Posted by: coachingparents | October 6, 2008

How to Win with Highly Sensitive Kids


By Jenna Forrest

Five year old Shakira is a brilliant interpreter of the voiceless, understanding the needs of plants, animals, babies, the elderly and infirm, even the organs in her own body. She sees and feels the energy and emotions in the room, evaluating others’ intentions, moods, and their tone with precocious wisdom. She looks between words for the essence of a message by reading a person’s posture, gestures, and facial expressions. This ability to feel what others are feeling makes her very slow, careful, anxious and sometimes highly reactive.

       
At seven, Nathan still sucks his thumb. He appears to be clingy and needy. Nathan is the type of kid who will suddenly announce a startling insight which brings him intense love, awe or joy, then a moment later becomes deeply burdened with empathy or deep compassion for a person in despair, a character suffering on TV, an animal without water in his bowl or an insect that someone wants to kill.

   
Some of Brennen’s ten year old insights are adult-like in their nature. He may prefer to read rather than play. He might work intensely on a project rather than watch TV. He is very socially aware and he feels guilty about not being able to do enough to save the world. His deep concern for the world often makes him appear defiant and stubborn as he resists using products or participating in activities that may harm the Earth or its inhabitants.

          
Like Shakira, Nathan, and Brennan, your child is quite different from most other kids, and it is troubling to you. In fact, your child’s quirky behavior is starting to bring daily stress and frustration into your life. Your child of course is not being intensely sensitive on purpose. Still, you’re frustrated. You’ve tried everything to help your child get along better in the world and in the family. You have consoled her, tried to make suggestions to fix his problems, avoided her tantrums, indulged his neediness, and when all of that didn’t work you resorted to threatening and punishing her stubborn or emotional behavior, and that made everything even worse.

          
You may be at the point where you’re wishing for a magic wand to make everything better between you and your child. The good news is, there is a panacea: Let him or her feel your warmth and understanding. That’s all. Sounds easy, right? Well, while real life often gets in the way of simple solutions like offering understanding, over time, parents are finding, with sensitive kids it actually works wonders.
One parent writes, “Here’s how understanding my child’s motivations helped me win with my six-year-old sensory-driven daughter:”

  • “The main thing I’ve found helpful with my daughter Julia is to work extra time into the day so I don’t have to rush her. She really takes her time with things and once I put myself in her shoes, I’ve realized that she’s not doing anything “bad,” she just is very detailed, resulting in things taking a long time.
  • “For example, when she eats, she takes forever. But if you watch her, it’s not that she’s not eating. It’s that she is eating very slowly. She seems to really take the time to chew and taste her food.
  • “When she puts her sandals on, she takes the time to really put them on correctly… readjusting both the toe and the ankle velcro so they feel just right.
  • “The seatbelt… makes sure it’s not twisted and is just right.
  • “Feeding the cats… takes time to make sure they both get exactly the same amount of food.
  • “Just tonight, I saw her staring at her dish during dinner (we were having spaghetti), and I reminded her “It’s getting late, we need to finish up.” She said, “Look Mommy, it’s the breast cancer ribbon!” She had been looking at the spaghetti and noticed that there was a piece in the shape of the pink ribbon.
  • “Building extra time into our day has made a huge difference. Instead of letting her “pokiness” drive me crazy, I just allow extra time for her to “smell the coffee.”
  • “That said, we were having an issue in kindergarten earlier this year with her teacher reporting that she was “not staying on task and not getting her work done in the allotted time.” After watching her and talking with her, I figured out the problem!
  • “If she had a worksheet that instructed her to color every picture that begins with the letter “D,” she would REALLY color it! The dog would have a pink hat, brown body, blue eyes and red leash. I realized that she was coloring everything to perfection and that was what was taking her so long. It’s not that she didn’t know the answers or that she was doing “other things.”
  • “What solved the problem was explaining to her that sometimes when you color, it’s to make things look pretty, like when you’re making a picture or a book cover. But other times, you’re just supposed to quickly color it to show you know the answer… those don’t have to be “perfect.” The problem cleared up immediately and I received a phone call from the teacher within just two weeks that she’s doing much better with not having “unfinished work.”

