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 is a sign that the brain has registered threat and is mobilising the body to get to safety. One of the ways it does this is by organising the body for movement - to fight the danger or flee the danger. 

If there is no need or no opportunity for movement, that fight or flight fuel will still be looking for expression. This can come out as wriggly, fidgety, hyperactive behaviour. This is why any of us might pace or struggle to sit still when we’re anxious. 

If kids or teens are bouncing around, wriggling in their chairs, or having trouble sitting still, it could be anxiety. Remember with anxiety, it’s not about what is actually safe but about what the brain perceives. New or challenging work, doing something unfamiliar, too much going on, a tired or hungry body, anything that comes with any chance of judgement, failure, humiliation can all throw the brain into fight or flight.

When this happens, the body might feel busy, activated, restless. This in itself can drive even more anxiety in kids or teens. Any of us can struggle when we don’t feel comfortable in our own bodies. 

Anxiety is energy with nowhere to go. To move through anxiety, give the energy somewhere to go - a fast walk, a run, a whole-body shake, hula hooping, kicking a ball - any movement that spends the energy will help bring the brain and body back to calm.♥️
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#parenting #anxietyinkids #childanxiety #parenting #parent
This is not bad behaviour. It’s big behaviour a from a brain that has registered threat and is working hard to feel safe again. 

‘Threat’ isn’t about what is actually safe or not, but about what the brain perceives. The brain can perceive threat when there is any chance missing out on or messing up something important, anything that feels unfamiliar, hard, or challenging, feeling misunderstood, thinking you might be angry or disappointed with them, being separated from you, being hungry or tired, anything that pushes against their sensory needs - so many things. 

During anxiety, the amygdala in the brain is switched to high volume, so other big feelings will be too. This might look like tears, sadness, or anger. 

Big feelings have a good reason for being there. The amygdala has the very important job of keeping us safe, and it does this beautifully, but not always with grace. One of the ways the amygdala keeps us safe is by calling on big feelings to recruit social support. When big feelings happen, people notice. They might not always notice the way we want to be noticed, but we are noticed. This increases our chances of safety. 

Of course, kids and teens still need our guidance and leadership and the conversations that grow them, but not during the emotional storm. They just won’t hear you anyway because their brain is too busy trying to get back to safety. In that moment, they don’t want to be fixed or ‘grown’. They want to feel seen, safe and heard. 

During the storm, preserve your connection with them as much as you can. You might not always be able to do this, and that’s okay. None of this is about perfection. If you have a rupture, repair it as soon as you can. Then, when their brains and bodies come back to calm, this is the time for the conversations that will grow them. 

Rather than, ‘What consequences do they need to do better?’, shift to, ‘What support do they need to do better?’ The greatest support will come from you in a way they can receive: ‘What happened?’ ‘What can you do differently next time?’ ‘You’re the most wonderful kid and I know you didn’t want this to happen. How can you put things right? Do you need my help with that?’♥️
Big behaviour is a sign of a nervous system in distress. Before anything, that vulnerable nervous system needs to be brought back home to felt safety. 

This will happen most powerfully with relationship and connection. Breathe and be with. Let them know you get it. This can happen with words or nonverbals. It’s about feeling what they feel, but staying regulated.

If they want space, give them space but stay in emotional proximity, ‘Ok I’m just going to stay over here. I’m right here if you need.’

If they’re using spicy words to make sure there is no confusion about how they feel about you right now, flag the behaviour, then make your intent clear, ‘I know how upset you are and I want to understand more about what’s happening for you. I’m not going to do this while you’re speaking to me like this. You can still be mad, but you need to be respectful. I’m here for you.’

Think of how you would respond if a friend was telling you about something that upset her. You wouldn’t tell her to calm down, or try to fix her (she’s not broken), or talk to her about her behaviour. You would just be there. You would ‘drop an anchor’ and steady those rough seas around her until she feels okay enough again. Along the way you would be doing things that let her know your intent to support her. You’d do this with you facial expressions, your voice, your body, your posture. You’d feel her feels, and she’d feel you ‘getting her’. It’s about letting her know that you understand what she’s feeling, even if you don’t understand why (or agree with why). 

It’s the same for our children. As their important big people, they also need leadership. The time for this is after the storm has passed, when their brains and bodies feel safe and calm. Because of your relationship, connection and their felt sense of safety, you will have access to their ‘thinking brain’. This is the time for those meaningful conversations: 
- ‘What happened?’
- ‘What did I do that helped/ didn’t help?’
- ‘What can you do differently next time?’
- ‘You’re a great kid and I know you didn’t want this to happen, but here we are. What can you do to put things right? Do you need my help with that?’♥️
As children grow, and especially by adolescence, we have the illusion of control but whether or not we have any real influence will be up to them. The temptation to control our children will always come from a place of love. Fear will likely have a heavy hand in there too. When they fall, we’ll feel it. Sometimes it will feel like an ache in our core. Sometimes it will feel like failure or guilt, or anger. We might wish we could have stopped them, pushed a little harder, warned a little bigger, stood a little closer. We’re parents and we’re human and it’s what this parenting thing does. It makes fear and anxiety billow around us like lost smoke, too easily.

Remember, they want you to be proud of them, and they want to do the right thing. When they feel your curiosity over judgement, and the safety of you over shame, it will be easier for them to open up to you. Nobody will guide them better than you because nobody will care more about where they land. They know this, but the magic happens when they also know that you are safe and that you will hold them, their needs, their opinions and feelings with strong, gentle, loving hands, no matter what.♥️
Anger is the ‘fight’ part of the fight or flight response. It has important work to do. Anger never exists on its own. It exists to hold other more vulnerable emotions in a way that feels safer. It’s sometimes feels easier, safer, more acceptable, stronger to feel the ‘big’ that comes with anger, than the vulnerability that comes with anxiety, sadness, loneliness. This isn’t deliberate. It’s just another way our bodies and brains try to keep us safe. 

The problem isn’t the anger. The problem is the behaviour that can come with the anger. Let there be no limits on thoughts and feelings, only behaviour. When children are angry, as long as they are safe and others are safe, we don’t need to fix their anger. They aren’t broken. Instead, drop the anchor: as much as you can - and this won’t always be easy - be a calm, steadying, loving presence to help bring their nervous systems back home to calm. 

Then, when they are truly calm, and with love and leadership, have the conversations that will grow them - 
- What happened? 
- What can you do differently next time?
- You’re a really great kid. I know you didn’t want this to happen but here we are. How can you make things right. Would you like some ideas? Do you need some help with that?
- What did I do that helped? What did I do that didn’t help? Is there something that might feel more helpful next time?

When their behaviour falls short of ‘adorable’, rather than asking ‘What consequences they need to do better?’ let the question be, ‘What support do they need to do better.’ Often, the biggest support will be a conversation with you, and that will be enough.♥️
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#parenting #positiveparenting #mindfulparenting #anxietyinkids

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