Note: As always with my posts on parenting, if you don’t have kids I encourage to read this through two lenses: 1. As a parent to your own inner child and 2. As a springboard to reflect on how your parents were able to attune or not attune to your sensitive nature when you were growing up.
As many of you know, I’ve been blessed with the privilege and responsibility of mothering two highly sensitive sons. My sons have been among my greatest teachers, and it’s through listening deeply to their exquisitely high emotions and tracking their symptoms that I’ve received a real-time window into the highly sensitive mind and heart.
These past few months have been challenging in different ways for each of my sons (one is almost sixteen and the other is eleven). Out of respect to respect their privacy, I won’t be sharing details about these challenges, but suffice to say that when I started hearing their same struggles reflected in my clients’ kids, I knew I had to write about it here. As Jung said, when we dig deeply enough into the personal, we hit the collective. As I walk beside my sons and listen to my clients with young kids, I know we’re in the realm of the collective.
Highly sensitive kids are always attuned to the temperature of the world. Even without sharing details of news events (I strongly recommend shielding kids from news in typical times), every child knows that we’re in a pandemic, and most know that we’re in the midst of dismantling the racist systems upon which this country has been built. They might not know that George Floyd was brutally and heartlessly killed by white policemen (and they might know this), but they know that something big is happening on multiple layers. They can feel the crumbling even if they don’t have words for it.
Highly sensitive kids don’t need to know the details; because they’re lightning rods, they tune into the invisible realm, they read the facial expressions of their parents, they sense into the unspoken layers of both a family system and collective. They know that the adults are worried. They know that life as we’ve known it has been uprooted. They know that we’re missing “normal” and that we’re grieving. They take all of this in, and they need our help moving it through along their own inner riverways and pathways so that the grief, fear, and uncertainty don’t stagnate and morph into anxiety.
Here are several ways to help kids process the enormity of their own emotions.
1. Develop a Relationship to Your Own Emotions
First off, it’s helpful to have a relationship with our own emotions, which is a cornerstone of what I teach in my work. Of course, this is ongoing inner work, and it’s important for parents to know that even if they struggle to feel their own emotions they can still be a source of support for their kids. We’re always learning in symbiotic relationship: we learn how to love our partners through being loved; we learn how to parent ourselves by parenting our children; we learn how to feel our feelings by offering compassion to others’ feelings.
2. Spend One-On-One Time with Your Child Every Day
Secondly, I encourage you to spend one-on-one time with your child every day. If you have more than one child, this can be difficult, especially if you’ve lost some or all of your childcare during this time. Do the best you can. If you have more than one child, I know how tempting it is to “get stuff done” when one child is napping, but that’s also a prime opportunity to have quality time with your other child.
During special time, put aside all distractions, especially your phone, so that you can give your child undivided and uninterrupted attention. Your full attention is one of the greatest gifts you can give your child, and it’s often in short supply during this era of multiple distractions. We, as parents, have to make an intentional and concerted effort to set aside this time each day otherwise it’s not likely to happen. This could be first thing in a morning or at bedtime. It could be in the lull of the afternoon hours. Time alone with your child is a primary way that they will feel safe and loved.
3. Become Curious About Your Child’s Inner World
This is an excellent time for you to ask specific questions that will invite your child to share their inner world with you. While highly sensitive kids are highly attuned to their emotional world and their body’s responses (bumps, tingles, aches), they might not share this with you without being prompted. Many highly sensitive kids are also highly private, and they need this safe and uninterrupted time where they are actively asked questions to feel safe enough to share what’s happening in their hearts and minds.
Here are some examples of specific questions:
- How have you been feeling lately?
- Do you ever try to get a “right” feeling inside of you?
- Tell me about your [stomachaches, headaches, any other physical symptom that your child has been telling you about].
- Have you had any interesting dreams lately? (You don’t have to know anything about dream interpretation in order to listen to your child’s dreams and talk about them together.)
- Have I said or done anything that has hurt your feelings or made you feel bad?
Very young children might not have the verbal capacity to respond to questions like these (although they might; don’t underestimate your child’s verbal and emotional intelligence), in which case you might spend your special time engaging in play. Through the play, notice what they’re making their doll or animal say and use these cues as opportunities to travel beside them into their inner realms. Doing art together is also a wonderful way to enter your child’s imagination.
4. Be Aware of How Anxiety Commonly Manifests for Kids
As with adults, anxiety in children doesn’t always look, sound, or feel like anxiety.
This is how anxiety can manifest in children:
- Frequent stomachaches
- Frequent urination
- Sleep challenges
- Separation anxiety
- Ruminating, particularly about death
- Social anxiety
- Prone to perfection
- Angry outbursts
It’s essential to remember that underlying all of these symptoms is anxiety. For example, highly sensitive kids are also highly attuned to their body’s sensations, which means they might notice the slightest amount of urine in their bladder and feel worried about losing control or not having access to the bathroom and so they go the bathroom more frequently. If adults aren’t attuned to these more subtle cues they might miss them altogether. Frequent urination is also a common symptom of health anxiety where the child worries that something is “wrong” so becomes hyper-focused on a perceived symptom.
5. Limit Screentime
I realize that iPads are doubling as nannies right now, and that’s okay, but as highly sensitive kids are more porous than a typically wired child, you must be exceptionally mindful of the content that they’re watching. There are a few excellent shows for younger kids (Octonauts and Puffin Rock were big favorites for my boys), but many seemingly innocent shows, especially films, contain messages and images that are disturbing for HSCs.
Anything violent or unkind will register in their morally sensitive heart as unbearable, and they simply don’t have the maturity to process much of the pain of life. One of our most urgent tasks as parents of highly sensitive kids is to protect their innocence, which, these days, means limiting and highly monitoring what they ingest through screens.
