also an HSP and when I discovered it, it released so much shame I had been harboring for not feeling how I “should” feel in given situations. My daughter, now 7, is far more sensitive than I am and it has been so healing for me to learn all I can and respond to her in productive and helpful ways that make her feel seen and heard and safe. My relationship with my parents is still emotionally unsafe for me given all the damage that happened as a child. I’m delighted that sensitivity information is out there for our generation of parents!

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When things feel hard or the world feels big, children will be looking to their important adults for signs of safety. They will be asking, ‘Do you think I'm safe?' 'Do you think I can do this?' With everything in us, we have to send the message, ‘Yes! Yes love, this is hard and you are safe. You can do hard things.'

Even if we believe they are up to the challenge, it can be difficult to communicate this with absolute confidence. We love them, and when they're distressed, we're going to feel it. Inadvertently, we can align with their fear and send signals of danger, especially through nonverbals. 

What they need is for us to align with their 'brave' - that part of them that wants to do hard things and has the courage to do them. It might be small but it will be there. Like a muscle, courage strengthens with use - little by little, but the potential is always there.

First, let them feel you inside their world, not outside of it. This lets their anxious brain know that support is here - that you see what they see and you get it. This happens through validation. It doesn't mean you agree. It means that you see what they see, and feel what they feel. Meet the intensity of their emotion, so they can feel you with them. It can come off as insincere if your nonverbals are overly calm in the face of their distress. (Think a zen-like low, monotone voice and neutral face - both can be read as threat by an anxious brain). Try:

'This is big for you isn't it!' 
'It's awful having to do things you haven't done before. What you are feeling makes so much sense. I'd feel the same!

Once they really feel you there with them, then they can trust what comes next, which is your felt belief that they will be safe, and that they can do hard things. 

Even if things don't go to plan, you know they will cope. This can be hard, especially because it is so easy to 'catch' their anxiety. When it feels like anxiety is drawing you both in, take a moment, breathe, and ask, 'Do I believe in them, or their anxiety?' Let your answer guide you, because you know your young one was built for big, beautiful things. It's in them. Anxiety is part of their move towards brave, not the end of it.
Sometimes we all just need space to talk to someone who will listen without giving advice, or problem solving, or lecturing. Someone who will let us talk, and who can handle our experiences and words and feelings without having to smooth out the wrinkles or tidy the frayed edges. 

Our kids need this too, but as their important adults, it can be hard to hush without needing to fix things, or gather up their experience and bundle it into a learning that will grow them. We do this because we love them, but it can also mean that they choose not to let us in for the wrong reasons. 

We can’t help them if we don’t know what’s happening in their world, and entry will be on their terms - even more as they get older. As they grow, they won’t trust us with the big things if we don’t give them the opportunity to learn that we can handle the little things (which might feel seismic to them). They won’t let us in to their world unless we make it safe for them to.

When my own kids were small, we had a rule that when I picked them up from school they could tell me anything, and when we drove into the driveway, the conversation would be finished if they wanted it to be. They only put this rule into play a few times, but it was enough for them to learn that it was safe to talk about anything, and for me to hear what was happening in that part of their world that happened without me. My gosh though, there were times that the end of the conversation would be jarring and breathtaking and so unfinished for me, but every time they would come back when they were ready and we would finish the chat. As it turned out, I had to trust them as much as I wanted them to trust me. But that’s how parenting is really isn’t it.

Of course there will always be lessons in their experiences we will want to hear straight up, but we also need them to learn that we are safe to come to.  We need them to know that there isn’t anything about them or their life we can’t handle, and when the world feels hard or uncertain, it’s safe here. By building safety, we build our connection and influence. It’s just how it seems to work.♥️
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#parenting #parenthood #mindfulparenting
Words can be hard sometimes. The right words can be orbital and unconquerable and hard to grab hold of. Feelings though - they’ll always make themselves known, with or without the ‘why’. 

Kids and teens are no different to the rest of us. Their feelings can feel bigger than words - unfathomable and messy and too much to be lassoed into language. If we tap into our own experience, we can sometimes (not all the time) get an idea of what they might need. 

It’s completely understandable that new things or hard things (such as going back to school) might drive thoughts of falls and fails and missteps. When this happens, it’s not so much the hard thing or the new thing that drives avoidance, but thoughts of failing or not being good enough. The more meaningful the ‘thing’ is, the more this is likely to happen. If you can look behind the words, and through to the intention - to avoid failure more than the new or difficult experience, it can be easier to give them what they need. 

Often, ‘I can’t’ means, ‘What if I can’t?’ or, ‘Do you think I can?’, or, ‘Will you still think I’m brave, strong, and capable of I fail?’ They need to know that the outcome won’t make any difference at all to how much you adore them, and how capable and exceptional you think they are. By focusing on process, (the courage to give it a go), we clear the runway so they can feel safer to crawl, then walk, then run, then fly. 

It takes time to reach full flight in anything, but in the meantime the stumbling can make even the strongest of hearts feel vulnerable. The more we focus on process over outcome (their courage to try over the result), and who they are over what they do (their courage, tenacity, curiosity over the outcome), the safer they will feel to try new things or hard things. We know they can do hard things, and the beauty and expansion comes first in the willingness to try. 
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#parenting #mindfulparenting #positiveparenting #mindfulparent
Never in the history of forever has there been such a  lavish opportunity for a year to be better than the last. Not to be grabby, but you know what I’d love this year? Less opportunities that come in the name of ‘resilience’. I’m ready for joy, or adventure, or connection, or gratitude, or courage - anything else but resilience really. Opportunities for resilience have a place, but 2020 has been relentless with its servings, and it’s time for an out breath. Here’s hoping 2021 will be a year that wraps its loving arms around us. I’m ready for that. x
The holidays are a wonderland of everything that can lead to hyped up, exhausted, cranky, excited, happy kids (and adults). Sometimes they’ll cycle through all of these within ten minutes. Sugar will constantly pry their little mouths wide open and jump inside, routines will laugh at you from a distance, there will be gatherings and parties, and everything will feel a little bit different to usual. And a bit like magic. 

Know that whatever happens, it’s all part of what the holidays are meant to look like. They aren’t meant to be pristine and orderly and exactly as planned. They were never meant to be that. Christmas is about people, your favourite ones, not tasks. If focusing on the people means some of the tasks fall down, let that be okay, because that’s what Christmas is. It’s about you and your people. It’s not about proving your parenting stamina, or that you’ve raised perfectly well-behaved humans, or that your family can polish up like the catalog ones any day of the week, or that you can create restaurant quality meals and decorate the table like you were born doing it. Christmas is messy and ridiculous and exhausting and there will be plenty of frayed edges. And plenty of magic. The magic will happen the way it always happens. Not with the decorations or the trimmings or the food or the polish, but by being with the ones you love, and the ones who love you right back.

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