In her wonderful book, “The Highly Sensitive Child,” Elaine Aron talks about the fact that in every animal population 15 to 20 percent of the group fall on the impulsive side of the spectrum, and 15 to 20 percent on the sensitive side. Once again, in her great wisdom, Mother Nature has orchestrated her creation so that some members of our “pack” will be fearless enough to venture forth out into the larger world, while others are cautious enough to pay attention to subtle warning signs that might lead to dangerous situations.
It’s easier to be born with a nature that falls somewhere in the middle. Parents of children whose temperament is impulsive worry constantly about what kind of trouble the reckless behavior of their youngins’ might get them into.
And as you well know, children who are highly sensitive face the challenge of simply coping with all the noise and commotion in our increasingly stimulating world. These youngsters tend toward shyness, meltdowns and/or a rigidity about what they they can and cannot comfortably do that create restrictions that drive parents a little crazy at times.
But just like hair color or height, children are born with the temperament they are born with, and the more parents try to force their kids to be different than their essential nature, the more problems they create.
Here’s my advice on dealing with a sensitive child:
1. Rule out any trauma that might make an otherwise thick-skinned child suddenly sensitive, anxious or unstable. As I’ve said, a traditionally sensitive child is born with that temperament, but there are times when a child suffers an emotional blow and takes on extremely sensitive, insecure characteristics. If your otherwise resilient child is suddenly sensitive, find out what might have happened to cause her to be so thin-skinned, reactive or fearful. It may be worth exploring this with a professional, if you suspect she has experienced significant trauma.
2. Avoid being overly indulgent or overprotective. Some children become sensitive because they’ve been raised to expect people to give them whatever they want, which means they don’t know how to handle frustration or disappointment. Don’t reward her for being hypersensitive by fussing over her or giving in when she’s not getting her way.
3. If she’s not using the sensitivity as a manipulation, be gentle with your daughter. Children who are among that 15 to 20 percent on the sensitive end of the temperament scale have thinner filters; lights are brighter, sounds are louder and looks or comments that might go unnoticed by other children can hurt deeply. In other words, don’t make her feel ashamed for being who she is, or tell her to simply lighten up.
4. Teach her cognitive tools for dealing with the behaviors in others that trigger her hurt feelings. I use something called ABC thinking that helps children identify what happened that caused then to feel hurt, and step back to see how their interpretation of an incident might be completely wrong.
Highly sensitive children find it harder to handle life’s ups and downs. Be gentle with your daughter while helping her learn cognitive tools that she can use when she jumps to conclusions about life events or social interactions that leave her feeling victimized or overwhelmed.
And make sure that you highlight the many wonderful qualities — including thoughtfulness and caring — that your highly sensitive child brings to your world.
For more support on raising a highly sensitive child – or if you are a highly sensitive parent – join me with Elaine Aron and Alane Freund for our Master Class, Highly Sensitive Parents/Children. Replay available!