If you have one, chances are you know already by just hearing the words whether or not your child is sensitive. It seems, sometimes, like this term has negative connotations attached to it – probably due to a simple lack of understanding and discomfort with what seems different. I prefer to explain sensitivity as simply the ability to feel everything more potently due to an easier aroused nervous system. Having a sensitive system is simply what makes a person’s personality, and their physiology, different than someone else’s. We all have quirks and traits that make us different, and we often adapt to them for each other – tall, loud, introverted, board games fanatic, etc. Sometimes we understand why a person is the way they are or understand how to adapt. Sometimes we don’t… at least not without help.
Caring for a child’s sensitivity is important because 1) it can be a difficult temperament for them, and they need coping skills to make daily life less frustrating and to avoid long term variant health issues, and 2) we love our child, and want them to feel confident and at peace in their own body. But it’s hard to understand sensitivity, especially if we are not sensitive. It can be easy to roll our eyes at the responses of our sensitive children, dismissing their needs, as well as equally easy to over-cater to the needs that arise with sensitivity – neither of which is helpful. Even if you understand your sensitive child and want to respect the trait, it is extremely difficult to know the best way to help them. Parenting a sensitive child can be stressful on you too.
My work involves helping parents understand and respect sensitivity, and to offer suggestions for developing coping skills for your child. The world will not cater to them!
What is a sensitive child?
I’d like to start with identifying a sensitive child and explaining what they encounter. It can be hard to explain, as there is no two ways that sensitivity shows up. Sometimes it is extreme introversion and quiet, sometimes it is extreme extroversion and hyper-activity, and often variants of both. But my guess is with a few examples you’ll be saying “Yup, that’s my kid,” if you have one. Sensitive children have an easily aroused nervous system. This means they can easily go from calm to hyper or panicky in situations we wouldn’t think of as stimulating, and can go from perked to unable to cope and out-of-control in stimulating circumstances. Arousal isn’t bad, it is what keeps us interested, how we feel fun, is part of exercise, and can motivate us. But a sensitive system struggles to handle their extended high-levels of arousal, and isn’t left with much ability to be calm – as their nerves have been trained to be stimulated; arousal = normal. Some kids feel like this constant adrenaline rush is awesome (though it is hard on their system), some kids are just very fidgety, and some run, hide or freeze.
How sensitivity shows itself: very keen observations of environment (noticing things that are different and taking stock of a situation), easily irritated skin (only certain clothes feel good), allergies and instable digestion, easily upset by loud sounds, difficulty taking in too much information, frozen in overwhelm, challenges adapting to change, frequent mood swings, wears feelings on their sleeves or hides them altogether, picks up on other’s feelings and stresses – they are like sponges (one kid cries and he does too), and just generally feeling like everything really is a big deal. This can be very frustrating and difficult for a child to deal with, and when they are born this way they believe that life really has to be this hard.
A common approach, “Don’t be so sensitive,” needs to be addressed with awareness. Most sensitive kids grow up, myself included, learning to stuff all these sensations down (either from being told so, or experience causing them to develop it as a coping tool) – repressing all that they feel and ignoring their nervous system’s sensitive responses. They toughen up in order to deal with the harshness of the world. This appears helpful, to everyone, like it works, but it is like putting earplugs in instead of checking out what the dog is barking at – it will come back to harm their health. And deep down it makes the child feel like they are wrong for being the way that they are and cannot help. Now we can’t ask the rest of society to change, but knowing this can help parents adapt and kids be equipped.
On the other hand, another common approach is catering to these sensitivities – letting these kids call the shots, giving them whatever makes them comfortable, or sheltering them from the harshness of the world. This isn’t helpful either – it can give them a false sense of over-importance, they could assume the rest of the world will accommodate them, and they will be hit with a harsh reality when they get into the world (with no coping tools).
It is my intent to help families find a middle ground with their sensitive families, through respect and practical tools, in order to make daily and future life easier for them and their children and to help their child to shine their brightest. So how do we do that?
It is easy to adapt to certain sensitivities: when, for example, your child cannot ingest dairy products. It is pricey, but you know what to do and have options available. But it’s harder to adapt when you don’t understand why, for example, everything seems to make her angry, or for heaven’s sake why he can’t find a pair of socks that make him satisfied. Of course examples like these don’t make sense to us, but that doesn’t make them any less real to them. And you don’t have to totally understand to find ways to adapt and help teach them to adapt – without disregarding their ability or shutting it down.
From the outside your child can appear as stable as a non-sensitive person. So it can just seem a “weird” preference that he doesn’t want anyone to touch him, or that her world shatters when she drops a few drops of water on her shirt, or that she cannot handle the loss felt when she sees a dead worm on the sidewalk. The examples of sensitivity responses are broad and varied – where does a caring parent start?
