I used to feel powerless and emotionally flooded in my relationship with my highly sensitive child. Here’s what I did to overcome it.
At one point, my highly sensitive daughter had two to three meltdowns a day. She’d cry if I would not play Hide-and-Seek with her. She’d instantly snap when something didn’t go as she’d planned. And she’d feel easily offended when I’d impose consequences.
I gave her my full attention back then. But no matter how much we snuggled and played, she wanted more, more, more… She wanted no emotional space. To make things worse, telling her I needed space to calm down was the worst punishment in her opinion.
You see, I am highly sensitive — just like my daughter. So I felt like I was losing myself as an individual because my own emotions and opinions were not allowed. I absorbed her emotions so much and felt I had to be a hundred percent available for her.
But the thing was, I could not handle that much emotion. I needed to figure out how I could balance my emotional needs with my daughter’s — so we could both thrive.
Before I continue, let’s look at what it means to be a highly sensitive child.
The Science Behind Highly Sensitive Children
First of all, if you have a child who’s sensitive, there’s nothing “wrong” with them — and their sensitivity is not something they have to “overcome.” Everyone is sensitive to a degree; it’s just that some people are more sensitive than others.
In fact, nearly 1 in 3 people score high on sensitivity — 30 percent — both physically and emotionally, and it’s equally common for boys and girls. (While around 40 percent of people are average in sensitivity, 20 percent are low in it.) And researchers refer to this trait as environmental sensitivity ( also known as Sensory Processing Sensitivity). And don’t worry: All three levels of environmental sensitivity are considered healthy and normal.
So you can see why children and adults who fall near the high end of the sensitivity continuum are called highly sensitive people (HSPs). And they share certain trademark characteristics: they are often deeply in tune with their physical environment and the emotions of others; pick up on the smallest of details; textures, noises, and other things in the environment that non-sensitive kids may shrug off will affect highly sensitive children. In addition, they are deep thinkers, empathic, and highly creative. Some researchers have linked high sensitivity to giftedness, as well.
If your child is sensitive, they were likely born that way — and their sensitivity will continue to develop as they get older. They will remain sensitive for life — yet they can learn how to better manage overstimulation, regulate their sometimes-overpowering emotions, and use their sensitive gifts (and mind) to their advantage.
As a parent, the best thing you can do for your highly sensitive child is teach them to accept, and validate, their sensitivity. You can do this by helping them understand why they experience things more intensely than others.
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How I Parented My Highly Sensitive Child — Before I Fully Understood Her Sensitivity
Basically, once I put two-and-two together that my child is highly sensitive, I realized I had been parenting her all wrong:
- The more I read about being an HSP, the more I realized that my child’s excessive dependence on me — and frequent emotional outbursts — resulted from my mindset.
- I thought that being an HSP made her fragile. (I was wrong!)
- I mistook love for enabling and rescuing behaviors.
- I mistook kindness for tolerating unkind behaviors from my child.
- I didn’t set healthy boundaries.
- I expected my daughter to be difficult, and she sensed my tension, making her even more unable to regulate, and manage, her emotions.
Once I realized that my ideas of child-rearing benefitted neither my highly sensitive kid nor myself, I shifted my perspective. I had to, not only because I felt overwhelmed — but also because research shows that highly sensitive children are susceptible to the quality of their environment.
Simply doing nothing — and hoping for the best — was not an option either. Too often, I parented based on my (or my child’s) mood, meaning I was unpredictable. I was either too lenient (or too strict) based on how much I needed my quiet time. However, if it’s one thing that highly sensitive children need, that is predictability, my research taught me.
So I began to think about my needs and limitations, too. Now, I practice every day. I still struggle sometimes. But when the road gets rocky, I pause. I practice, and I pause. The key to shifting my mindset was to make small changes daily — for my benefit, and my highly sensitive daughter’s.
All that said, here are the top five tactics that helped me go from feeling powerless and emotionally flooded in my relationship with my highly sensitive child to asserting my needs (without feeling bad about it).
5 Ways to Mindfully Raise A Highly Sensitive Child
1. Instill boundaries before you reach the point of feeling overwhelmed.
As an HSP parent, you may have a hard time refusing your child, especially if you did not learned healthy boundaries when you were little. However, know that you are not alone: Many HSPs feel guilty when setting boundaries with loved ones.
However, saying “no” from time to time does not traumatize your child. In fact, studies found you need to be a good enough parent (predictable and empathetic) just 50 percent of the time. Getting it right half the time can give your sensitive child opportunities to learn to adjust to the environment. So, “good enough” does not mean “not enough.”
