There is a scene in The Land Before Time where Littlefoot sits alone, silently mourning the death of his mother. A well-meaning pteranodon cheerfully approaches, graciously extending a cherry for the sad little dinosaur, who dolefully turns his head. The once-chipper pteranodon frowns sadly and walks away. Now, at this point in the movie, whenever we watched as little kids, my brother would burst into heaving, snot-filled sobs. "Littlefoot wouldn't eat the cherry!" he screamed. "He wouldn't eat the cherry!"
My brother's hysterics weren't limited to animated dinosaurs. Food that wasn't steamed chicken or plain white rice? Howling shrieks of disgust. The suggestion that he should go on an amusement park ride? Paralyzed horror...and then screams. Making any kind of decision? Absolutely agonizing. Once he hit about age 7 or so, his tantrums and freak-outs subsided a bit, but he was and (thankfully) remains an incredibly sensitive dude as well as one of my favorite people. So when my own child began exhibiting some very familiar behaviors: a sensitivity to other people's pain, stubborn refusal to try new things, above-average caution for a toddler, I kind of knew what I was dealing with. I once told my brother that my son once cried for a solid 10 minutes because he saw a picture of a duck that he thought was sad and that made him sad and my brother said, "Oh my God he's me."
Pretty much. They're both highly sensitive.
When I first heard the term, I admit to sort of rolling my eyes, because I thought, "Oh yeah, because everyone's child is a special snowflake," but the more I read on the subject, the more I began to think "Is my child highly sensitive?" And then the more I read, I realized, "Oh, hell yes, he is." Reading even further helped me find parenting strategies to help a sensitive child. Parenting a highly sensitive child child sometimes means throwing preconceived notions about children, parents, and discipline out the window. When it comes down to it, all kids need the same basic things, but there are a few things that sensitive children need you to know.
Everything They Feel, They Feel Big
It would be easy to call sensitive children drama queens, but that would also be sort of mean, and not really seeing the full picture. (Besides, I prefer drama llamas: gender neutral, less loaded, and more affectionate, because llamas are adorable. Also, why pass up a rhyme when you can go for it?) On a scale of 1-10, most children fall in or near the middle. Sensitive children are simply dialed up to an 11, often indiscriminately. It's why my son once cried for a solid 10 minutes because he saw a picture of a duck that he thought was sad and that made him sad. (It's why my brother cried over Littlefoot not eating the cherry and why I cry at Zoloft commercials — the apple doesn't always fall far from the tree.)
They Cannot Be Rushed, Persuaded, or Kowtowed
Some people can easily be externally motivated. For many kids that will manifest via successful use of sticker charts of promises of a toy for continued good behavior. Sensitive children often cannot be persuaded. If they are going to do something, it has to be internally motivated, and no amount of punishment or reward will change that. And hey, sometimes sticking to your guns is a good thing, right? It will serve them well if they ever choose to become a parent one day. But other times, this stubbornness is deeply frustrating. They're not doing this in defiance or to hurt you, and you can work with them (and, eventually, things will get better), but their commitment to their own feelings and desires is very, very strong. If you can, try to enable them to be able to come to things in their own time.
Yelling Will Get You Nowhere
See above. In fact, more often than not, yelling or severe consequences will work against anything you are hoping to accomplish with your sensitive child due to their tendency to become easily overwhelmed as well as potential sensory issues (more on that in a bit).
Encourage, Don't Push
Even if you think your sensitive child would absolutely love [x] if they just tried it, do not force them into a particular situation. Sure, maybe you'll be right. This once happened with my highly sensitive little brother when our dad ran into the ocean with him despite massive screaming protests: Literally five seconds into it, he loved it and my dad's been gloating about it for the past 25 years. But chances are your child is either going to become overwhelmed with emotions and sensations and either shut down or (more likely) spiral out of control (because, again, when you have a lot coming at you and your sensitivity to stimuli is dialed up to 11... it's gonna get so real so fast).
They Are Wary of Change
As with anything else when it comes to sensitive children (or, frankly, any kind of children), this may be true in degrees. Some sensitive children may resist change but are ultimately OK after a parent helps them process it for a bit. Other children are so attuned to even minor changes that they can become overwhelmed by something as basic as a new set of sheets on their bed. So routine and teaching time management become clutch as does...
Giving Lots Of Warning Before Transitions
This gets its own little section because, as the mother of a sensitive child, I personally cannot even begin to tell you how huge this is. When we started giving our son a kind of countdown between activities ("We're leaving the playground in 5 minutes;" "OK, we're leaving in one minute.") it was a game changer. So much less crying.
They Need You To Help Them Build Their Emotional Vocabulary
As it is, children are learning to navigate complex emotional landscapes both in their interactions with others and in their own mind. Giving children an emotional vocabulary is a tremendous gift (and tool) for any of them. For a highly sensitive child, it will be the difference between feeling like they can be understood or not. So when your child is little, notice how they feel and give them a word for it. "Sweetie, I can see you're frustrated because it's not your turn to go on the slide. I understand. But we need to make sure everyone has a chance to play, and these kids were waiting first." As they get older, you can sometimes head-off a meltdown at the pass by asking them, directly, how they feel. Sometimes, them verbalizing it will bring them into a place where they can talk with you instead of emotionally lashing out. In those instances, affirm their emotion "Oh I see, you're sad* because you wanted to go to work with daddy and you're not allowed." This opens up a dialogue.
*When applicable, you can go ahead and add to what they've said if you notice a particular emotion in them: "You're sad and feel regret," or "You're sad and maybe angry."
Their Sensitivity May Go Beyond Emotions
While being highly sensitive should not be confused with Sensory Processing Disorder, highly sensitive children are frequently more sensitive to physical, video, and audio stimuli. This may mean having a child who cannot stand to have even a square inch of wet clothing touching her body, or a kid who cannot handle the sound system in a movie theater (or is, perhaps, initially very jarred by it).
They Need Your Empathy
Even when your child's emotions are out of control for something completely absurd, whatever they are feeling is real and it's not absurd to them. You don't have to go over-the-top (which may, in fact, nurture continued unreasonable outbursts) but them knowing you understand them (or are trying to) and love them will make a difference in how they handle the situation in front of them and how they will work through similar emotional roller coasters in the future.
There Is Nothing Wrong With Them
Highly sensitive children may be weepy or intense or, yes, incredibly trying, but they can also be creative, perceptive, empathic, inquisitive, caring, and brilliant. It's not just the negative emotions that have awe-inspiring strength. Their senses of joy, wonder, and passion are equally boundless. The challenges of raising a highly sensitive child will, at times, exhaust and drain you, but, fortunately, you can draw on transcendent love they bring into your life as well.