Before I became a parent, I imagined that my children would have very similar personalities to my own. We'd have the same likes and dislikes, laugh at the same jokes, and generally view the world in similar ways. Long before my first child even spoke her first word, I realized that belief was completely and entirely false. I love alone time, she prefers being with friends and family constantly. I take a while to warm up to new people, she's a social butterfly. And I am tough as nails, rarely letting my emotions take over, while she's super, super sensitive.
Parenting a sensitive child has been a challenge for me in many ways. I've had to learn and appreciate what being sensitive really means — she feels everything deeply and is highly emotionally reactive, but she's also empathetic and intuitive. I've also had to learn how my own natural reactions to her emotional outbursts (i.e., "Get over it," "Why are you so upset about something so small?," and the snarky. "Seriously?!") don't help the situation even a little bit. Instead, they cause her to get even more emotional and upset, frustrating me further and extending her timeline between detonation and calm exponentially.
Now that she's almost 8 years old, dealing with her sensitivity isn't just about navigating her emotional landmines and helping her get back to a neutral space after a meltdown. It's also about teaching her to do the same all on her own in a way that's not judgmental and that she can easily understand and implement. If you're a thick-skinned parent raising a hypersensitive child, here are some tips on how to find common ground.
- Work on being empathetic. Your natural reaction might be to get frustrated or dismissive when your child gets super emotional about something that seems small to you, but expressing anger or impatience will likely only escalate the situation. Instead, listen to your child's feelings and let them know that you understand they're having some intense feelings and that's OK, without overly reinforcing whining or crying. Say things like, "I can see why that really upset you" or "I know that's hard to deal with," then quickly move on to finding solutions together.
- Help them find the words to express themselves. If your child tends to deal with emotional situations by breaking down in tears or getting angry, help them learn to use words to express how they're feeling instead. Even if you're the only one verbalizing the emotions at first (i.e., "I know you feel angry that we can't buy this toy today"), they'll eventually learn that talking through a feeling is a better way to handle it than melting down ever is.
- Find better coping mechanisms. My daughter and I often talk about how, when she's feeling overly emotional or upset, she should take a few deep breaths or do some positive self-talk instead of blowing up, and she's getting better at employing those self-soothing tactics. Other ideas to present to your kids include counting to 10 or singing a song in your head, removing yourself from the situation, or even hitting a pillow a few times to release stress.
- Prepare them for problematic situations. If you know you'll be entering a scenario that causes your child emotional distress — going to the doctor, leaving them with a new sitter — prepare them for what's to come and talk about how they can use coping strategies to keep themselves calm and collected.
- Focus on problem solving. Once your sensitive child is in an emotional tailspin, it feels almost impossible to focus on and solve the initial problem that caused that reaction. Talk to your child calmly about how you can't help them when they're too emotional, wait for them to calm down, then work on solving the issue together. Eventually, your child will learn that letting their emotions take over is actually working against finding a solution.