And whenever your child’s demands drain you, try to set a limit in a way that gives your child a sense of power — gently discipline them. By giving your child a choice, you can prevent an uproar.
For example, imagine you have to go to a birthday party, but are stuck in the car with your highly sensitive child, who feels anxious. You can say, “Your sister is ready to go inside at the birthday party. And I am, too. How much time would you like to listen to music in the car before we go in?”
Your kid might say one hour, but she’ll likely stop after five minutes because her mind is now set on going into the party. And the fact that you give her space prevents her need to fight back.
2. Don’t encourage dependence by enabling – instead, let your child learn from their mistakes.
HSPs have empathy to spare. That’s why highly sensitive parents can easily confuse love with enabling and rescuing behaviors. But this is not love. Instead, it’s what psychologists call codependency — which highly sensitive people may struggle with.
It’s only natural that you want to support your child. But by helping without being asked, you will feed their perfectionism and self-doubt. So, it’s best if you trust your kid and normalize mistakes. Then, as your child is busy exploring and learning from their mistakes, you’ll get extra time for yourself.
Let’s see an example. Your six-year-old comes home upset because other kids at the robotics club would not let her focus on the project, despite the teacher telling them to stop talking. As a worried HSP, you might say, “Well, I can talk to the teacher to move you to another group of students if you’d like.”
But, again, you would be trying to solve your kid’s problem. So instead, it would be best to search for solutions that don’t require your involvement.
3. Hold space for them emotionally rather than rescue.
None of us was born knowing how to manage big feelings. And highly sensitive children have strong emotions, which they often suppress until they have an outburst.
Of course, parents often feel guilty for not preventing the meltdown. The fact that the parenting industry is full of “perfect” family pictures, meditation apps, and fidget toys (that help regulate explosive children) fuels our feelings of inadequacy and that we are not good enough.
So, whenever you feel that your head is going to burst, take a step back and think: “Does my kid really have a terrible life?” Probably not, right?
It helps to remind yourself that your child can handle a “no” now and then. Moreover, it’s unhealthy to cushion everything at the cost of your mental health. Instead, simply be there for your child as they navigate uncomfortable feelings.
For example, imagine you are at the playground, and your kiddo comes to you and says, “I want to leave. Those kids don’t want to play with me.” HSP parents might say, “Aww, let me go and talk to them.” However, you would give the message to your child that they can’t — and shouldn’t — handle negative emotions.
It’s better to validate their feelings without drama by saying something like, “You really wanted to play with them” (which teaches them to accept the reality) or move on and say, “Can I help you with something?” or “What would you like to do instead?” This way, you give them more power and don’t try to come to the rescue, which enables you to both grow.
4. Lead the way by following your child’s cues.
No one likes to be told what to do — least of all, a highly sensitive child who feels quickly rejected. Respecting this HSP trait, and being on your child’s side, means leading the way by following their cues.
For instance, instead of starting a power struggle over teeth-brushing, you can respond to their unspoken need for connection by playing a game, like “Let’s see who gets to the upstairs bathroom in less than five seconds!”
Our hectic society is already full of limits, stimuli, and schedules, which can be intense for a highly sensitive child. So, for safety reasons, try to focus on natural consequences and limitations instead. This way, your child is more likely to cooperate when they have to do something they don’t like.
5. Explain to your highly sensitive child that you need quiet time (and this will teach them they could benefit from some, too).
Quiet time is a must for any HSP parent. To improve their well-being, research, too, has found that HSPs need more time to themselves. So, along with being the kind leader that sets limits with compassion, you need to explain to your child that your alone time makes you a better parent, and that’s why you need it. Even if you spend your time doing nothing, it’s still something — it gives you time to relax and decompress.
For instance, you could say, “I love being with you. I love how we cuddle and spend time together. But you know what? I also love being with myself. My quiet time gives me the energy to play with you later on.”
Young children have a hard time understanding our need for alone time. In this case, verbalizing our needs won’t help much. Instead, try to encourage independent play from an early age so that you can take short breaks now and then. Fortunately, free play is also a great way for kids to build self-regulation skills, studies have found. Plus, maintaining a “play ethic” is important for highly sensitive adults, too.
My fellow HSP parents, I’d love to know what you’d like to add to the list above. How do you get time to recharge while also being there for your child? Feel free to comment below!
Did you like this article? You can read my articles on A Sensitive Mind.
You might like:
- Parenting a Sensitive Child Ain’t Easy. Here’s How to Do It Right.
- Does Your Child Get Overstimulated at Birthday Parties? Here’s What to Do
- How ‘Doing Nothing’ Does Something Big for HSPs
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