Dear Nadine, My kid is super sensitive — an empath — so she gets hurt easily. Suggestions? Doting Dad, Duluth MN
Recently, Amy Poehler’s Smart Girls (amysmartgirls.com) posted a video of 6-year-old Tiana providing her mother with relationship advice after witnessing continuous fights between her divorcing parents.
“Mom, are you ready to be his friend?” she asks. “I want you, my mom, my dad, everyone to be smiling, not be mad…everyone…. I think you can do it, Mom. I think you can both settle your mean heights to your low heights. I want everything to be settled down, good as possible, nothing else.”
And so Tiana went on, a 6 year old using uplifting, inspiring, wise words until mom got the message that it was time to stop warring with her soon-to-be ex and put the pain behind her and allow tranquility to reign.
Tiana is one of our world’s sensitive children. Sensitive children are the first to rush to help when another child hurts their knee. They’re the first with a hug when another child’s having a bad day. They’re the first with the home-made card with which to gift their new teacher who feels anxious in her new job. They are gentle and kind and they are extremely perceptive about others. They are our world’s empaths, wise souls who are simply wonderful to be around.
According to Stony Brook University psychologists Drs. Arthur and Elaine Aron and colleagues at the University of California in their new study published in Brain and Behavior, some 20 percent of the population have brains that are wired to be “highly sensitive.” These perceptive people are “highly tuned into their environment” and have “heightened awareness to subtle stimuli, process information more thoroughly and are more reactive to both positive and negative stimuli.” Essentially, we can call them intuitive — “tuned into” situations and others’ emotions.
This sensitivity is special — a gift. At the same time, some highly sensitive children are overly sensitive to everyday life. Sensitive kids can have an aversion to uncomfortable clothing (including tags and the seams in socks) certain smells or the way foods can become mixed up on a plate. As Maureen D. Healy notes, “(Some) of these intensely perceptive kids can also get overwhelmed easily by crowds, noises, new situations, sudden changes and the emotional distress of others.”
In spite of this, it’s important that we parents don’t perceive our kids’ extra sensitivity as fragility. Like the Monarch butterfly who must migrate some 3,000 miles to reach its winter home, our sensitive children must be encouraged to develop their emotional resilience, so that they can journey through their lives and remain open-hearted, open-minded and tuned in, while learning to rebound quickly from the challenges and setbacks that are a fact of daily life. If we don’t encourage that resilience, and are too protective of our sensitive child, they will find it difficult to “let go and move on.”
And that sensitivity — which makes them so insightful, caring and compassionate — may also cause them to fret and worry and over-process the careless comments, or that bad test, or their friend’s bad mood, or the school day that didn’t go as planned, and make their life tougher than necessary.
So how do we grow that resilience?
First, appreciate your child’s sensitivity, compassion and inner knowing. Celebrate these attributes whatever the gender of your child and allow your child to hear that these traits are a wonderful thing. Sensitives like James Van Praagh or John Holland, for example, describe childhoods where their gifts of sensitivity were derided and silenced and that misunderstanding and lack of appreciation can create anxiety and low self-esteem.
With regard to areas of challenge, provide your young, sensitive child the language to express their problem and give them a strategy that he or she can use to help overcome it. For example, if your child dislikes the feeling of the seam in socks, say, “I see that sock seams are uncomfortable for you, so turn your sock inside out when you put them on.” Or say, “I know that when our routines change it’s sometimes frustrating, but it’s good to learn how to go with the flow so you can always handle change. So next time we have a change, instead of feeling frustrated, I want you to breathe slowly and deeply for three minutes while you play with a puzzle and tell yourself it’s going to be okay.”
Once your child has the language to express his or her individual challenges and the strategies to cope with them, offer praise when you see your child expressing a problem and dealing with it, and help your sensitive child to also be a resilient child, too.
Next, teach your sensitive child “not to sweat the small stuff” by introducing them to the concept of the totem animal! Teach them to “think stegosaurus.” Help them to imagine themselves as those vegetable-eating dinosaurs with that thick armor on their back that nothing negative can penetrate. Or encourage them to utilize “duck energy” and remind them that it’s all “water (emotions) off a duck’s back.” Teaching your children to use this simple totem animal visualization and affirmation will, over time, train them to let go of those little things that keep them stuck. With practice, your sensitive child will gain perspective both on what situations merit their concern and what situations are not worth their worry, so that they can let go and move on.
Because sensitive kids can be empathic sponges who soak up detrimental emotions of others, they can help other people feel a whole lot better. But sometimes these encounters can leave your child feeling a whole lot worse. As a parent, be mindful that your child will pick up on another’s energy, and if your child seems overly irritable or upset, check in and find out who they’ve been helping. Then encourage your kid to cleanse away those negative emotions by reminding your child to laugh at herself, find the funny in absurd situations and see the lighter side of life.
The more you can encourage your spirited kids to deal with potentially sensitive situations with humor, the more they’ll realize that laughter really is the best medicine.
Finally, sensitive children may feel overwhelmed by loud noises, chaotic environments and overstimulation; they need peace and calm. That’s why a busy day at school can leave these children feeling washed out or even burned out. Sensitive children need time alone, to quiet down and distill and turn off that antenna that picks up so much and doesn’t seem to have an off button.
Rather than let your child use video games or the TV to decompress at the end of the day, help them exorcise disgruntled emotions with exercise. Encourage your spirited kid to play outside in the garden, taking a long walk with the dog in nature or jump on a (safe) trampoline. And if the weather is not conducive to outdoor activity, turn on a kids’ meditative yoga video and have your child breathe deeply and stretch out her ire. Gentle exercise like walking, playing or yoga, for example, are great vehicles that help wash out the detritus of the day, and reset your child’s psyche, so she or he feels rested and restored and ready to face the next day.
In her book The Highly Sensitive Child, Elaine Aron, Ph.D., says, “It is primarily parenting that decides whether the expression of sensitivity will be an advantage or a source of anxiety,” and she’s right! So appreciate the tenderness, empathy and intuitiveness of your sensitive child while also providing your child with a way through overwhelm, so that your sensitive child is also a happy and resilient child, for life!