Understanding and Nurturing Highly Sensitive ChildrenJune 13, 2019
This week’s tip comes from our partner, early childhood expert Claire Lerner LCSW-C. She addresses how to respond to big reactors – children who are temperamentally very sensitive and reactive to their experiences in the world. Children like this are sometimes referred to as “orchids”. Parents often describe these kids as not having an “off” button. They live in a state of high-alert to prepare and protect themselves from a world that can feel very overwhelming. While big reactors are not being challenging on purpose, their behavior can be extremely confusing, frustrating, and maddening to parents.
Temperament is a child’s inborn way of approaching the world—the “why” that explains the meaning of his behavior. Temperament is something we are all born with, not something children choose or that parents create. It’s why some of us revel in new experiences and others are anxious and need time to warm up to unfamiliar situations. It’s how we’re wired which influences the way we process our experiences in the world.
Sensitive children tend to have a harder time handling typical stressors, such as not being able to master a new skill right away or having to adapt to a change like a new teacher or a shift in their daily routine. And, highly sensitive children are also more likely to feel overwhelmed or out of control when being corrected by an adult. When they feel out of control on the inside, they act out of control on the outside.
What can parents do to help especially sensitive children learn to manage their emotions and cope?
1. Remain calm and try not to get reactive yourself. When we get revved up it tends to increase children’s distress, leading to more out-of-control behavior. Remember not to take their words literally. Young children are driven by emotions and are irrational by nature. When children lash out, it is their way of saying they are overwhelmed and are having a hard time coping. They don’t mean what they say. (“I hate you” doesn’t mean they actually hate you. It usually means they don’t like a limit you are setting.) The more you react to their behavior, the more you reinforce it. When you remain calm they are likely to settle down more quickly.
2. Acknowledge your child’s feelings and keep language brief and simple. We tend to say too much when trying to calm children, thinking (hoping!) that, somehow, we can talk them out of their upset. But when children are out of control, they can’t process all those words and ideas. Attempting to do so just further overwhelms them. The most sensitive and effective response is to simply acknowledge your child’s emotional state. Say something brief and empathetic such as, “Wow, those are very big feelings.” (Avoid telling him exactly how he is feeling as that tends to just triggers more defiance: “I am not angry!!”) When you stay empathetic and calm, it communicates that you are his rock; that you understand and that he is not alone.
3. Reflect on the encounter when your child is calm. Our natural impulse as adults is to use logic to teach our kids a lesson in these maddening moments. But when children are overwhelmed emotionally, they don’t have access to the part of the brain that enables them to think and reason. Wait until your child has calmed down to engage in any reflecting and teaching.
4. Recall past experiences when your child successfully managed a challenging moment. “Remember when you fell off your scooter. Daddy tried to help but you got really mad at him because you didn’t like the feeling of falling. It made you feel out of control. Daddy understood and just stayed by your side. When you were calm he showed you how to balance and you were off!”
It’s important to be aware that some children who are emotionally sensitive also have some sensory sensitivities. For example, a child who gets very distressed when something unexpected happens, or who flies off the handle when any limit is set, may be over-responsive to sensory experiences like sounds or tactile sensations (such as clothing with tags or seams). Children whose sensory systems are highly sensitive and reactive tend to feel overwhelmed by the world. They feel bombarded with sensations they can’t cope with which can result in big emotional reactions. This is something to keep in mind and potentially explore as you are decoding the meaning of your child’s behavior.
Claire has been a practicing clinician for over 30 years, partnering with parents to understand the behavior and development of their young children. She provides consultation and training to local preschools and pediatric residents. Explore her other tips and resources on her website here.