The first time my daughter watched Inside Out as a toddler, she suddenly burst into sobs sitting next to me on the couch. Mama mode instantly activated, I quickly interrogated her as tears streamed down her face. What was the matter? Was she hurt? As it turns out, she was just overwhelmed by emotion during a sad scene. Since then, I've come to understand that she can be very emotionally attuned, and that means I have to consciously use positive parenting techniques for my sensitive child. Still, in practice, that looks different for me from day to day.
According to the Center for Parenting Education, an emotionally sensitive child is especially tuned into their own and others' feelings. But there is definitely a difference between understanding your child's personality and knowing the best ways to parent them from moment to moment. Even parents with the best intentions sometimes feel at a loss to deal positively with their children's sensitivity — or to help their children learn how to manage. I reached out to Gail Post, Ph.D., a Jenkintown, Pennsylvania-based clinical psychologist with over 30 years in practice, to share some tips that parents can use to be the support their sensitive child needs.
1. Give Them Space to Feel Their Feelings
As parents, it can upset us to see our children unhappy, but it's important that we allow them the space to feel "negative" emotions and not try to rush them into a positive state for our comfort. "When you try to talk your kid out of what she's feeling, it causes her to hold on to that feeling more tightly and get even more upset," child psychologist Elinor Bashe, Psy.D., told Parents.
2. Know Your Child's Limits... & Your Own
Make any plans with your child's sensitivity in mind. In my house, that looks like telling my daughter "No" often when she wants to watch exciting movies on Netflix. That can mean no big surprises if surprises throw your little one off, or even declining invitations to activities that might be fun but overwhelming to them.
Alternately, you can plan for contingencies if you know you're going to be in an environment that may upset your child. It's not enough to simply make sure that your child is ready for an engaging world; you also have to prep yourself to guide them while they're in it.
Dr. Post recommends parents take it easy on themselves if they're having a hard day being patient with their child's sensitive nature, because sometimes life just happens. "Give yourself a break, ask another adult to help out whenever possible, and leave the room if you need to calm yourself," she says.
3. Calm Their Emotional Response With A Physical Release
Although parents like me might find themselves trying to reason it out with their child during an emotional outbreak, sometimes a physical activity may be the key to calming them down. Try something that requires them to focus their energy, like yoga, meditation, martial arts, or deep breathing techniques. Dr. Post also suggests that an exercise like pretending to blow up a balloon can turn mindfulness into a game for a sensitive child.
These exercises are "useful outlets for relieving stress and developing self-control, and they can be fun as well," Dr. Post adds.
"Teach children these skills when they are calm so the activities do not become associated exclusively with stress."
4. Teach Them Their Sensitivity Is a Strength
When the predominant view in our society tells us sensitivity is weakness, as the site Highly Sensitive Person pointed out, parents can have a hard time teaching sensitive children to accept themselves when peers and other adults might tell them otherwise. "Point out the 'strengths' of their sensitivity — how it grants them a heightened awareness of the world around them, an appreciation of the arts, or greater compassion and empathy for those less fortunate, " Dr. Post tells Romper.
5. Remember Their Sensitivities Are Not Yours
I like to think of my daughter as my "mini-me" because we can both be highly emotionally attuned. As Maureen Healy, Ph.D., (author of Growing Happy Kids) wrote in Psychology Today, "Being a highly sensitive adult may be helpful in understanding your child's temperament and particular needs." But even as a person who considers herself relatively sensitive and empathetic, I have to remind myself my daughter is her own person with sensitivities that may not mirror my own.
6. Cuddle Them With Consent
As a part of her sweet sensitivity, my daughter can be extremely affectionate and loves to cuddle, which is wonderful... until it's too much. Sometimes, as a mom of three little ones, I just need a second when no one is holding onto me. Parents should consider cuddling a two-way street: It's more enjoyable when both people are open to a comforting touch at that moment. So if your little one is feeling prickly — or if you are — don't feel too bad. It's okay for either of you to set boundaries.
"Try to find time that is fun for all of you, like cuddling together while watching a favorite show or reading a book together," says Dr. Post. You can even announce it as an official "cuddle time" so that your child knows and can prepare themselves emotionally.
"Determine whether some of your child’s needs are due to anxiety, such as fear of falling asleep alone, and work on a plan for helping your child develop comforting and self-soothing strategies," she explains.
7. Give Them Tools To Express Themselves
Parenting a sensitive child simply means that, like any parent, you have to be sensitive to your child's emotional needs. Dr. Post reminds me, "Sensitive children — all children — need help with managing, containing, and appropriately expressing their emotions." Validating the reason they are upset (ex: "I know you're disappointed because we missed your class") can give them the language to express their emotions later, according to Dr. Bashe.
Finally, the more you use positive tools to help your sensitive child, the stronger a foundation you build for their positive self-image. Looking at your little one's sensitivity as the gift that it is can only help you be positive as you guide them to greatness.