How We Parent our Highly Sensitive Child
In hindsight, I should have known from the very first months that my baby was a highly sensitive child. She was a colicky baby, she would cry for hours at end, and she grew up a fussy eater, easily overwhelmed by crowds. She also threw tantrums every time we tried to put on her shoes or hat(we managed to slip in the first pair of shoes at 18 months of age!), and her “erratic” behavior left me scratching my head with uncertainty and disbelief….many times.
While some people think sensitive kids are just shy, there’s more to it than that. Sensitive kids feel every emotion quite intensely. That means they’re likely to become overexcited, extra angry, and super scared. Emotionally sensitive kids become overwhelmed easily. They cry often, worry about getting into trouble frequently, and they require a great deal of reassurance.
I do remember an instance when I dressed my angel with a t-shirt with a big beautiful flower sewed on front; she started crying and pulling it until she managed to rip it off; another time she was peacefully playing in the living room when 2 big birds landed on our terrace and she ran to me, she clutched her little arms around my neck and she wouldn’t let me go. And when it came to food…she loved cheese sandwiches, as long as you couldn’t see the melted cheese on the sides, and as long as the bread wasn’t too crusty, crunchy or soggy.
As a mother, I feel challenged in so many ways, as I never know what to expect; some ideas (like going to the pub for a meal after childcare) seem like wonderful ways to break the routine, but they are never welcomed by our little love.
It took me a long time to understand that she wasn’t a pain, odd or plain difficult, she simply got overwhelmed more easily than others, and she would have lots of difficulties to adjust to new environments or to loud noises and crowded spaces.
“ The highly sensitive child is one of the fifteen to twenty percent of children born with a nervous system that is highly aware and quick to react to everything” states Elaine Aron’s.
It took us a while to understand her triggers (especially because they can change from one week to the next), but we patiently watched her and picked up some invaluable tools on the way:
We started by embracing her strengths; it is challenging to deal with a crying child at 6.30am because the yogurt has a different flavor or because the shoes have been put on or because she doesn’t like the material of the shirt she is wearing. It caused me to meltdown (inwardly) on many occasions; as soon as I shifted my mentality and I started seeing her point of view, and how overwhelmed she was by these little changes, it put everything in a different perspective. I now know that whenever we decide to rush in the morning, or when I pick her up from childcare too late, or if we go to a long birthday party, she will be difficult. That’s her nature, she doesn’t act this way because she wants to make our lives difficult, but she can’t help it. At the same time, she can also be extremely intelligent and funny, she picks up on things pretty quickly, and she values her downtime sitting next to me. Accepting her for the way she is, instead of hoping for her to be someone she is not, has helped us tremendously to grow closer and to see things more positively.
I do allow plenty of downtimes. I can’t force my baby girl to move from a crowded space to bed and be happy with it; it doesn’t work like that. One hour before bedtime, she needs to be calmed down. When she comes home from childcare she needs to be fed home food in enormous quantity, otherwise, she doesn’t stop crying and walking to the kitchen; when she is in a foreign environment she needs to be held; she doesn’t like being hugged by people she doesn’t recognise; when she throws herself on the floor she needs to be picked up. She doesn’t “work” like the other kids, as she needs to be constantly reassured. I’m not spoiling her, I’m only giving her the best chance to grow in a safe environment while minimalizing the drama.
I also welcome calmness wherever we go; the volume in the car is never too loud, the living room is never too cluttered, and her room is always tidy, it smells like lavender, and it is ventilated by a gentle sea breeze all day long. I minimise sugar in her diet as it can spike the meltdowns and I tend to follow her cues: leaving her alone in the high chair as soon as she wakes up would only lead to constant crying and headaches (for me), so why in the world should I do that?
Although we allow plenty of flexibility, and we rely on her routine and cues, we do set limits. Although it might be tempting to bend the rules to avoid upsetting a sensitive child, constant exceptions to the rules won’t be helpful in the long run. You may be tempted to simply overlook a behavior you would discipline in a child less sensitive, simply to maintain peace (Zhang et al.).
We are quite flexible when it comes to meal times, but she expects bedtime to be sometimes before 7 pm, that 3 days a week she will be in the safe arms of the ladies at childcare, that she needs to eat more than empty bread, and that is not ok to slap, bite, or hurt someone for no apparent reasons.
We don’t push her to conform (especially because she wouldn’t allow us to do that). As written above, my daughter is unique, and there is no one else like her in the world. This could be said for every single child on the entire planet. Of course, it would be much easier on us if she wasn’t a crier, and if we didn’t have to deal with regular breakdowns that we don’t know how long are going to last. Yet, I embrace her for the person that she is, as being sensitive is a tremendous gift, if channeled the correct way; my child isn’t flawed, she has instead the opportunity to develop empathy and to connect to people in a way that is impossible for others.
Someone said that sensitivity can lead to anxiety, but I refuse to see it that way for now, and instead of worry about it, I just let her be a kid, for a little bit longer.
And I don’t think I’m spoiling her or catering to a tyrant’s whims; I’m only making her world a bearable place.
Maureen Hayley 2018, The Highly Sensitive Child, https://www.psychologytoday.com
Zhang, X., Cui, L., Han, Z., and J. Yan. The Heart of Parenting: Parent HR Dynamics and Negative Parenting While Resolving Conflict With Child. Journal of Family Psychology. 31(2):129–138.