The Highly Sensitive Child
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THE HIGHLY SENSITIVE PERSON
"Your daughter is 10 times more sensitive than the average person - you can't talk to her that way!" I'll never forget hearing those words spoken nearly 6 years ago to this day. My daughter at age 9, had experienced a complete emotional breakdown due to severe emotional bullying at school, and we were desperate for help. After over a year of searching, we finally found a qualified gifted therapist and this was our first appointment. The therapist went on to say to my husband and I, "Your daughter is a Highly Sensitive Person (HSP), and she is different than other children, you need to learn to talk to her, and parent her, in a different way."
It has been said that all gifted and highly creative people are highly sensitive, but not all Highly Sensitive People are gifted or highly creative. In any case, Highly Sensitive People have been said to make up about 15-20% of the population. A small part of the population, but still not small enough to be considered a disorder. HSP's high sensitivity is inherent, it will not change, and it cannot be parented or therapized away. In actuality, HSP's high emotional, intuitive and sensory sensitivities, are a wonderful gift. But most days living life as an HSP can feel like anything but. This is especially true if the HSP does not understand their own sensitivities or subsequent intense emotional responses, or doesn't have coping skills or practice appropriate self care. The fact is, feeling everything in life up to 10 times more intensely than the average person can be completely overwhelming, add to it misunderstandings and unfair judgement of your "over-the-top" emotional responses by others, and managing life as a Highly Sensitive Person can be a daily, sometimes minute by minute, struggle.
CHARACTERISTICS OF HSP's
Get overwhelmed easily
Inability to "toughen up"
Exhausted by normal daily life
Take longer to recover physically and emotionally
Feeling of differentness or isolation
Intolerance to violence, suffering, and injustices
Deep care or concern for people and/or animals
Empathetic or the ability to feel what others are feeling
Pick up on subtleties and see fine details
Can feel insincerity
Intolerant to negativity
Anticipatory or need to know what will happen next
Dislike narcissistic or selfish people
Moved by artistic expression
Vivid imagination, dreams and nightmares
Highly creative, good storyteller or writer
High sensitivity to sensory stimuli; sight, sound, taste, smell or touch
Manage life according to comfort zones or to avoid stimuli
PARENTING A HIGHLY SENSITIVE CHILD
If you happen to be the parent of a Highly Sensitive Child (HSC), daily life can be a challenge for your child, but also for yourself as a parent. When your child experiences life up to 10 times more intensely than other children, their emotional responses will be up to 10 times more intense as well. Without an understanding as to why this is, your child's behaviors, emotions, emotional outbursts or sensory meltdowns, may be seen by you or other onlookers as; tantrums, immaturity, being a cry-baby, over-dramatic, rebellious, non-compliant, selfish, or even lacking in moral character. In actuality, your child's intense responses are normal, or equal, to how they uniquely experience the world. Just think about feeling your own pain, sadness, disappointment, frustration, anger - 10 times more intensely than you do - wouldn't your response to those feelings also grow in intensity? Even good parents can find it difficult to keep their cool at times, to be patient and understanding when under stress. If that stress were multiplied 10 times, would we be able to stay calm and in control of our own emotions? Now think of a child who has not yet fully developed their analyzing, reasoning, social, self care, and other skills - how would they naturally react to experiencing overall heightened sensitivity in their daily lives and in everything they do?
If we as an adult suddenly felt extreme heightened sensitivity each and every day of our lives, and were often misunderstood, judged, ridiculed or condoned by others for our responses to it, to cope with that kind of daily stress, what would we need to do or what would we need to learn? First of all, we would need the realization that we experienced life in a unique way - we were inherently different than others - and that that was ok. We would need to find safe people and safe places where we were able to express ourselves freely - to let out all those emotions we felt inside so they didn't harm us. We would need someone to help us learn new copying and self care skills to help us stay calm and in control our emotional responses, and to find appropriate sensory aids to lesson the intensity of stimuli; sound, light, taste, smells, and touch. As parents of Highly Sensitive Children - our children deserve a chance to learn and do the same. And, because they are children, the only way for them to learn these things is through us, and the way we parent them. So, how do we parent a Highly Sensitive Child? By becoming our child's emotional coach.
Becoming our child's emotional coach starts first - by accepting all feelings as valid and creating an atmosphere where all feelings are accepted. A feeling is a feeling, it is not right or wrong, we do not control what our body feels. Proceeding thoughts can be evaluated at a later time - but FIRST and FOREMOST, we must create a home environment where feelings, as well as thoughts, ideas and communication, run freely. Without the freedom to outwardly express what they feel - a child has no choice but to suppress their feelings. Denying a child's feelings does not make the feelings go away. It does not make the child stronger or more resilient. Interfering with a child's right, and need, to express their feelings only tells them their feelings are wrong, that they are wrong or something is wrong with them, and shoves the feelings down deep inside of them where they will stay, and fester, eventually causing even bigger issues when the child reaches their teens or later in life. Children do not get stronger or learn resilience by having their feelings denied or suppressed, it is true, some children build up tolerance to stress by being exposed to it, but this is rarely the case with Highly Sensitive Children. With Highly Sensitive Children extreme stress and suppression of feelings will usually cause their sensitivities, or their response to them, to increase, or it will cause them to withdraw from communication and cooperation and have increased anxiety. Sometimes they can endure this kind of stress for a time, but without an outlet for their feelings or appropriate self care - eventually problems will start to arise.
