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Parenting the Sensitive Child

sensitive childIf the tag on your child’s shirt feels this big, and the seams on their socks are so annoying they have to turn the socks inside out, and the noise of the automatic flush toilets in the mall send them running out in tears, chances are you have a sensitive child. These children are also stirred up emotionally, because when they feel more, there is more that bothers them. If you have one of these children, you probably know what I mean!

Most of us filter out 95% of the information coming our way, and this allows us to pay attention to what is relevant in our world. Sensitive children are bombarded with sensory information, yet many don’t have the ability to filter it. This can make it difficult to get their attention, because we are just a small part of the noise they hear. Imagine your email inbox with 500 incoming emails and no filters: only 3 are important, but the salient ones do not look any different from the other 497 emails and may be easily missed. Sensitive children either can’t filter out the irrelevant input and “noise,” or they have a greater ability to tune in to everything around them. Unfortunately, children don’t grow out of sensitivity, but we can help them find ways to adapt to and manage it.

Sensitive children require a lot of patience to parent, because they react so strongly to their world, have more frequent and bigger emotional outbursts and tend to mature a little later than their lighthearted peers. The more extreme the sensitivity, the more adaptive they have to be. The challenge is that with greater sensitivity, they also feel more vulnerable. The more vulnerability a child feels, the more likely they will defend against the tender feelings required for the process of adaptation. For this reason, we need to help them cultivate a resilience to match their sensitivity (see Cultivating Resilience, October issue). We also have to be more mindful to make our relationship with them very safe, so that their defenses can melt and the maturing processes can take root.

The rest of the world is often pushing for these kids to fit in, to be “normal” and function like everybody else. They need our support and understanding, because it’s hard enough for them to feel their intense emotions, let alone be shamed or disciplined for them. “You’re too noisy, too difficult, too impatient, too sensitive,” we say. Their strong feelings are not a “choice”, however, but happen to them, and often the vulnerability of their experience is enough to put their brain in defense. If a child gets stuck in defense, they can be very hard to parent and teach. Dr. Neufeld, developmental psychologist, says: “Instead of trying to fit them in to the normal box, they need our compassion for what it must be like to live in their skin.” We also need to stay in the lead and be in charge of their world, as the sensitive child can avoid the vulnerability of depending on anyone and instead seek to command and control the household, their parents or the classroom.

Sensitive kids are also prone to spoiling. This is not because they get upset and have a fit when we say no, but because we give in to their upset. There is also a tendency for us to avoid the “No’s” if we know it is going to bring on a temper tantrum. We spoil the adaptive process not by loving them too much but by not giving space for their tears, and their need to be upset. We need to shield them from stressors that overwhelm, but not from the upset that gives birth to resilience.

One of the most important things we can do is to protect them from overwhelming experiences and stimulation. Parents need to put the brake on screens, extracurricular activities and endless play-dates and instead provide more opportunities for expressive activities like building, drawing, journaling, as well as simple downtime.

Sensitive kids often mature later than their peers, and have poor impulse control for a while longer than most children. Their huge emotions are harder to integrate and moderate. With their tendency toward big emotional expression, they can easily be considered a behavioral problem. Although classrooms can be overwhelmingly noisy and over-stimulating, these children are often very bright, and can appear gifted.

A sensitive child can be overwhelmed by their experience, or with a soft heart and a good parental lead, they can be transformed by it. Ideally we want the challenge of sensitivity to be part of their growth, rather than a deficit we dance around. If we can provide a place of rest and refuge in our relationship, and preserve the processes of maturation, they can blossom into remarkable kids, full of their own potential.

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“The secret of parenting is not in what a parent does, but in who a parent is to their child.” – Gordon Neufeld