Supporting your Highly Sensitive Child

Supporting your Highly Sensitive Child

We hear a lot about the sensitivity in children; many parents report feeling a sense of urgency in helping their child ‘get over’ being sensitive so that they can cope better with the ups and downs of life. Temperament refers to individual differences in behavioural style and is not something we can get rid of or change. Temperament is present at birth and determines in part, how we respond to the environment around us.

Sensitive children are highly attuned to the world around them, having a heightened awareness of one or more of the following: the emotional climate in their surroundings, sound, touch, taste or smell coming their way. Research has shown that there are neurobiological distinctions in these children. They may be easily overwhelmed, irritable and very empathic to others around them. No two highly sensitive children are the same, and each one will be somewhere along a continuum in terms of receptivity to each sense. For example, one child may become undone in a loud and busy shopping centre, while another child may be cognizant and bothered by the tags on the inside of their clothing.

What is most important to remember is that it is the quality of the child’s relationship with his or her caregivers that sets the stage for optimal child development. The neurobiological differences are indeed very helpful to keep in mind for your child, because knowing the nuanced ways in which your child operates will enhance your capacity to be attuned to their needs. But above all, it is your child’s relationship with you, their very own big person, that is the context within which they can flourish and grow into their full potential.

Here are 5 tips to keep in mind:

  1. Be a nurturing “hulk” in your relationship with your child. Establish a sense of caring dominance within your relationship that invites your child to rely on you and know that you have got their back in all situations. When your child senses they can rest in the loving relationship they have with you, they are less likely to be susceptible to a low self-esteem or experience shame. When you introduce them to new situations or people, it helps your child adjust when these introductions are done in a thoughtful and planned way.
  2. Many parents tell me they feel embarrassed with their child’s low frustration tolerance, especially when this occurs in a public setting. When parents can consistently stay in charge of difficult situations by using empathy and delaying the processing about the incident to a later time when the child’s (and parent’s!) big feelings have subsided, children can be regulated in more adaptive ways. Never use disconnection as a method of discipline so that the child can know that nothing (no misbehaviour, no tantrum or outburst) can divide them from your love and acceptance.
  3. 3. Less is more. Sometimes the temptation may be to fill the child’s schedule with a variety of stimulating extra-curricular activities. A sensitive child will need down time to re-charge their batteries and process all their experiences. Intentionally carve out time for child-led play, time outdoors or other non-structured activities in the comfort of your own home. You know your child best and should determine how much your child can handle in terms of activities.
  4. 4. Regulate your own feelings. We can all become undone or lose our temper but it will be especially important to remain in charge of our own strong feelings or at least appear that way to our child. We need to model healthy coping to our children because they learn so much about regulating their own emotions from the grown-ups around them. Sometimes we may need to take a short break and remove ourselves from a heated situation. You can make up an excuse like you have just remembered you need to make a quick phone-call or use the washroom. If this is not possible, some reflection on what went on for us after the incident has passed can provide insight and help us stay in charge of our feelings the next time.
  5. 5. Help your child feel safe enough to have their tears and share their vulnerable selves with you. This is essential for all those times they cannot get their way and are facing frustration or a sense of disappointment. When children learn that they can move past experiences of frustration and be okay afterwards, they develop resiliency. Your child can do this best with you! You are their kind and strong big person who will help them move through their angry feelings towards feelings of sadness and acceptance. A big embrace, empathic words and a gentle touch can all go a long way in this delicate process.

If you have questions or concerns relating to your child’s temperament, feel free to call our office to book a parent consultation with one of our skilled clinicians. In addition, a useful resource for parents is Elaine N. Aron’s book, “The Highly Sensitive Child”.

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