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Wimpy & Whiny: Understanding Emotionally Sensitive Children

Child wearing band-aid

Alexandra Grablewski

My 6-year-old daughter, Stella, seemed to have developed into a first-class wimp. She shrieked when I tried to brush the knots out of her hair, had a meltdown whenever I told her no, and burst into tears when her little sister teased her. I used to think Stella was a drama queen. But then I talked to an expert and learned that she wasn't acting.

Stella has what many experts call emotional sensitivity. "It's a common personality trait that causes some kids to feel physical and emotional pain more deeply than others do," explains Jeremy Schneider, a family therapist in New York City. Children are born emotionally sensitive, but their behavior may not seem out of the ordinary until age 5 or 6 when their peers cut back on tantrums and meltdowns. Although kids won't outgrow these feelings, they can learn to control their reactions -- in essence, toughen up. That's what happened with Stella. Follow these steps to help your child manage her emotions.

Show Some Empathy

When your child bawls after an elbow scrape that didn't even break the skin, your first instinct may be to tell her to calm down or to get over it. Experts say that just makes matters worse, especially if she hears anger or frustration in your voice. "When you try to talk your kid out of what she's feeling, it causes her to hold on to that feeling more tightly and get even more upset," says Elinor Bashe, Psy.D., a child psychologist in Highland Park, New Jersey. "It's important to listen to and accept your child's emotions even if they don't seem logical." Though you shouldn't reinforce the crying by giving too much attention, you can say something like, "I know it hurts" or "You must have been surprised when you fell down." Then help your kid focus her energy on problem-solving: "Do you think we should wash it off or put some ice on it? Get a bandage or just rest it?"

Find the Words

Sensitive children tend to burst into tears any time they experience a strong emotion, whether it's embarrassment or frustration. For instance, if you tell your son that his friend can't stay for dinner, he may suddenly become weepy. You can help by giving him the words for how he's feeling: "Honey, I know you're angry that Benjamin can't stay." Often it can stop a kid in his tracks to hear someone express his emotions, says Dr. Bashe. "Even if it doesn't work in the moment, when your child hears someone talking about his emotions again and again, he'll eventually start considering how he feels on his own instead of screaming and crying." Later, you can also talk to your child about other ways to cope with his feelings: stopping for a break, taking a few deep breaths, or even hitting a pillow.

Arm Her With Facts

Five- and 6-year-olds love to be in the know, so use that to your advantage. If your child is a scaredy-cat about getting shots, for example, talk with her before her annual checkup. Explain how the shot she's getting will prevent a specific disease, maybe even look up information online. Once you're in the doctor's office, ask if she wants the vaccine in her left arm or her right, then let her choose the type of treat (a sticker or a new pencil, for instance) that she can have afterward. "You empower kids this age when you give them choices and information, and that can make them braver," says Parents advisor Jenn Berman, Psy.D., author of The A to Z Guide to Raising Happy, Confident Kids. Another way to help her feel in control: Make sure that she has realistic expectations before trying something new like putting together a 300-piece puzzle ("This is harder than your other puzzles, so it's probably going to take a couple of days") or learning to roller-skate ("Most people fall a lot the first time they try").

Help Problem-Solve

Suppose your kid is sobbing because he can't get his shoes tied. Calm him down by saying something like, "I find it hard to understand you when you're this upset. When you're done crying, let's talk so I can help you." Once he relaxes, brainstorm ways to fix the problem, whether it's asking for help (for instance, he could practice on your sneaker) or taking a break and trying again later. "A sensitive kid tends to get sucked into the problem and get stuck there," says Dr. Berman. "Try to remind him that there always is a solution, and he shouldn't feel ashamed to ask for ideas."