5 Expert Tips to Help Your Sensitive Child Navigate an Overwhelming World
One afternoon, my three children were happily FaceTiming their uncle Ivan when my 4-year-old suddenly started wailing. "He called me poopy-face," he hiccupped between sobs. What their uncle had meant as an affectionate joke, my son had taken as mean-spirited teasing.
Strong feelings have always been tough for my son to process. A skipped snack and he's rolling on the floor, insisting he's about to starve. A fight with his brother over a toy can provoke a minutes-long screaming jag.
According to Jadzia Jagiellowicz, Ph.D., founder of the Highly Sensitive Society, up to 33 percent of the population is considered "sensitive," meaning that they feel things intensely and can become overwhelmed by emotional and physical stimuli. Dr. Jagiellowicz, who provides mental health services to clients all over the world and conducts research on the neuroscience of sensitive individuals, says that their brains are both more receptive to incoming stimuli and more reactive to physiological cues—like an upset stomach or rapid breathing—than their less-sensitive peers.
On the flip side, "there are a lot of benefits to being a sensitive person," says Laura Greenberg, a psychotherapist based in Canada. "Sensitivity leads to empathy, self-awareness, and creativity."
Here are a few simple tips parents can employ to help sensitive kids navigate a noisy and sometimes intimidating world.
Validate and Connect
Sensitive children frequently feel that their emotional reactions are misunderstood or dismissed by their parents and peers. So "the most valuable, influential thing that you can do for kids with big feelings," says Greenberg, "is to just validate them." Put yourself in their shoes and let them know that you want to connect with them. Rather than attempting to solve their problem ("What makes you think that nobody likes you?"), sit with them in their uncomfortable feelings ("It must have been so difficult today when Bobby didn't want to play with you"). By validating these feelings, you're helping kids "jumpstart the regulation process of coping, calming, and tolerating them."
As your children get older, connecting with them emotionally continues to be crucial. If they don't develop the tools to manage "those big feelings, there's the risk that they could turn to other behaviors and less healthy coping strategies," Greenberg notes. Staying tuned into your children's feelings means that you'll know if they need additional support as their world gets bigger and more complicated.
Identify and Name Feelings
Identifying and naming feelings can go a long way toward helping kids regulate their emotional ups and downs. "Teach kids feeling words and then model how to express those feelings appropriately," says Michelle Harris, a licensed clinical social worker based in New York. "If they're shutting down and having a hard time speaking, make that explicit connection for them about what happened and the feeling that they're experiencing." When your child refuses to eat his sandwich, for example, because you sliced it into triangles when he prefers rectangles, you could say: "I noticed that after I cut your sandwich, you got really upset and stopped talking. I wonder if you're feeling frustrated about how it was cut?"
For younger kids, or kids who need a bigger nudge to express themselves, provide non-verbal ways to communicate, Harris suggests. Draw faces representing different emotions (happy, sad, mad) on index cards and let your children point to the card that best matches how they're feeling. Or create a stack of Post-its with checkboxes for simple responses (yes, no, maybe) when they're too overwhelmed to speak, but can write answers to direct questions. These small communication tweaks can help bridge the gap between frustration and communication.
Prepare for Everything
Sensitive kids thrive on routine and prefer to know exactly what to expect. Before the first day of school, for example, try to bring your child to meet the teacher and see the classroom, so the environment feels more familiar right away. Or walk to school that first morning with a playmate your child already knows. "Try to keep as much as you can familiar and introduce changes gradually," says Dr. Jagiellowicz.
Kids who are more sensitive sometimes worry about what other people think of them, causing them to freeze in the moment. To combat this, Harris suggests that parents "prepare language that kids can use to respond in different situations" and role play these scenarios. Collaborate with your child and "come up with a little toolkit of ideas that work for them—whether it's breathing exercises, ripping up some paper, pounding play dough, stomping, or making animal movements."
Create Boundaries and Safe Spaces
Because sensitive children take in more information from their environment and are more reactive to it, a little prevention is worth a pound of cure. For infants, that might mean keeping their sleeping area very quiet. Dr. Jagiellowicz cites the example of coffee aficionados who "go into the farthest room in the house and close the door whenever they grind coffee because [the noise] upsets their child."
For older kids, create opportunities for downtime after busy and stimulating activities. Help them set boundaries that enable them to safely process tough emotions. "You might not want to send them to hockey practice and then to a birthday party," says Greenberg, since both involve heavy investments of emotional energy. And create a quiet place where they can retreat to when they return home.
Practice Gentle Discipline
Among the characteristics of highly sensitive children is a strong awareness of hypocrisy and morality ("Is this situation fair?" or "Why isn't Sally keeping her promises?"). Approach discipline carefully "because they're already going to criticize themselves if they've done something wrong," says Dr. Jagiellowicz. Communicate limits clearly and without judgment; and make sure consequences are fair and connected to family rules and norms. Above all, don't make it personal: "You can't have iPad time because you haven't finished your homework yet" is preferable to "This iPad's off-limits because you're a bad kid."
"Emotional memories are stored more deeply [in sensitive children]," Dr. Jagiellowicz notes. Shame is particularly toxic. Dr. Jagiellowicz says that it's common for her adult clients to "remember things from their childhood" and that negative memories affect them deeply. Greenberg agrees: Sensitive kids "feel all their feelings bigger, so they're likely feeling shame bigger" as well.
The Bottom Line
As parents, our first instinct when our children are struggling is to "rescue them from those yucky feelings," Greenberg says. But that would do them a great disservice. Instead, support them, be mindful of their emotional needs and give them the skills to manage life's inevitable challenges.