Well I suggest not starting with the particular circumstances, but starting with the general condition (if there are specific circumstances that drive you and your child to the edge of your sanity – contact me and we can brainstorm ideas). Hopefully by this point you have 1) identified if your child is sensitive, 2) began to understand your child better, and 3) are ready to care about the trait, and for your child, by respecting and equipping them. Below you’ll find suggestions for where to start learning about this trait for your child, as well as a list of tips for the different areas impacted by sensitivity. Take a moment to read through and select a couple that speak to you and your families’ needs/age appropriateness. Use what feels right for you and your child. Creative movement classes and personal one-on-one work is available through my practice at BaredFeet.
What to do with a sensitive child
A. Where to Start:
- Get to understand how your child is sensitive. Witness and catalog (at least mentally) their responses, what it seems to be in response to, and what was going on in their family, daily activities and diet when they have a sensitive response. Another good place to gather information is books. I started with The Highly Senstitive Person’s Survival Guide. It’s geared toward adults but is digestible and follows the premise that sensitivity is a part of who some of us are, and how to adapt to it to make daily life easier. There are other books, and I’d be happy to direct you.
- Help them get to know their sensitivity – without making them feel labeled. Bring awareness to the things that seem to trigger their sensitivities: “It seems like some days school is a lot to handle.” “I notice that it is important to you to have your fingernails clean and free from hangnails.” “Do you seem to feel better when it’s quiet?” Some kids aren’t bothered mentally by their sensitivity because it’s normal for them (not that they need to be bothered), and showing them the alternatives can reveal a better normal they didn’t know existed.
- What do they have that works for them now? Notice what tools they use to express themselves, because play is how they integrate their world and ground their energy: does he like to dance, draw, have imaginative playtime, or make music? Then make sure to provide opportunities for those to happen more. What other natural habits has your child developed for taking care of herself? Does she retreat by herself? Sleeping? Eating? Being outside? Make sure they get a bit of this, but if they start using these methods to AVOID circumstances = they need more tools.
B. Grounding tools:
- Bubble – In the morning, have them envision a bubble or shield (it can look however they like, any color too) around them that is super strong and only allows good feeling things in, unwelcome things bounce off. They can also put this on whenever they feel overwhelmed or ready to cry or fight.
- Dust – After school, or an over-stimulating event, have them “dust” or “wash” off anything from the day they picked up = other people’s energy, yucky feelings, toxins from the environment. The point is to remove anything that contributes to making them feel weaker or over-responsible. I also like to envision the earth taking that “waste” and composting/recycling it into usable positive energy.
- Meditation – The point of meditation for sensitive kids, in my opinion, is to get them comfortable with feeling what they feel and letting it move through them. From panic attacks to tears to hyper-activity, it’s all just excess energy. If they can sit, or more than likely wiggle, in those sensations and know they are okay they will feel stronger. Meditation also, of course, helps them to calm down and empty their busy minds. In my classes I use it to help kids learn to like relaxation – the most useful and accessible tool I can think of to re-charge. An easy meditation is to have them lie down on their backs and speak out “breathe in…breathe out”. You can add silly words to keep their attention, or add imagery that keeps their minds busy, and have them check in with their body part by part. BREATHING is a quick tool to regain control over oneself – just listen to the body breathing.
- Earth – Connect with the earth by having them play outside, feel their bodies in contact with it (“Which parts are touching the floor in this position?”), stomping/jumping, wiggle hips and legs and feet, or just touching the ground with hand for a bit. In my house when we get to “high”, we reach up to the sky and slowly bring our hands down, down, down to touch the ground a few times – physically bringing the energy back down.
- Get them in their body! Play, express, move, exercise. This is the best thing for them. (Bring them to one of my classes!) Note that sensitive systems respond better to low impact, non-strenuous exercises.
C. Controlling tools: Natural coping mechanism number one for sensitive folks is to try to control their environment so they don’t feel so overstimulated. It’s unconscious, but it happens because it helps. Sometimes it is possible: we try to turn loud music down, stop a suddenly irritating sound or quiet down if someone requests it. Sometimes it isn’t possible: I like to try to make everyone else around me feel better so I don’t have to sit in an environment of sad, angry or hurt. That is unrealistic and actually more draining, but it’s what I developed. So I’m working on that. Here are some more, healthier, controlling tools:
- If your child is more sensitive that day – do not over-expose them to unnecessary highly-stimulating circumstances. Or if you do, be prepared to be understanding with any breakdowns that may occur, and help them help themselves to feel better: offer reassuring words and confidence boosts, encourage their relaxing methods, let them work out the energy and then help them to ground it.
- Food – Please don’t feed your sensitive child sugar. It causes emotional instability, messes with their energy levels, and interferes with mineral absorption (this is from over-numerous experiences in myself and every sensitive child I’ve met, but I can direct you toward reliable studies). It takes away some of their ability to function. Just humor me and try it for one week: check all your labels and avoid the following products: corn syrup, sucrose/glucose, food coloring, cane sugar, and see what happens. If you want even more impressive results in their behavior, avoid wheat, dairy and additives, eating as whole foods as you can (this is not more expensive it just involves more prep time for meals). When your sensitive child’s immune system isn’t working so hard to flush out all the things that his/her body views as toxins, he/she can function on a more centered level. Watch the emotional meltdowns get less frequent, and his/her ability to think clearly and sleep soundly improve. You’ll see your child more and reactions less. You are working to strengthen their system instead of giving it things that make it more vulnerable.
