Highly sensitive children are like turtles without shells. They are cautious, tentative and largely unprotected from their surroundings in the early years. Parenting a highly sensitive child can be a challenge. It is important to master the balance between providing that shell when necessary and stepping back so the child can grow a shell of her own.
Here is a condensed list of parenting strategies that will help you more effectively parent your highly sensitive child. You can find out if your child is highly sensitive by taking this quiz.
Give him down time. All children need “space” – time to unwind and process the events of their day. For highly sensitive children, this is a necessity. Even if your child resists, tell him that quiet time is like a clothesline for the mind- it airs it out. Model by taking a daily quiet time yourself.
Practice empathy. When you have a sensitive disposition, things hurt more, scare more and upset more than non-highly sensitive people. Brushing your child off when something is genuinely a struggle for him will build walls. Practice empathetic listening. Take a deep breath and keep your frustrations in check. Try to see the situation through your child’s eyes.
Don’t apologize for her “quirks.” Accept who she is. If your child hears you apologizing over and over again for her social faux pas, she will start to see her sensitivity as something that is wrong with her. Give her permission to be sensitive and help her embrace the benefits that come from being a highly sensitive individual (smells are more intense, art is more powerful, emotions are felt more deeply, etc).
Anticipate problem situations. Crossing your fingers and hoping that this birthday party won’t end in tears is not realistic. Talk to your child about potential triggers (i.e.: balloons popping). Problem solve together (carry earplugs). You can even try some role play. It is a little extra work up front, but it will pay off.
Practice gradual exposure. Slow exposure to the things that will challenge, but not break him, is the key. Encourage your child to try something new, even if for only a brief period of time. Frame it as a personal challenge rather than a punishment. You can say something like, “Let’s see if you can wear this collared shirt for 5 minutes longer than last time.”
Know the difference between high sensitivity and manipulation. Some highly sensitive children learn that they can use their sensitivity to avoid or engage. Knowing if you are being manipulated can be difficult. Be a careful, inconspicuous observer if you can. Monitor interactions with siblings and peers. If your child goes happily to school but complains about noise in a small Sunday school class, try to find out if there is something else going on. If your child seems to “turn on” her sensitivity only when you walk into the room, investigate attention-seeking motives and try to get to the bottom of it.
Provide coping strategies. Teach your child ways to self-soothe (like holding a stuffed animal, imagining a calm and quiet place, prayer, etc). Teach your child how to “talk himself down” from his triggers (“this is only temporary,” “I can handle this,” “I will be okay”). He needs to be able to manage when you are not around.
Get perspective. Sensitive children are the most “raw” early on in their development. As they grow and mature, they will develop coping skills that work for them. Your help along the way will ensure that those coping mechanisms are healthy and beneficial.
If you have a highly sensitive child, you are truly blessed. You will see the world with fresh eyes, you will gain deeper insights and you will develop a level of empathy for others you didn’t know you had.
[Photo credit: mammaof3beauties from morguefile.com]