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.

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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

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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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Anxiety shows up to check that you’re okay, not to tell you that you’re not. It’s your brain’s way of saying, ‘Not sure - there might be some trouble here, but there might not be, but just in case you should be ready for it if it comes, which it might not – but just in case you’d better be ready to run or fight – but it might be totally fine.’ Brains can be so confusing sometimes! 

You have a brain that is strong, healthy and hardworking. It’s magnificent and it’s doing a brilliant job of doing exactly what brains are meant to do – keep you alive. 

Your brain is fabulous, but it needs you to be the boss. Here’s how. When you feel anxious, ask yourself two questions:

- ‘Do I feel like this because I’m in danger or because there’s something brave or important I need to do?’

- Then, ‘Is this a time for me to be safe (sometimes it might be) or is this a time for me to be brave?

And remember, you will always have ‘brave’ in you, and anxiety doesn’t change that a bit.♥️

#positiveparenting #mindfulparenting #parenting #childanxiety #heywarrior #heywarriorbook
The temptation to fix their big feelings can be seismic. Often this is connected to needing to ease our own discomfort at their discomfort, which is so very normal.

Big feelings in them are meant to raise (sometimes big) feelings in us. This is all a healthy part of the attachment system. It happens to mobilise us to respond to their distress, or to protect them if their distress is in response to danger.

Emotion is energy in motion. We don’t want to bury it, stop it, smother it, and we don’t need to fix it. What we need to do is make a safe passage for it to move through them. 

Think of emotion like a river. Our job is to hold the ground strong and steady at the banks so the river can move safely, without bursting the banks.

However hard that river is racing, they need to know we can be with the river (the emotion), be with them, and handle it. This might feel or look like you aren’t doing anything, but actually it’s everything.

The safety that comes from you being the strong, steady presence that can lovingly contain their big feelings will let the emotional energy move through them and bring the brain back to calm.

Eventually, when they have lots of experience of us doing this with them, they will learn to do it for themselves, but that will take time and experience. The experience happens every time you hold them steady through their feelings. 

This doesn’t mean ignoring big behaviour. For them, this can feel too much like bursting through the banks, which won’t feel safe. Sometimes you might need to recall the boundary and let them know where the edges are, while at the same time letting them see that you can handle the big of the feeling. Its about loving and leading all at once. ‘It’s okay to be angry. It’s not okay to use those words at me.’

Ultimately, big feelings are a call for support. Sometimes support looks like breathing and being with. Sometimes it looks like showing them you can hold the boundary, even when they feel like they’re about to burst through it. And if they’re using spicy words to get us to back off, it might look like respecting their need for space but staying in reaching distance, ‘Ok, I’m right here whenever you need.’♥️
We all need certain things to feel safe enough to put ourselves into the world. Kids with anxiety have magic in them, every one of them, but until they have a felt sense of safety, it will often stay hidden.

‘Safety’ isn’t about what is actually safe or not, but about what they feel. At school, they might have the safest, most loving teacher in the safest, most loving school. This doesn’t mean they will feel enough relational safety straight away that will make it easier for them to do hard things. They can still do those hard things, but those things are going to feel bigger for a while. This is where they’ll need us and their other anchor adult to be patient, gentle, and persistent.

Children aren’t meant to feel safe with and take the lead from every adult. It’s not the adult’s role that makes the difference, but their relationship with the child.

Children are no different to us. Just because an adult tells them they’ll be okay, it doesn’t mean they’ll feel it or believe it. What they need is to be given time to actually experience the person as being safe, supportive and ready to catch them.

Relationship is key. The need for safety through relationship isn’t an ‘anxiety thing’. It’s a ‘human thing’. When we feel closer to the people around us, we can rise above the mountains in our way. When we feel someone really caring about us, we’re more likely to open up to their influence
and learn from them.

But we have to be patient. Even for teachers with big hearts and who undertand the importance of attachment relationships, it can take time.

Any adult at school can play an important part in helping a child feel safe – as long as that adult is loving, warm, and willing to do the work to connect with that child. It might be the librarian, the counsellor, the office person, a teacher aide. It doesn’t matter who, as long as it is someone who can be available for that child at dropoff or when feelings get big during the day and do little check-ins along the way.

A teacher, or any important adult can make a lasting difference by asking, ‘How do I build my relationship with this child so s/he trusts me when I say, ‘I’ve got you, and I know you can do this.’♥️
There is a beautiful ‘everythingness’ in all of us. The key to living well is being able to live flexibly and more deliberately between our edges.

So often though, the ‘shoulds’ and ‘should nots’ we inhale in childhood and as we grow, lead us to abandon some of those precious, needed parts of us. ‘Don’t be angry/ selfish/ shy/ rude. She’s not a maths person.’ ‘Don’t argue.’ Ugh.

Let’s make sure our children don’t cancel parts of themselves. They are everything, but not always all at once. They can be anxious and brave. Strong and soft. Angry and calm. Big and small. Generous and self-ish. Some things they will find hard, and they can do hard things. None of these are wrong ways to be. What trips us up is rigidity, and only ever responding from one side of who we can be.

We all have extremes or parts we favour. This is what makes up the beautiful, complex, individuality of us. We don’t need to change this, but the more we can open our children to the possibility in them, the more options they will have in responding to challenges, the everyday, people, and the world. 

We can do this by validating their ‘is’ without needing them to be different for a while in the moment, and also speaking to the other parts of them when we can. 

‘Yes maths is hard, and I know you can do hard things. How can I help?’

‘I can see how anxious you feel. That’s so okay. I also know you have brave in you.’

‘I love your ‘big’ and the way you make us laugh. You light up the room.’ And then at other times: ‘It can be hard being in a room with new people can’t it. It’s okay to be quiet. I could see you taking it all in.’

‘It’s okay to want space from people. Sometimes you just want your things and yourself for yourself, hey. I feel like that sometimes too. I love the way you know when you need this.’ And then at other times, ‘You looked like you loved being with your friends today. I loved watching you share.’

The are everything, but not all at once. Our job is to help them live flexibly and more deliberately between the full range of who they are and who they can be: anxious/brave; kind/self-ish; focussed inward/outward; angry/calm. This will take time, and there is no hurry.♥️

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