Are you raising a sensitive child? One who you know feels things so deeply – more deeply than most. Or more deeply than your other children, at least.
My oldest definitely fits this bill. A real empath, he’s curious and quick to take in a situation and understand how everyone is feeling. But by the same token he feels things a lot for himself too and his reactions can often seem larger than the situation warrants. Sometimes this is a tearful outburst. Other times a fit of anger, with clenched fists and a storm-off.
1. Start with acceptance
According to psychologist Karen Young of Hey Sigmund, the challenge for parents of sensitive souls is helping them learn to express their wide range of emotions, in a healthy way.
“It’s important to remember that all feelings exist for a reason,” Karen says. “There are no wrong ones. The key is to meet them where they are and nurture the strengths that come with their sensitivity, rather than changing them into someone they are not.”
2. Help them name their emotions
New social situations can be a common challenge for sensitive children, who might feel shy or not confident enough to push themselves into a new group. Ditto for scenarios where things don’t go to plan.
Karen outlines a simple strategy to help parents support their sensitive child.
“If you validate whatever your child is feeling so they can ‘feel’ that you get them and that you’re right there with them,” Karen says. For instance saying “You’re sad that your yellow shirt is dirty. It can be upsetting when you spill food on your favourite things can’t it?”
“The next step,” Karen explains, “is to let them know that you want to understand more about what they’re feeling – ‘I really want to hear you, but it’s hard for me to hear your words when you’re so upset. Can you take a big breath and tell me what’s happening?’ ”
3. Encourage active, steady breathing
Karen says steady breathing and talking about feelings helps to calm the emotion centres of the brain.
“Try practising strong, steady belly breathing as part of a bedtime routine,” Karen advises. “This will set the response up to be more automatic and familiar, and easier to access during big feelings. One way to do this is with hot cocoa breathing. Imagine holding a cup of hot cocoa – smell chocolatey smell for three, hold for one, blow cool for three.”
4. Expand their social awareness
Emotional and sensitive kids are often unaware that their behaviour could be misunderstood or misinterpreted by other kids.
Karen recommends encouraging your child’s natural empathy to help them be more conscious in social situations.
“Let’s say, for example, your child is reluctant to speak when other children try to speak to him. It’s completely okay to not feel like talking, but it’s also important not to put out the wrong signals, or to act in a way that might be misinterpreted as rude, aloof or unkind, “says Karen.
5. Always avoid shaming your child
The most important thing here for parents is to do all this without shaming the child, instead helping them feel empowered to make better choices.
“To do this, gently point out what you see – ‘I notice today when Sadie came up and said hello to you, you didn’t say anything back.’ Then, strip the shame by validating their feelings – ‘It’s tough sometimes when people want to talk to you but you don’t feel like talking isn’t it? I don’t always feel like talking to people,’ ” Karen suggests.
“Then, draw on their empathy – ‘How do you think Sadie might have felt when you did that?’ You might need to prompt – ‘I wonder if she might have felt like you didn’t like her? I wonder what that would have been like for her, especially when she probably knows what a great friend you would be to have?’”
As Karen says at the end of the day the world needs empathetic people who feel things fully. Sensitive children are a gift to the rest of us!
As parents our job is to preserve their gentle and understanding nature but also ready them for the real world, too.