Raising sensitive children

You may have heard of the term “Highly sensitive person“ (HSP). Those 15-20% of our population who are born with a nervous system that is highly aware and quick to react to everything. Since you don‘t become highly sensitive at some point but you are from birth on, there are the so called “Highly sensitive children“ hidden in our world. They “grasp subtle changes, prefer to reflect deeply before acting, and generally behave conscientiously“ (Elaine Aron). They are also easily overwhelmed by high levels of stimulation, sudden changes, and the emotional distress of others. Because children are a blend of a number of temperament traits, some HSCs are fairly difficult–active, emotionally intense, demanding, and persistent–while others are calm, turned inward, and almost too easy to raise except when they are expected to join a group of children they do not know. But outspoken and fussy or reserved and obedient, all HSCs are sensitive to their emotional and physical environment.

What these children need is understanding and appreciation for their trait. This is what Elaine Aron, the author of several books on High sensitivity, states and what we certainly agree with. But…

We want to ask you this: What do you think would happen if we raised ALL children AS IF they were highly sensitive ?

And by that we don‘t mean carefully protecting your child from any uncomfortable or overstimulating situation in the world. We mean: when it comes to their emotions – acknowledge, understand, respect, respond and empathize.

Elaine Aron developed a questionnaire to see if your child is highly sensitive or not. It contains questions such as “Does your child startle easy?“ or “Does your child want to change clothes if wet or sandy?“. But it has also questions like “Does your child use big words for his/her age?“ or “Does your child ask deep, thought – provoking questions?“ in it.

Well – you wouldn‘t know until your child was about 3, 4, or 5 years old. What about the 3 years before that? You may not realize that your child is “different“ than others until you become aware of him playing rather quietly on his own than with a group of children, of him talking more or more meaningfully than other children. You may not be surprised by him not liking getting wet and sandy on the playground but see it as something he might get used to eventually.

But the first 3 years of life are crucial. And while we don‘t want to put a diagnosis in your head and consider your child to be highly sensitive we want to raise awareness to sensitivity in general.

Our culture is performance driven. You need to function and you need to function well. There is no time to be wasted to become independent, learn the basics in life and an instrument too. Good manners, the rules of our society and strategies to protect yourself, to compete and become successful. Sensitivity does not really fit in well here. It is usually combined with thoughts of shyness, fearfulness or fussiness. How can a person like that become successful and self-confident?

And so many parents tend to “toughen up their child“. A small scratch, a minor accident with the tricycle or the wrong coloured cup on the breakfast table are said to be “nothing“ and “not a big deal“. Get over it and move on. That‘s life!

But does preparing children for a harsh world by being harsh to them really work?

What if it is true what Robin Grille  (and countless others) suggest – that things like violence and war are not a political but a psychological issue? Wouldn’t it then make sense to celebrate sensitivity in our children in hope that we are raising sensitive people, who understand their own feelings and those of others; who know what they feel and are not afraid of these feelings; who are okay with being sad, angry and scared, as well as being happy and excited?

Dr Emmi Pikler and Magda Gerber both advocated an approach to child rearing, where we – parents, caregivers – respect the child for who he is. We believe this also means respecting their feelings and emotions. Even if we sometimes disagree. Even if we don’t understand. Even if they trigger in us something we can’t quite put our finger on, but that makes us uncomfortable.

What would it require us as parents to do?

  • Acknowledge our child’s feelings with respect.
  • Try to understand.
  • Respond, even if you don’t know what it is they are going through.
  • Empathize.

In day-to-day life it would probably mean coming to terms with our children’s strong emotional reactions to things like:

  • Spilled water (on them, on the carpet, on the table, even on someone else);
  • Dirty or wet hands;
  • Wrong kind of shirt. Wrong again. Not this one either;
  • Being too hot or too cold;
  • And countless others.

And while we would more often than not want to say that it doesn’t matter, it matters deeply to our child in that moment. And in fifteen years’ time we will probably think fondly of those moments and want them back. So is it really too much to ask?

It doesn‘t mean protecting your child from any situation that could be harmful. It doesn‘t mean compensating pain or fears with physical contact. It means RESPECTING all sorts of feelings and emotions and RESPONDING to them. It means letting our children do the work of preparing for the world “on their own, with our help”, rather than pushing them to do it faster.

In our recent e-mail exchange Lisa Sunbury says: “I don’t believe you can go wrong with simply validating  and allowing [your child’s] feelings, gently talking with him about what  happened to help him understand, and waiting patiently for him to come  up with answers he feels comfortable with in terms of how to respond  to situations like this. This is his work to do, and yours is to accept him, and offer gentle reassurance …“

‘As parents it’s not our job to toughen up our children to face a cruel and heartless world. It’s our job to raise children who will make the world a little less cruel and heartless.’  (L.R. Knost )

Perhaps one way of doing this is by celebrating our children’s sensitivity?

What do you think? We can’t wait to hear your thoughts!

Nadine & Anna

One thought on “Raising sensitive children

  1. Pingback: Boys don’t cry | Mamas in the Making

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