How To Parent A Sensitive Kid, According To A Mom Who's Been There
As a mom of five, I have learned first-hand that every single kid, regardless of whether or not they came from the same person, is different. They're all equipped with their own personality that results in a unique set of needs, likes, dislikes, and ways of interacting with the world. So even within your own family, there's no "one-size-fits-all" approach to parenting. And never is this more obvious than when you learn how to parent a sensitive kid.
In my experience, things that are fun for "typical kids" aren't all that fun for sensitive kids. As a child, I loved things like roller coasters, scary movies, and water slides. My sensitive kids? Eh, not so much. My sensitive daughter feels emotions with roughly 100 times the intensity of everyone else. While that means she at times seems to radiate excitement and joy, it also means she can become overstimulated, angry, afraid, sad, or completely drained, with equal intensity and oftentimes disastrous results.
My step-son is sensitive in different ways. He is extremely introverted, and hates crowds or places where he's expected to socialize or behave a certain way. Some days he just needs alone time, and would rather stay home than go to events like birthday parties or large family gatherings. He struggles with his emotions, sometimes crying for no reason or about something that seems like no big deal (at least to me). And since he has the added "bonus" of living in a society that says boys shouldn't cry, he is made to feel even worse for reacting to these very big emotions.
As a mother, I've learned to adjust my expectations and find ways to help my sensitive kids (and myself) cope with their often overwhelming emotions. That's not always easy, because this world isn't built for sensitive people, but it's absolutely worth it and it's enabled me to learn the following things:
Set Reasonable Expectations
Because we can't just stay at home all of the time, I have had to learn to set reasonable expectations for myself and my kids. That means not planning things that are more than they can handle, and trying my hardest to let them know what will happen when we get to our final destination. It also means going into each day knowing that our sensitive son might not smile for family photos, or our sensitive daughter might cry when someone's parent inevitably dies at the beginning of a Disney film. And it will be OK.
Learn Your Kids' Limits
I have also had to learn my kids' individual limits. If we have a social event planned where my step-son will have to be "on" for a period of time, it's important to give him alone time beforehand to prepare, and afterwards to recover. It's equally important that my sensitive daughter know what's going to happen in advance, and have ample time to shift gears during transitions. If I don't plan accordingly, there will be tears.
Remind Everyone Involved That It's OK To Cry
Crying is totally OK. Hell, I cry just about every day. It's also OK to experience the full spectrum of emotions. Kids have big feelings and often feel those big feelings in profound, unfettered ways. They deserve the ability to express themselves in a safe way, and to not be ashamed or embarrassed about those expressions and regardless of their gender.
Sometimes It's Important To Say "No"
You need to give yourself permission to say "no." It's OK to decline a party invitation or to leave early if it's just too much for your kids (or you) to handle. It's OK to leave a movie before it's over or if it's upsetting. And it's OK for your kid to say, "no," too — to sit out of an intense activity, or ask not to be touched, photographed, or go down the tall slide.
Frustration Will Happen
As a textbook extrovert, I admit that it can be hard for me to understand what's going on in my sensitive kids' heads. I try to remember that they aren't small versions of me or their siblings, and that's OK.
Meet Your Kids Where They're At
Each of my kids has their own personality and comfort levels when it comes to events that are loud, exciting, crowded, scary, fast-paced, or sad. It's my job, as their mother, to plan accordingly. And while it's OK to gently nudge them to try new things or tip-toe out of their comfort zones, it's equally important to make it safe for them to decide to decline. It's also important that I comfort them when it's just too much for them to handle.
Ignore The Haters
If I had a dollar for every time someone judged me for "coddling" my sensitive kids or not making them do something they didn't want to do, I'd be able to retire... comfortably. I used to get so embarrassed when my kids would do things like refuse to go down the slide, cry in the Target checkout, or sit alone in the corner at a birthday party. But now? Ha. Now I'm used to it. (Well, for the most part.)
Learn Some Tried & True Coping Mechanisms
Sometimes, your plans won't matter. Sometimes, you taking the time to prepare your child won't matter. Sometimes, no matter what you've done or how hard you've tried, your sensitive kid will get sad or overwhelmed or feel really big feelings that they can't necessarily articulate. You can't prevent these moments, but you can learn coping skills and strategies that will help your little one make it through the weeds that is their feelings.
Go Easy On Everyone Involved
It's important to remember that being a good parent is not about doing everything right all the damn time. You are going to make mistakes, especially when you have a kid who cries at the smallest slight, sad song... or, yes, when they remember that your cat died three years ago. Go easy on that bleeding heart. Their feelings are valid, their expressions are valid, and who they are as individual, sensitive people? Valid.
And then go easy on yourself, too. You're doing the best you can.