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I have a sensitive child, and I think sensitive kids are just lovely. But raising one is not easy every day. If you have a sensitive kid, you know what I am talking about:
- Your sensitive child worries. A LOT. You spend months trying to reassure her that her new teacher will be great, that the swimming lessons will go great, that the new class will be just fine, that her teacher is not disappointed in her because she got the answer wrong.
- You often worry about your sensitive child because you are often unsure about whether you should protect and shield her from the “horrors of the world” or whether you should expose her to the reality of life and if so, to what extent.
- Your sensitive kid wants to “rescue everything” – flies, stray cats, snails, the sad kid in her class, and “help everyone”.
- If your kid is sensitive, it is highly likely that he is resistant to change. Even the slightest changes that other kids seem to easily take in their stride will seem like a Herculean task to him.
- Sensitive kids seem to be more easily attuned to others’ emotions. They’ll notice the couple that has just been fighting, the mother worried about her child or the sad neighbor
- Your sensitive child cries. Easily and often.
- Sensitive kids are the ultimate peacemakers.
- You don’t dare raise your voice to a sensitive child because you’ll end up having to console her for hours.
- You just know your sensitive child would be a wreck for weeks if he watched certain movies or read certain books
- Sensitive kids will befriend the “kid who no one speaks to” because she feels sorry for him
The world today glorifies extroverts, and people described as quiet, shy, sensitive or introverts have long been treated as “weak”. There is a lot of literature about dealing with sensitive or shy kids, but that literature can be somewhat alarming. Research suggests that highly sensitive kids have a greater chance of developing anxiety disorders later in life. The good news is that sensitivity is also a strength, and certain strategies can help sensitive, shy or slow-to-warm kids to embrace their sensitivity.
Sensitive kids are great but raising one can be frustrating. We now know that being sensitive is innate and is likely to follow your child into adolescence and adulthood. Ignoring that your child’s sensitivity is a strength can have a long-term negative impact. Children who are taught to believe that their sensitivity is a handicap learn to suppress their feelings, and this can end up messing up their psychological and even professional lives. It is not uncommon for sensitive people to battle feelings of anxiety and depression, often because they experience emotions more intensely than others.
Here are seven things you can start doing today if you are raising a sensitive child
- Parent with your child’s sensitivity in mind
In a society that values extroverts, being a sensitive child can be difficult for children and parents alike.
Here are a few things you can do to take your child’s sensitivity into account
- Create an environment in which your child feels comfortable. Help her create a “quiet spot” where she can go to any time she feels overwhelmed.
- Avoid proposing too many activities. Sensitive children are often easily overwhelmed and require time to unwind.
- Avoid putting your child on the spot by asking her to do things you know are difficult for her in public (like asking her to sing).
- Avoid negative comparisons.
- Learning to listen with empathy will make your sensitive child open up more.
- Prepare him. Always talk to your child about what is to be expected. Prepare him for new experiences by telling him about them.
- Let your child know that it’s OK to be quiet and to enjoy quiet moments by herself.
2) Avoid labels
Being sensitive is not synonymous with having a problem. It is not an illness. When your child is nice to be around and happy, there is no need to be apologetic for her behavior.
When you repeatedly explain to people that she is “shy”, “oversensitive” “an introvert”, or other words along those lines, she may begin to think of her sensitivity as a negative and permanent condition and is bound to develop associated secondary emotions such as shame.
The thing to remember is that you play a huge part in determining how your child will view herself and ultimately, how others will perceive her. Focusing on positive traits also determines how others see your child. Instead of viewing her as “really shy”, view her as attentive, private-focused, thoughtful, mindful of others, empathetic and peaceful.
Here are several phrases that can help you deal with others’ negative comments:
She’ll do it when she’s ready…
She likes her quiet time…
No, she’s just thoughtful…
She needs some time before she can…
No, she’s fine
3) Try positive discipline
Disciplining a sensitive child can be complicated because there is always the fear of upsetting him and having to spend hours comforting him. While many parents of sensitive children tend to overlook certain behavior to “maintain peace”, discipline is important for your child. It is an opportunity to teach him about expected behavior and about the consequences of his behavior. Remember that positive discipline strategies are particularly effective in addressing behavior issues in sensitive kids.
4) Help your sensitive child learn to deal with her emotions by herself
Emotion regulation is a major issue with sensitive children. Your child needs to know that her emotions are valid, but she also needs to know that she has the power to deal with even the most difficult emotions. Here are three easy things you can do to raise your child’s emotional intelligence:
- Talk about your emotions and comment on hers
- Help her learn how those emotions feel
- Help her identify tools to help her deal with difficult emotions
Remember that age-appropriate resources can give you the tools you need to communicate with your child about emotions.
5) Notice and comment on every effort
It is important to encourage your sensitive child and praise her effort:
- You were scared but you still went for your swimming lesson, that’s really great
- I like how you decided to go read a book when you were feeling overwhelmed
- You talked to me about how you were feeling and we were able to think of some solutions. That’s a really great way of dealing with difficult situations
Naming the behavior that you would like to see in your child helps her understand how she can deal with difficult situations. It also encourages that behavior to be repeated.
6) Nudge your sensitive child out of his comfort zone
Raising a sensitive child is often tricky because you never know whether you need to be doing more or less. Research says that overprotecting a cautious kid may make matters worse. But making a sensitive child come out of his shell requires a lot of patience and is a rather delicate issue: the harder you push, the more your child is likely to resist.
Here are a few things to keep in mind when dealing with sensitive kids:
- Do not try to change your child’s fundamental nature.
- Avoid making unreasonable demands. Think about your child’s character and offer praise for specific effort and accomplishments like we saw above.
- Take very small incremental steps.
- Nudging your child out of his comfort zone can be achieved by telling him what is expected. If he is worried about starting swimming classes, you can organize a meeting with his trainer before the lessons begin.
- Reassure him – stay with him at a party if need be or clearly explain when you’ll be back. Gradually reduce the time you spend with him during outings and play dates.
7) Do not tell your sensitive child not to be sensitive
Sensitivity is often viewed as a poor “personality trait” and it is not uncommon to try and “improve” your child’s temperament using phrases such as:
- You worry too much for nothing
- Don’t start crying again
- You’re too sensitive
- Stop being so sensitive
- Stop taking everything so personally
But the thing is, invalidating your child’s feelings makes everything worse. Instead of downplaying her fears and her feelings, here are a few things you can say:
- I know you’re scared. I’d be scared too. Let’s talk about some of the things you can do when you arrive in your new class
- Drawing always calms me down, do you want to try drawing with me or do you prefer to do something else
Giving your child solutions teaches her to better manage difficult situations.
Knowing when it’s time to seek help for your sensitive child
Sensitivity in children, unfortunately, can point to more serious issues. It is time to see a therapist if:
• Your child’s sensitivity is causing you and him a lot of distress
• Your child is withdrawn even at home and is not easy to be around
• When her sensitivity is preventing her from participating in social events
• When she has many behavioral problems
• When she avoids eye-to-eye contact
Even though sensitive kids are likely to grow into sensitive adults, the more they learn to deal manage their emotions and understand their nature, the easier it will be for them to view their sensitivity as a strength.
If you need more help understanding your shy child, Christine Fonseca’s Quiet Kids: Help Your Introverted Child Succeed in an Extroverted World is a great read.