Are you raising a sensitive child? One who you know feels things deeply, more deeply than most? Or more deeply than your other children, at least.
My eldest definitely fits this bill. A real empath, he’s curious and quick to take in a situation and understand how everyone is feeling. But he feels things a lot for himself, too, and his reactions can often seem larger than the situation he is reacting to. Sometimes this results in a tearful outburst. Other times a fit of anger, with clenched fists and a storm-off.
1. Start with acceptance
According to child development expert, 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. The same can occur in scenarios where things don’t go to plan.
Karen outlines a simple strategy to help parents support their sensitive child.
“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
Gentle, mindful breathing can really help small people (and their grownups!) find calm in amongst big feelings. 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 the chocolatey smell for a count of three, hold that breath for one count, then blow to cool down the cocoa for a count of 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.
You might like to help your child feel ready for social situations by reminding them beforehand that it’s okay to simply say ‘hello’ if somebody speaks to them, or even just give those people a smile of acknowledgement if they don’t feel like speaking.
5. Avoid shaming your child
The most important thing for parents is to do all this without shaming the child. Instead aim to help 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 perceptive nature but prepare them for the real world, too.
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