While this mother’s advice may not help you the next time your sensory-driven child comes home from a sleepover party sobbing with overwhelm, it may help you prevent it from happening in the first place. By following her example and practicing the tips below, you and your sensory driven child are both poised to win.

        
Tip number one – understand.

Get informed. Once you start to learn about the inner struggles that sensory driven kids experience, you begin to realize that your child feels terribly guilty about her heavy emotions and wishes she could just be “normal.” He also knows he is more clever, wise, and perceptive than most. You’ll learn that behind your child’s anxious or defiant behavior is a deep and nagging need to have his or her intense feelings acknowledged. Spend time talking with your child where he or she can open up. For example, plan for spending time with her in nature or work together with him to create a calm uncluttered quiet environment that’s free from chemicals and other subtle annoyances. As you spend time together, let your child know that you know he or she is wise and special and has very important things to offer the world.

         
Tip number 2 — validate.

As you have likely found in the information-gathering stage suggested in tip number one, some children find their senses so overwhelming that they truly believe their presence in the world is a mistake, that they don’t belong on earth because nothing feels right and nothing fits right. It can be life-changing for your sensory driven child to hear and experience two main messages repeatedly: “You belong in the world” and “you belong in our family.”

           
Tip number 3 — accept.

What works for most children most likely will not work for super sensory kids. Your sensitive child’s reasons for doing what he does runs deep. Punishing that behavior can cause your child to lose confidence in himself and feel helpless. Rather than rushing your child to make a decision, for example, you might say, “I know that choices might frustrate you and take you longer that others, but it’s because you’re weighing countless outcomes and looking at all the details.” That tells him you realize that being thoughtful or picky about his choices, (his clothing, his food, or his friends) is part of who he is and that it’s ok. This allows him to accept the sensory-driven part of himself that’s telling him what does and doesn’t feel good. Letting him know that you understand it’s his nature to feel things deeply and consider things slowly tells him that you are there for him and that you two can work as a team to deal with any decisions, challenges or upsets that may come in the future. While it may seem that this form of patience encourages slow behavior, it actually builds confidence towards his making quicker decisions in the future.

                    
Tip number 4 – empathize.

Sensory-driven kids have a hard time finding enjoyment in life because their senses are often rubbed raw. When they finally find fun, sometimes they can’t bear for it to end. When enjoyment is quickly taken away from a young supersensory child, it can be especially traumatic, because he or she doesn’t know when the fun will return. Before punishing the temper tantrum that sometimes starts when the fun ends, try to empathize by saying, “I know you’re mad and I know you want to keep all the toys, because you’re having fun and sometimes fun seems far away.” Make an effort to enlist your child in consoling, enjoyable and nurturing activities where no strangers are present to balance their anxiety and soothe their senses.

            
Tip number 5 – relate.

“Everybody hates me.” “I feel so alone.” “I hate the world.” No matter how extreme and unrealistic your child’s declarations sound, try to relate by sharing a time in your life when you felt the same way. Without offering suggestions or changing the subject, remember out loud how you felt the world was against you and then simply listen to your child, allowing him or her to explore and express his or her feelings freely.

                
Tip number 6 — empower.

At every single moment, your child is paying very close attention to every word on television, every song lyric, every sigh between you and your spouse; analyzing it, evaluating it and searching for the meaning behind it. It is your child’s choice what he or she will do with that information once it’s processed. In the four steps above you’ve taught your child through experience and circumstances that she is safe, that he isn’t alone, that she can trust her nature and that he can process his feelings out loud. With this foundation in place, you can empower your child to make healthy choices based on the sensory information they have collected.
All in all, setting a goal of having compassion for how your child experiences things, your consistent effort and presence will pay off for both of you, stimulating a parent-child bond that relieves your child of the anxiety that lies at the root of his or her over-the top behavior.

         
About Jenna
Having reversed her own life-long habit of anxiety using a wide variety of acquired techniques, Jenna now guides and directs sensitive spirits of all ages to see past learned limitations and live out the legacy that awaits.  In her memoir Help Is On Its Way, Jenna dares to talk honestly about growing up with the trait of high sensitivity and tells the story of how she used the power of hope to press through a childhood that seemed utterly hopeless. Jenna’s memoir is also a testament to the residual impact of her parent’s divorce. Her writing is inspired with the faith that any individual can gain ground and find personal fulfillment, no matter what obstacles are present.

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