- Sleep – If they are tired, they will be sensitive. If they didn’t sleep, avoid emotional triggers and over-stimulation until you find out what is causing it (though they may never sleep totally soundly). If you have something coming up that involves triggers and/or stimulation (i.e. school), help them sleep well – with routine, quiet/dark environment, and something sustaining in their belly (peanut butter toast is great).
- Environmental – There are things that can drain sensitive children that you can try to lessen their exposure to, or have an awareness about: fluorescent lights, electromagnetic frequencies (EMF) from TVs, computers, cellphones, etc. Limit their use of these, and do not let them carry their cellphone on their person. These can drain anyone of some energy and ramp-up anxiety (on a subtle level at least). We are living in the digital age, so this one is very difficult! I know when I go on an extended weekend I feel noticeably ramped up on the Monday return to work!
- Astrology – True astrology, not horoscopes, is my main weather report. I’m sure we’ve all noticed how people act differently when there’s a full moon, and there are other celestial happenings that affect us all, and affect sensitive kids a lot. If you notice that so many kids around you are having meltdowns this week and discover, for example, that Mercury is in retrograde – it lightens the load. Ask me about this if you are curious – it’s a sanity-saver!
Sometimes just knowing they may be around something that triggers sensitivity flare-ups makes it easier to be gentler with them (for us and them). It’s not them, it’s stuff.
D. Health: I believe physical health is all about balance and prevention: keep stress down, eat smart and balanced, balance exercise and rest, take care of your mental health, and nurture your spirit. Here are some tools that have worked well for me in my practice, and in my family, in keeping our sensitive selves feeling centered and our best:
- Practice daily gratitude – At dinner time we like to go around the table and each say things we are grateful for that day. It helps boost our attitude, and a positive attitude makes our systems stronger, and therefore healthier!
- Journaling – Encourage your child to keep a journal. A place they can feel heard and let out all that comes through them all day. Most of it is just passing through their brain but needs to come out so it doesn’t become something meaningful junking up their wellness. Writing also helps to stay present with how they feel and how you feel.
- Emotion Check – At the end of the day ask your child if they feel each of the following: angry/hurt/joy/fear. If they notice they do, ask if they know what it’s about, and then breathe into it and watch it float away. Identifying these base emotions helps to let them go. If they aren’t identified, they can keep nagging at us. Find empowerment in being aware of feelings.
- Baby Steps – If overwhelm strikes, help them notice it and step back from the situation to break it into smaller more manageable pieces one at a time.
- Counseling – I firmly believe in routine counseling as a preventative measure for the whole family. This provides a safe place for daily thoughts and stresses to be processed. There are several options if you can’t afford a lot, take time to find the right person for you and your child.
- Emotional Freedom Technique – This is a simple tapping tool that works to rewire negative feelings (of all sizes) into positive beliefs by working with acceptance and acupressure points. Ask me for a quick tutorial or visit emofree.com.
- Non-invasive Medicines – Essential oils or flower remedies can be helpful in safely, subtly healing mood or emotion patterns without involving mental or emotional stress. Some research and guidance is necessary. Bach Rescue Remedy, however, is extremely helpful for an emergency meltdown or panic and is designed for the novice user. Lavender essential oil helps bring a sense of calm.
- Massage – Massage helps works out the tension they place in their body and if regularly done can help train their nervous system. Teach self-massage or receive one.
- Chiropractic Care – Chiropractic care works to bring balance and flow to the nervous system and helps keep it working optimally. A non-invasive approach is best for sensitive systems.
- Reiki – Children respond super well to Reiki and energy work, and can help to things their brain and our brain just can’t figure out. I receive it regularly, as it seems to eliminate the need for several other self-care efforts.
- YOGA – Yoga does amazing work for your mind/body/spirit – for all ages. I believe in yoga as on all-around body/mind/spirit wellness tool, though any enjoyed physical activity will offer some of that. I do offer a youth yoga class, and incorporate it into all my classes.
- YOU! – The best thing you can do for their daily health is to take care of yours. You are their biggest influence and the one they love the most. If you are stressed, they take it too. If you repress emotions, they pick them up. Notice this and take steps to keep your emotional health in check. Also, and this is a struggle for me, be careful with your own anger in discipline. Remember they take and feel everything much bigger than we do, so just clear emphasis and calm consequence is enough – they want to do the “right” thing as it makes their own life easier and when they feel bad about themselves they feel really bad about themselves.
Now you have a plethora of tricks up your sleeve for offering your sensitive child to provide them long-term support and more ease in daily life. Hopefully you begin to see them SHINE brighter. Being a sensitive human being is a gift. Sensitive children (and adults), due to their ability to feel things deeper than the average person, are passionate, compassionate, creative, understanding, and strive to be peaceful. If they feel validated and strong, they can and will change the world. I feel honored to witness and know the sensitive children in my home and in my classes – for all their creativity, passion and energy. I welcome their quirks! I am sure you have seen their brilliance, too, and hope now you see them in a new light.