To become your child's emotional coach and strengthen a Highly Sensitive Child:
- Allow them to freely feel and express their emotions
- Help them to put a name on their feelings
- Show them true empathy (This doesn't mean you agree with everything they say - it only means you have true feeling/empathy for their emotional pain or experience - completing steps 1 - 3 is what allows the child to calm down, be able to hear what you are saying, think more clearly, and feel motivated to move on from the intense emotional episode or sensory meltdown.)
- Help them to find healthy ways to express their feelings
- Help them to learn copying skills and self care
- Help them to find and utilize sensory aids
- Only after your child is calm and open to input - offer gentle moving forward phrases or questions (At other times throughout your daily lives and at those special teaching moments (when it comes up naturally or when your child is openly questioning) you can share family values, and positively model for them showing tolerance and kindness to others, and the use of positive and appropriate words and good manners.. If you feel like you must say something about inappropriate or harsh words that have been used in the moment - make only simple statements, "Words like that are never appropriate." Resist making personal, sarcastic or condescending comments, or judging your child's thoughts and intentions, this does nothing to deescalate emotions or motivate the child to hear what you are saying, be calm and move forward.)
Example of using emotional coaching* to respond to a child's intense emotional episode or sensory meltdown:
1) "This is so stupid!!! I knew Sarah's Mom would sabotage this again and not let Sarah come over!"
2 & 3) "I hear that you are really angry that Sarah can't come over as planned - I would be really disappointed if the same thing happened to me." (Resist immediately disciplining the child for using harsh words, be empathetic for the emotions they are experiencing - remember you are trying to deescalate emotions, teach emotional intelligence by naming feeling to help emotional responses in the future, and help the child to calm down and be motivated to move forward. To do this; focus on, validate, put a name on, and show empathy for their feelings. In the heat of an emotional episode clear thinking is not present for anyone, focus on what is behind the behavior - the emotion that is driving it. Give them time, and a choice to express or process their feelings with you or alone, until they have become calm - they will then be thinking more clearly, more open to your input, and be motivated to move forward.)
7) "I think the fair thing to do would be to give Sarah and her mother the opportunity to explain why they had to cancel today's plans before we come up with our own conclusion, what do you think? OR "Would you like to call Sarah and her mother to see if we could set up another time to get together?" OR "Since Sarah isn't able to come over - what would you like to do with your time instead?" (Use gentle moving forward phrases only after the child is calm, questions are best, avoid telling the child what they should think or feel, do not use sarcasm or a condescending tone, this is not motivating or empathetic and only brings up a resistance or delays calming and moving forward. Show true empathy, over time you and your child will get better at dealing with difficult emotions, and the child's feelings will start to resolve in less time. Family values and thoughts about using kind words and not judging others actions and intentions (i.e., Sarah's Mom's "sabotage") can be modeled, and shared at a time away from the incident when the child is calmer and more receptive to hearing and retaining input.)
*A Proactive Parenting Coach that understands Highly Sensitive Children - can help you gain the skills needed to become your child's emotional coach and more.
Emotional coaching and naming and validating feelings is the start to your child developing their own emotional intelligence. Emotional intelligence is being able to identify and control our own emotions and behaviors, and understand those of others. Emotional intelligence is the start to self regulation of emotional responses, gaining important social skills, and more. Growing their own emotional intelligence and gaining valuable coping skills, will lead your child to greater strength and resilience. Since Highly Sensitive Children are inherently intuitive, give them the freedom to use their own intuition to find the coping skills that work best for them. As a parent, try to keep an open mind and watchful eye, and support behaviors that may be connected to their developing their own unique coping skills. Often children will hold a toy, read a book, listen to music with headphones, play video games, watch soothing videos, or play with a fidget (sensory aid), to comfort or relax them. Allow them the opportunity to use and practice the coping skills they find, especially when they are anxious or in times of stress. With your support, soon you will see a stronger, more resilient, confident and content child emerging, as they feel themselves gaining the skills needed to manage their own sensitivities and emotions.
