8 Reasons Why Gentle Discipline Works Best With the Highly Sensitive Child

a highly sensitive child receives gentle discipline

“Open your mouth so I can clean your teeth properly,” I say to my son.

“I AM!” my four year old shouts back at me.

It’s the tail end of a discussion we seem to have most mornings when I’m agitated by the rush to get my three sons ready for school.

“Don’t shout at me,” I snap, and my son bursts into heart-wrenching tears. I embrace him quickly and say sorry. I know by now not to raise my voice with my sensitive son; I know by now not to suddenly change my tone — but I’m human and sometimes the stress of the morning rush gets the better of me.

I feel like crap and I vow to be more mindful of my tone, the volume of my voice.

Nobody likes a raised voice.

Nobody likes a stern tone.

Nobody likes to be told off.

But for a highly sensitive child (HSC), all these things hit home even harder.

Here are eight reasons why a gentle approach to discipline works effectively with a highly sensitive child.

Why Gentle Discipline Works Best With Highly Sensitive Kids

1. Highly sensitive children are sensitive to noise.

The increased volume of noise when you raise your voice, particularly suddenly, impacts a sensitive child deeply; it can startle and scare them. Raised, stern voices cause stress and anxiety in HSCs — and in many highly sensitive adults, too, for that matter. The wall of noise, as an HSC experiences a raised voice, blocks out your message.

2. Highly sensitive children are more easily upset and overstimulated.

An HSC’s emotions are more intense than a non-highly sensitive child. They are less able to dismiss feelings and shrug them off. Negative feelings are amplified and stay with an HSC longer, so chances are your child already feels scared, angry at themselves, upset or overwhelmed, when they know they have done something wrong.

Once upset, the message behind your words is drowned out by their emotional state. Emotional overstimulation means that no more input is processed. Waiting until both you and your child are calm allows you to both talk rationally and quietly so you can focus on the message you want your child to hear. It usually takes around twenty minutes for a child to regain their composure.

3. Highly sensitive children process things deeply.

HSCs process sensory input deeply — and that includes the things said to them and how they are said. This means words cut deep, and a severe tone hits especially hard.

4. Highly sensitive children have a strong sense of shame.

A stern tone, anger, or disappointment shown in a voice evokes guilt or shame in an HSC — even if that voice is telling someone else off.

Imagine a teacher trying to establish the perpetrator of an incident in the class. An HSC may feel a sense of guilt even though they are innocent of any wrongdoing.

If you’re in public and your child’s behavior needs your intervention, it’s best to remove your child from other people and find a quiet, private space. Their shame can cause overwhelm and an outburst if you publicly correct your HSC.

They tend to act as their own disciplinarians; their sense of shame is often so strong that they beat themselves up mentally for what they have done, and feel terrible without an adult saying a word to them. HSCs are masters of self-criticism and they don’t need to be told they are “naughty.”

5. Highly sensitive children seek approval.

An HSC may worry about getting into trouble and is made anxious just by seeing signs of disapproval (or reading between the lines) from those around them — whether at home or in the classroom. Praise works wonders for an HSC. Personal criticism, especially in the heat of the moment, will be taken to heart and may eat away at an HSC’s self-esteem.

6. Highly sensitive children have a strong sense of justice.

Listening to an HSC instead of instantly passing judgement on their behavior (and the reasons behind it) is important to them, as they tend to have a strong sense of justice.

Feeling that a decision is unjust and that their case has not been heard will deeply upset an HSC. They may become more embroiled in the perceived injustice than in the message you want to get across about their behavior or actions.

7. Highly sensitive children communicate subtly.

Even from a very young age, HSCs pick up on tone of voice, body language, emotions shown in someone’s eyes, and unsaid words. Voices can therefore seem loud and stern to an HSC, even when it is not intended.

Making a conscious effort to speak quietly and gently to an HSC helps ensure that your words and messages are not misconstrued.

This is something that is particularly difficult for non-highly sensitive parents who don’t necessarily appreciate just how loud or stern their voice comes across to their HSC.

8. Highly sensitive children naturally follow rules.

Communicating clear expectations, standards, and rules will help an HSC immensely as they tend to be adept at adhering to the rules. In general, HSCs are not risk-takers, so they love rules.

HSCs have a strong internal moral compass, and when they do something wrong, they process the incident deeply to make sure they don’t make the same error again. They actually don’t need harsh words to learn from the mistakes they make. Gentle correction is enough.

The aim of any parent when disciplining a child is to bring about a change in behavior. The aim is to ensure that a child remembers the lesson for the next time so they act differently in the same situation. No one wins if the lesson is overshadowed by the severity of the punishment, or a caregiver’s reaction — and that can easily be the case with an HSC.

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But when you adopt a more gentle approach to discipline, you may find yourself facing criticism from extended family, friends, and even complete strangers (particularly those with a strict upbringing themselves). These people may accuse you of being “too soft” on your child, of allowing your child to manipulate you or get away with unacceptable behavior.

If necessary, or if it makes you feel more comfortable, explain that you will talk to your child about the incident when he or she is calmer and when you are alone. This is a great way to deflect criticism.

As parents of HSCs, we have rules, standards, and limits — and our children need to learn to stay within those boundaries. But because of their temperament, they learn those limits most effectively through a gentle approach. Trust that you know your sensitive child best.

Want to learn more about parenting a highly sensitive child? Check out my blog, Happy Sensitive Kids, where I share advice and life lessons.

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A version of this post was originally published on Happy Sensitive Kids. It is republished here with permission from the author.