You sit down to dinner with your family. You serve a nice warm plate of spaghetti and meatballs. You think, everyone loves this meal; it’s going to be great sitting down and eating together, so glad everyone is here and that we are all ready to eat, then suddenly, “Yuck, that tastes horrible! I’m not eating THAT!” What? But everyone loves this meal, you think. And then you remember that the store didn’t have the sauce you normally buy so you just picked up another brand. Tasted the same to you!
You walk in the door from date night with your husband and there greeting you at the door is your babysitter with your child. They both look distressed. You say hello as you put up your coat and the babysitter starts telling you that your child threw his socks down the toilet and the and now it’s clogged. You stop and start to think, would one of our tools fix this or am I going to need to call a plumber? When suddenly your child starts crying hysterically saying how angry you are at them because he’s such a terrible child. You are perplexed. You weren’t thinking this at all and you have never punished your child in words or in actions for mishaps before. What is he thinking? What you are thinking? And then you remember that when you think, you’re eyebrow slightly arches on the left and your mouth purses a little bit.
These are small vignettes from a day in a life with a Highly Sensitive Child. What is a highly sensitive child?
Highly sensitive children and people:
- Process information more deeply, intensely and for longer periods of time than others.
- Are quickly over-stimulated by events, people, or places that others don’t find bothersome or may not even register.
- Are emotionally reactive.
- Are highly perceptive of others, having exceptionally attuned and high empathy.
The most common problems parents face when parenting a highly sensitive child are:
- Their child’s awareness of sensory subtitles, from minor changes in facial expressions to slight odors or sounds that even you may not be able to smell or hear.
- Overstimulation, and over-arousal resulting in dis-regulated emotions.
- Deeply felt inner reactions to perceptions of others and events.
- Keen awareness of other’s emotions.
- Reticent or caution to new situations.
5 Tips for Communicating with Your Highly Sensitive Child:
- Listen, listen, listen, and create time to connect allowing them to share their feelings and thoughts. Support them in feeling understood: ask open-ended questions, acknowledge, empathize and encourage the healthy expression of inner feelings and experiences.
- Be mindful of your own body language and unspoken messages. Keep your tone, posture, and facial expression open, conveying empathy and understanding. Ask open-ended questions, validate your child’s thoughts and feelings, and focus on strengths, not weaknesses.
- Establish a time each week to problem solve. When emotions are high, no one is problem-solving. The focus or problem to be solved when anyone has flipped their lid is regulating emotions by learning how to cool down. Use collaborative problem solving and Family Meetings (C. Z. Gruener, 2015).
- Take every opportunity to notice and highlight when your child handles their inner reactions, emotions, and overstimulation in useful ways, or when they problem-solve their own issues effectively. Use those successes to springboard ideas about other challenges.
- Talk about their unique gifts that come with being highly sensitive and help them understand themselves better. Over-prepare and practice challenging situations. Celebrate successes and re-assess failed solutions.
When all else fails, seek assistance for behaviors that cause stress in the home, school, or relationships from a qualified, licensed, caring professional.
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Catherine Gruener, LCPC, NCC, DCC, PDTC. Catherine is a multi-certified and licensed clinical professional counselor, nationally and internationally known for her parent training programs. She is the owner of Gruener Consulting and the Chief Executive Officer of the Encouragement Parenting Division.