Those of us who have been blessed with a sensitive child face a number of challenges. These high-needs children require a creative mind, flexibility and a mound of patience. In a previous article, we explored the cultural ramifications of being shy or sensitive as well as the groundbreaking work of Elaine Aron, noted author and speaker on the topic of sensitive people. Here we will look at a few things you can do to better handle your sensitive preschooler.
1. Recognize that sensitivity is a trait, not a behavior. Behaviors can be changed, traits (by and large) cannot. If you do, in fact, have a sensitive child (to find out, take this quiz), no amount of behavior modification, punishments or cajoling is going to change him. Accepting who your child is and who God has created him to be is the first step toward handling a sensitive preschooler.
2. Recognize and document stressors. Not all sensitive children are sensitive to the same environmental stimuli. Stressors can include “bumps” in socks, scratchy clothing, loud noises, being the center of attention, odors, criticism, feeling embarrassed, looking different, startling or scary programs on TV, etc. Knowing your child’s particular stressors will give you a better avenue for intervention. You can keep a notebook with you to write down the stressors as they come up. You will likely see a theme emerge.
3. Teach her coping mechanisms. I often say that sensitive children are like turtles without shells; they are missing the protective covering that keeps offensive stimuli at bay. Everything comes at them with the same intensity, easily overwhelming their over-taxed systems. It is the parent’s job, then, to teach them how to manage their sensitivities in a world that will not change for them. Here are some concrete things you can do. First, tell your child that God as made her special. You can say things like, “I know that smells to you. God has given you a nose that can smell really well” or “That movie made you cry because you can imagine what it would feel like if it happened to you. That is a really good thing to be able to do.” Secondly, encourage her to problem solve. Tell her, “I am going to vacuum now. What can you do so that it doesn’t hurt your ears?” Thirdly, teach her to anticipate stressors. You can say, “We are going to go shopping to try on some new clothes for school. What do you think it will be like? How can you calmly let me know if something is uncomfortable?”
4. Protect her. If your child is going to be enrolled in a preschool program, it is essential to find a placement that is understanding and accepting of shy and sensitive children. Many children are enrolled in daycare from a very young age and have developed advanced social skills. As a result, preschools tend to be filled with assertive, outgoing three and four year olds and the programming often caters to that type of personality. In addition, you will also need to talk to friends and relatives about your sensitive child and explain the best ways to interact with your child. They may need to avoid scooping up your sensitive child from behind or giving her a great big bear hug upon arrival.
5. Don’t enable. If you have a child who is sensitive, you will need to protect her. However, you do not want this protection to become enabling or over-protection. Sensitive children, just like their non-sensitive counterparts, need to know that they are capable. You want to allow her to experience some discomfort as long as that discomfort is helpful to her development in some way. We cannot protect our children from every hardship and we do them a great disservice if we endeavor to do so. Of course, discomfort that paralyzes or traumatizes should always be avoided.
Sensitive children present their own unique parenting challenges. The qualities that make childhood difficult are often those traits that will help them develop into creative, caring and conscientious adults.