CHANGING YOUR PARENTING APPROACH
As a parent, if you feel a resistance to allowing a free flow of emotions from your child, or feel like the changes needed to support your child as their emotional coach are a foreign and overwhelming task, you are not alone. Many of us were brought up in households that did not validate or encourage an outward expression of feelings. We may have been expected to be "brave little soldiers" "keep a stiff upper lip" "be strong" or "be seen but not heard," while feelings, tears, and fears, were all swept to the side. We may have had loving and well meaning parents, who were only parenting the way their parents did, after all, "We only know what we know until we know something different." They probably thought they were doing the right thing, it may have been the popular way of parenting in their day, or they may have been raised with a certain parenting style that went along with family traditions, beliefs, or life style choices. They also may have been, or been raising, a different kind of child. The fact that Highly Sensitive Children have special makeups and special parenting needs, is still today not widely known or understood. All children deserve to have their feelings heard and validated, but for Highly Sensitive Children it is essential to their well being. The truth is, it doesn't have to be difficult to support a Highly Sensitive Child, even small strides or changes in your parenting style can do much to show your child that you truly care about and accept their feelings as valid, this is what is truly important, and doing only this one thing can bring great benefits. A Proactive Parenting Coach can offer additional support, help you to learn to become your child's emotional coach, and offer information, resources, and inspiration to help you to move forward to an improved parent/child relationship.
Still, for even the most supportive, patient and understanding parents, it can be tiring parenting a Highly Sensitive Child, difficult at best to see and hear their intense emotions, sometimes on a daily basis. On difficult days, we do well to try and remember, that it is only those emotions that are kept inside that can harm our children. When they are able to express what they feel - let it out - they are able to let go and move forward. Allowing them to release their emotions often includes letting them cry, if someone has a need to cry, it is just that - a need. Humans were given the ability to cry for a reason, crying is how we heal, are able to let go of painful thoughts and feelings, release pent up anxiety, and move forward. Stopping someone from crying, or not allowing ourselves to cry, is only suppressing emotions, and can only lead to more negative emotions and future anxiety.
Unknowingly today, many parents continue to focus on their child's negative behaviors and controlling them, but they ignore the emotions that lie beneath. Using reactive parenting, they try every technique to squelch a behavior, but never look at the reason why it exists in the first place. I am a true believer that, "There are no bad children - only those with unmet needs or unresolved pain." If there is a negative behavior - there is always either a need we are not fulfilling or modeling as parents, or an emotion or pain that has not been resolved. The word "parent" to me is a verb, a proactive action. When our child displays what looks like a negative behavior, we need to jump into action and parent. Proactive parenting is identifying, understanding, validating and showing true empathy for feelings and needs, it is identifying unique characteristics and meeting needs before a problem even arises - it is also being a detective and finding the unmet need or unresolved emotion lying beneath. This type of positive and proactive parenting roots out the reasons for negative behaviors, so that constant parental reminders and monitoring are not needed, it teaches our children emotional intelligence and how to develop coping skills, grows self esteem, self regulation, and their own internal motivation, preparing them to face life out on their own as an HSP, a highly sensitive adult.
GIFTED AND HIGHLY SENSITIVE
Sadly, Highly Sensitive Children who are also gifted, have an additional cross to bear. High IQ comes from, or along with, inherent heightened intellectual awareness - these children see things at a very young age other children don't and shouldn't yet see - they see and understand things they are not yet ready for emotionally. Due to their inherent over-awareness, early on, they have the ability to understand complex world and sociological issues, but don't have the emotional strength or ability to deal with these realities. Because of this they can also struggle with generalized anxiety and existential depression at a young age. Hearing the worried thoughts and fears of these young children can be extremely disheartening to caring parents. Listening to the sometimes heart breaking fears of our young gifted children, may cause us to want to suppress or push away their emotions and pain - because their pain causes us pain. But, we understand we need to be strong and be there for them no matter how difficult it is. To make this easier for us, again we need to remember, that the only emotions that can hurt our children are the ones they keep inside. Although hearing our children's painful thoughts and emotions is difficult, it is the best thing we can do for them as parents. Providing them a safe place to express their deepest and darkest fears and pain, is what will allow them to heal, move forward, and find purpose and happiness in their lives.
HIGH SENSITIVITY - A TRUE GIFT TO ALL
Although parenting a Highly Sensitive Child can present challenges, we should never forget that our children's heightened emotional, intuitive and sensory sensitivities - are also a wonderful gift. At opportune times, bring this fact to your child's attention. Tell them of the wonderful aspects of high sensitivity; being caring, compassionate, passionate, intuitive, good with people and animals, highly creative, talented in the arts, and more. Your child's high sensitivity can be a wonderful thing - show them you value and cherish this unique part of them by always validating their feelings and showing empathy for what they are experiencing. Provide them opportunities to use their very special abilities; helping others by volunteering, advocating, and fund raising for the causes that are important to them, participating in the arts or expressing other talents to entertain and inspire, and supporting them in finding a career where their high sensitivity will be utilized and valued. It doesn't have to be a difficult thing to support our very sensitive children - even small changes in our parenting style can do much to show our children how much we care and value who they truly are, and all though the challenge of raising a Highly Sensitive Child at times may be great - be assured - the rewards will be even greater.
Hugs & Happy Parenting!
Julie L Gibson-Vasquez
The Proactive Parenting Coach