Identify them as sensitive
Identifying your child as a sensitive person is helpful as it makes it easier for us to understand them and what is driving their behaviour.
How do I know if I have a sensitive child?
A sensitive child feels things very deeply. Certain things may make them feel uncomfortable, like smells, bright light or being in large groups of people. These things can trigger tantrums and behaviour we find hard to comprehend. We can even label the behaviour “naughty”.
When we know that our child is sensitive we can respond in a compassionate way and help them to learn how to manage their feelings.
See sensitivity as a positive thing
We really need sensitive people in this world.
We may not be used to seeing sensitivity in a positive light. Sensitive children may even be labelled as stubborn or strong-willed. Girls who are sensitive can be labelled as difficult or high maintenance. A sensitive boy can be labelled as girly or soft.
See your sensitive child as an amazing child. Sensitive people are good people – with strengths that make them amazing. Sensitive children have gifts, like noticing and paying attention to things that others overlook.
Communicate the fact that you see sensitivity as a positive thing by using kind and loving words:“You feel things strongly”.
Reduce the stressors
We can’t always control the environment. When we can control the environment and reduce stressors we can make a big difference which will support our sensitive child. We can also do a lot of things to avoid over-stimulation, like getting into a good sleep routine, limiting screens and avoiding too many transitions during the day.
If you already know you have a sensitive child, then you’ll know how hard it can be for them to relax and be calm. It is especially difficult when they are overstimulated.
We may need to show a sensitive child how to be calm. Practice different ways to get into that state, drawing or listening to music, doing quiet activities in a quiet house.
Reducing the stress in the environment and building a supportive routine will set your sensitive child up so they are ready for a new day.
Keep expectations realistic
Unrealistic expectations set our kids up to fail. Few children going through a transition like changing schools or getting used to a new teacher will experience zero stress. Sensitive children feel more stressed about transitions. They get tired and overwhelmed much more easily because their baseline is already feeling a bit stressed.
It takes more effort for a sensitive child to get into a calm, alert and focussed state. We need to be realistic about what is achieveable.
Expect that it will take time to prepare for transitions. Prepare in advance to reduce the stress and desensitise your sensitive child. Break the task into small chunks.
If it’s starting a new school, don’t be shy about meeting with staff in advance. Your child will find it much easier when you you do this. Staff at any school that supports children well will welcome this opportunity to learn more about what they can do to support your child when they begin.
Take your child to meet the teacher, if possible have a play with other students who will be starting at the same time. Visit on weekends for a play. All of this will help set them up so that they are ready transition more easily.
Sensitive children will need some help to understand when feelings start to signal in the body. When I am angry I hold my breath. I need to remember to breathe. Let’s name that feeling I am having – what is it? Frustration.
Apart from noticing feelings in the body a sensitive child needs to communicate their feelings through words. This skill we are teaching is called emotional literacy. Teaching a wide range of words to describe emotions is important as it helps sensitive children to understand and manage the wide range of feelings they are experiencing.
When your sensitive child is overwhelmed by a feeling they will also need to know how to ask for help. Let them know it is a brave thing to do by acknowledging them when they do it.
Take care of yourself
It is not an easy job to be a parent of this sort of child. Parents say they feel “worn down” and “drained”. It’s understandable when their child is in a habit of reacting to things strongly. A sensitive child can go from 0- 100 in a split second.
Parents who prioritise themselves are more likely to meet the needs of a child who needs “more”. Start to see yourself as a resource and schedule regular times for a down time. Down time doesn’t have to take all day to be effective – schedule 15 minutes with a magazine. Walking around the block or doing something for yourself is necessary for you to keep giving love and support to your child.
Learn how to respond to your sensitive child – not to react
Overstimulation can lead to and tantrums. These tantrums are caused by overwhelm rather than an attempt to get what they want. A sensitive child won’t be able to stop what they are doing in the moment when they lose it.
Reacting with strong punishments is not only ineffective but actually makes things worse.
Adopt a curious approach and think about what is driving the behaviour. Instead of seeing a sensitive child as being a “problem child” see them as “having a problem”.
Sensitive children need us to help them through their distress and make sense of what is happening to them. Wait until the dust has settled to talk through an issue. “What could have been done differently?” and “How can we make things easier for you?”
These sorts of questions help a child take responsibility for their own feelings and to manage them better.
Use positive parenting to help your sensitive child
People often mistake positive parenting and responding in a kind way to a child who is in distress as permissive parenting. That’s not what positive parenting is about. We can be respectful of their feelings and firm about behaviour at the same time.
A child’s behaviour tells us that their needs are not being met. Positive parenting is about a firm parenting style with a very high level of warmth and connection. Our kindness needs to be quite a lot bigger than our firmness – here’s why:
Children don’t have the emotional literacy to tell us what is bothering them so their problems come out in their behaviour.
Getting to the cause of the behaviour and teaching skills will address the causes of and reduce the need for misbehaviour.