Highly Sensitive Refuge
A sensitive child sticking out his tongue at his parent.

Parenting a Sensitive Child Ain’t Easy. Here’s How to Do It Right.

I was once labeled a sensitive child. For my entire childhood, I believed it meant something was wrong with me. What I’ve come to realize is that being sensitive actually meant adults had difficulty knowing how to be with me and my emotions, so I was labeled a problem. 

Adults have a way of making children feel like there’s something wrong with them, if they find them difficult to parent, teach, or coach. After several years of my own therapeutic work, I was able to discover that I wasn’t the problem, but it took a lot of work to let go of the shame.

In my book, Raising Empowered Children: The Codependent Perfectionist’s Guide to Parenting, I talk about this very idea. That it’s us — as parents, teachers, and coaches — who need to do the work to learn how to effectively raise our children. To avoid labeling them in a negative way and instead learn how to work with their unique needs. That’s not always easy. Many highly sensitive children can act out in ways that make us feel like they’re simply bad or wrong. What they’re really trying to say is that they’re feeling and they don’t know what to do with their feelings.

The Dirty Secret: Emotions are Okay

All feelings are neutral in a sense — they aren’t truly good or bad. Yet, we have a hard time not seeing difficult emotions as negative. What we need to be doing to help our children grow up to be well-functioning individuals is to assist them in dealing with their feelings. 

It’s not surprising that a sensitive child like myself would go one to have a highly sensitive child of my own; sensitivity is partly genetic. It’s now my job to learn how to help my sensitive child be with her emotions. And it’s a tough job. I can see why many parents and teachers become so frustrated that they just give up and resort to punishment as a means of dealing with their child’s emotions. 

I, myself, have become overwhelmed and extremely frustrated at times. Most especially when my child won’t stop screaming or is being especially “defiant,” meaning she’s not doing what I want. What I then try to remember is that my reaction is about me, not about my child, and so it’s me who needs to do the work to change and grow, not my child. 

The Emotional Mirror

When I’m able to hold space for my child effectively, she has a much better chance of doing the same — holding and understanding her feelings as feelings. Holding space is a way of being with your child (or anyone) where you don’t push your thoughts, judgments and opinions on them but instead seek to help them be heard and seen. Think of your relationship like a mirror. I am a mirror for my daughter to see herself. When I’m not in reaction, the mirror is clear and she can see a healthy, loving, intelligent version of herself. When the mirror is unclear, our children may feel shame for simply being who they are and having feelings. 

My daughter’s learning from the model I present to her. She’s looking to me to know if she’s good, bad, or not okay. 

Highly sensitive children aren’t bad or wrong, they’re overwhelmed. Think of when you’re feeling overwhelmed, and how difficult it is to do some basic activities. How hard it can be to hold a conversation with someone. How frustrating it can be not to be able to concentrate because we’re preoccupied with other thoughts. This is what it can feel like to be a highly sensitive child every day. 

It’s important to empathize with this experience so we can help our children learn how to navigate their own feelings. Here are six ways I’ve found that have helped me help my daughter navigate her sensitive nature. 

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6 Ways to Help Your Child Navigate Their Sensitivities 

1. Teach them breathing techniques.  

Although this may seem like a given, most people don’t take time to breathe deeply and slowly which allows us to calm our central nervous system, connecting our hearts and our brains. Children especially don’t know how to do this, so take some time to show your child a few tips for pausing and taking a deep breath. 

2. Give them time to reset. 

When you see your child beginning to escalate or become overwhelmed, give them time to reset or calm themselves. Have a reset space in the home where they can go when they begin feeling overwhelmed. When you’re out of the home, take them somewhere private where they can be alone. Remind them that this is not a punishment but instead to help them feel better.

3. Show them how to manage feelings by modeling them. 

You are your child’s greatest teacher. Show them what it looks like to have difficult feelings and manage them effectively. Talk about your feelings and how you work through them.

4. Talk with them frequently about their feelings and experiences. 

Don’t shy away from important conversations around feelings, emotions, and reactions. But it’s generally best to wait until you and your child are no longer in an emotional reaction to the experience before discussing what happened and how it made them feel. 

5. Try to understand their world. 

Be curious about how your child is feeling and what’s going on for them. Try to see the world through their eyes, body, and senses. This goes beyond discussing their feelings, and doing research to understand what sensitivity means. It will increase empathy and understanding for what they’re going through.

6. Accept, accept, accept. 

Acceptance is key: Help your child accept themselves as they are by also accepting them as they are. As Carl Rogers says, “The curious paradox is that when we accept ourselves as we are, then we can change.” If you model acceptance, your child will be more able to also accept themselves rather than experience shame for their big emotions. This is essential to help them be able to make positive changes to support their emotional wellbeing.

Sensitivity is a gift, and if you help your child to see that early on, it will make their development all the better. For more on this, read my book Raising Empowered Children: The Codependent Perfectionist’s Guide to Parenting.

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