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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Behaviour is never from ‘bad’. It’s from ‘big’. Big hungry, big tired, big disconnection, big missing, big ‘too much right now’. The reason our responses might not work can often be because we’ve misread the story, or we’ve missed an important piece of it. Their story might be about now, today, yesterday, or any of the yesterdays before now. 

Our job isn’t to fix them. They aren’t broken. Our job is to understand them. Only then can we steer our response in the right direction. Otherwise we’re throwing darts at the wrong target - behaviour, instead of the need behind the behaviour. 

Watch, listen, breathe and be with. Feel what they feel. This will help them feel you with them. We all feel safer and calmer when we feel our people beside us - not judging or hurrying or questioning. What don’t you know, that they need you to know?♥️
We all have first up needs. The difference between adults and children is that we can delay the meeting of these needs for a bit longer than children - but we still need them met. 

The first most important question the brain needs answered is, ‘Is my body safe?’ - Am I free from threat, hunger, exhaustion, pain? This is usually an easier one to take care of or to recognise when it might need some attention. 

The next most important question is, ‘Is my heart safe?’ - Am I loved, noticed, valued, claimed, wanted, welcome? This can be an easy one to overlook, especially in the chaos of the morning. Of course we love them and want them - and sometimes we’ll get distracted, annoyed, frustrated, irritated. None of this changes how much we love and want them - not even for a second. We can feel two things at once - madly in love with them and annoyed/ distracted/ frustrated. Sometimes though, this can leave their ‘Is my heart safe?’ needs a little hungry. They have less capacity than us to delay the meeting of these needs. When these needs are hungry, we’ll be more likely to see big feelings or big behaviour. 

The more you can fill their love tanks at the start of the day, the more they’ll be able to handle the bumps. This doesn’t have to be big. It just has to be enough. It might look like having a cuddle, reading a story, having a chat, sitting with them while they have breakfast or while they pat the dog, touching their back when they walk past, telling them you love them.

All brains need to feel loved and wanted, and as though they aren’t a nuisance, but sometimes they’ll need to feel it more. The more their felt sense of relational safety is met, the more they’ll be able to then focus on ‘thinking brain’ things, such as planning, making good decisions, co-operating, behaving. 

(And if this today was a bumpy one, that’s okay. Those days are going to happen. If most of the time their love tanks are full, they’ll handle when it drops a little. Just top it up when you can. And don’t forget to top yours up too. Be kind to yourself. You deserve it as much as they do.)♥️
Things will always go wrong - a bad decision, a good decision with a bad outcome, a dilemma, wanting something that comes with risk. 

Often, the ‘right thing’ lives somewhere in the very blurry bounds of the grey. Sometimes it will be about what’s right for them. Sometimes what’s right for others. Sometimes it will be about taking a risk, and sometimes the ‘right’ thing just feels wrong right now, or wrong for them. Even as adults, we will often get things wrong. This isn’t because we’re bad, or because we don’t know the right thing from the wrong thing, but because few things are black and white. 

The problem with punishment and harsh consequences is that we remove ourselves as an option for them to turn to next time things end messy, or as a guide before the mess happens. 

Feeling safe in our important relationships is a primary need for all of us humans. That means making sure our relationships are free from judgement, humiliation, shame, separation. If our response to their ‘wrong things’ is to bring all of these things to the table we share with them with them, of course they’ll do anything to avoid it. This isn’t about lying or secrecy. It’s about maintaining relational ‘safety’, or closeness.

Kids want to do the right thing. They want us to love and accept them. But they’re going to get things wrong sometimes. When they do, our response will teach them either that we are safe for them to come to no matter what, or that we aren’t. 

So what do we do when things go wrong? Embrace them, reject the behaviour:

‘I love that you’ve been honest with me. That means everything to me. I know you didn’t expect things to end up like this, but here we are. Let’s talk about what’s happened and what can be different next time.’

Or, ‘Something must have made this (wrong thing) feel like the right thing to do, otherwise you wouldn’t have done it. We all do that sometimes. What do you think it was that was for you?’

Or, ‘I know you know lying isn’t okay. What made you feel like you couldn’t tell me the truth? How can we build the trust again. Let’s talk about how to do that.’

You will always be their greatest guide, but you can only be that if they let you.♥️
Whenever there is a call to courage, there will be anxiety - every time. That’s what makes it brave. This is why challenging things, brave things, important things will often drive anxiety. 

At these times - when they are safe, but doing something hard - the feelings that come with anxiety will be enough to drive avoidance. When it is avoidance of a threat, that’s important. That’s anxiety doing it’s job. But when the avoidance is in response to things that are important, brave, meaningful, that avoidance only serves to confirm the deficiency story. This is when we want to support them to take tiny steps towards that brave thing. It doesn’t have to happen all at once.l and it doesn’t matter how long it takes. Brave is about being able to handle the discomfort of anxiety enough to do the important, challenging thing. It’s built in tiny steps, one after the other. 

We don’t have to get rid of their anxiety and neither do they. They can feel anxious, and do brave. At these times (safe, but scary) they need us to take a posture of validation and confidence. ‘I believe you, and I believe in you.’ ‘I know this feels big, and I know you can handle it.’ 

What we’re saying is we know they can handle the discomfort of anxiety. They don’t have to handle it well, and they don’t have to handle it for too long. Handling it is handling it, and that’s the substance of ‘brave’. 

Being brave isn’t about doing the brave thing, but about being able to handle the discomfort of the anxiety that comes with that. And if they’ve done that today, at all, or for a moment longer than yesterday, then they’ve been brave today. It doesn’t matter how messy it was or how small it was. Let them see their brave through your eyes.‘That was big for you wasn’t it. And you did it. You felt anxious, and you stayed with it. That’s what being brave is all about.’♥️
A relationally unsafe (emotionally unsafe) environment can cause as much breakage as as a physically unsafe one. 

The brain’s priority will always be safety, so if a person or environment doesn’t feel emotionally safe, we might see big behaviour, avoidance, or reduced learning. In this case, it isn’t the child that’s broken. It’s the environment.

But here’s the thing, just because a child doesn’t feel safe, doesn’t mean the person or environment isn’t safe. What it means is that there aren’t enough signals of safety - yet, and there’s a little more work to do to build this. ‘Safety’ isn’t about what is actually safe or not, it’s about what the brain perceives. Children might have the safest, warmest, most loving adult in front of them, but that doesn’t mean they’ll feel safe. This is when we have to look at how we might extend bigger cues of warmth, welcome, inclusiveness, and what we can do (or what roles or responsibilities can we give them) to help them feel valued and needed. This might take time, and that’s okay. Children aren’t meant to feel safe with every adult in front of them, so sometimes what they need most is our patience and understanding as we continue to build this. 

This is the way it works for all of us, everywhere. None of us will be able to give our best or do our best if we don’t feel welcome, liked, valued, and free from hostility, humiliation or judgement. 

This is especially important for our schools. A brain that doesn’t feel safe can’t learn. For schools to be places of learning, they first have to be places of relationship. Before we focus too sharply on learning support and behaviour management, we first have to focus on felt sense of safety support. The most powerful way to do this is through relationship. Teachers who do this are magic-makers. They show a phenomenal capacity to expand a child’s capacity to learn, calm big behaviour, and open up a child’s world. But relationships take time, and felt safety takes time. The time it takes for this to happen is all part of the process. It’s not a waste of time, it’s the most important use of it.♥️

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