It’s not only the content of screens we have to be aware of, it’s also the pace. Everything moves very quickly these days, and this is reflected in the media. The cuts of films is faster than the soul can process, especially for young people and especially for highly sensitive young people. If you’ve wondered whey your child seems dysregulated after watching innocent screen content, this could be why.
6. Be Mindful of the Conversations that Your Kids Overhear
Likewise, highly sensitive kids often have otherworldly hearing and they pay attention to everything you’re saying and discussing. You might not think they’re listening when you’re talking to your partner or a friend about the latest political atrocities, but if they’re within earshot assume that they are.
7. Communicate to Your Child that They are Unconditionally Loved and Deeply Safe
As highly sensitive kids have a highly attuned sense of “right” and “wrong”, they often assign this to their own sense of self regarding their “goodness” or “badness.” In an attempt to “be good” or convince themselves that they’re not bad, stupid, wrong, or silly, they might develop habits (compulsions) in an attempt to feel good or right. Some kids obsess about writing their numbers or letters perfectly. Others obsess about their health. In some way, these obsessions and the accompanying compulsions are attempts to feel right about themselves. Therefore, what these kids need are daily reflections from the adults around them that affirm their innate goodness. The MP3 at the end of this post is one way to infuse our children with the sense of their fundamental goodness and “rightness”. (I wouldn’t normally use this word in reference to our fundamental nature but in this context it makes sense).
It’s also important that you, as their parent, make a pointed effort to let your child know through words and actions that they’re intrinsically and unconditionally loved – that your love for them is not dependent on anything external (grades, looks, achievements, behavior). As Brené Brown talks about in The Gifts of Imperfect Parenting, in order to raise shame-resilient children it’s important that we comment on a child’s behavior rather than their personhood. This sounds like, “I really didn’t like that you ___________,” while also reflecting that while you don’t like the behavior, your love for your child is not altered in any way. We can do “bad” things but that doesn’t mean we’re bad people, and children need to know this.
Still, there are going to be times when your or someone else’s behavior slips through the cracks of your attention. There’s no such thing as perfect parenting, which means we’re inevitably going to say or do something that triggers a shame response in our child. My husband and I have done this plenty of times with both of our kids, and sometimes it’s taken us years to follow the breadcrumbs of a current anxiety symptoms back through the years until we arrive at its source and can offer some repair.
8. Practice Attuned and Gentle Parenting (and Forgive Yourself When You Blow It)
Highly sensitive children require a more attuned and gentle parenting style than a typically wired child in order to thrive. This means that we have to be exceptionally mindful of scolding or criticizing our children. When a child accidentally loses or breaks an item and we say things in moments of frustration like, “Use your brain!” or “What’s wrong with you?” we tap directly into their already active shame track.
If at all possible, our work as parents is to recognize that HSCs are wired differently than other kids, and even if 99% of our communication is loving, they’re likely to latch onto the one unkind thing we said that week to support the belief that there’s something wrong with them. No child wants to be yelled at or scolded, but a highly sensitive one is more likely to introject messages of shame until they become woven into their inner fabric.
Again, it’s not possible to parent without scolding, criticizing, raising your voice, yelling, and shaming. If we were better supported as parents and were raising our children in community, we likely wouldn’t be pushed to the edge as frequently as we might be. We do the very best we can, and then we make repairs when we mess up. This is why it’s essential to invite your child to talk about any times that you’ve hurt their feelings, either through direct scolding/shaming or inadvertently.
An additional layer to be aware of in terms of gentle parenting is that highly sensitive kids often interpret innocent behavior or words through a filter that leads to shame. For example, you might be laughing in delight at your child’s cute behavior and they may think that you’re laughing at them. This has happened in our own home many times and I’ve heard it from clients as well. We can’t possibly know how our children are going to interpret and sometimes mis-interpret our words and actions, but we can give them opportunities to talk about it.
This topic always brings to mind this quote from from Pearl S. Buck on high sensitivity (except I would like to delete the word “abnormally”!):
“The truly creative mind in any field is no more than this: A human creature born abnormally, inhumanly sensitive. To him… a touch is a blow, a sound is a noise, a misfortune is a tragedy, a joy is an ecstasy, a friend is a lover, a lover is a god, and failure is death.
9. Trust Your Child’s Experience
Along the lines of the above quote, if your child says it hurts, it probably does. It’s tempting as parents to assume that our child is being dramatic around physical and emotional pain when their expression seems out of proportion to what’s happening, but that’s not often the case with a highly sensitive child. Because of their highly sensitized nervous system, they experience physical and emotional pain with greater intensity than a typically wired child, just as the above quote describes. When we invalidate their pain by showing skepticism, we invalidate their experience. At the core, we all need to feel seen and heard regardless of our level of sensitivity. Even if you can’t imagine that your child is really feeling what they’re saying they’re feeling, trust it anyway.
10. Discover Your Child’s Nervous System Regulators
Our two sons have completely different ways of regulating. Our older son regulates through connecting to the air (thus becoming a pilot) while our younger son regulates through water (he loves the creek that runs in the back of our property). They both need plenty of downtime but are also filled up by meaningful social connections. One son is regulated through touch. The other is regulated through gazing at the night sky together. Petting our cat regulates both of them, and they both need time moving their body each day.
Every child, every person, has their own ways of regulating. The following are some ideas that may work for you, but the most important element, as always, is to listen to and watch your child closely for they will let you know what calms their nervous system:
- Light touch
- Deep pressure massage
- Essential oils, especially lavender
- Natural bodies of water or baths
- Meaningful rituals, especially ones that come from your lineage
- Regular protein and low sugar to regulate blood sugar
- Meditation /Guided visualization
- Connecting to their passion and purpose (this looks like attuning to and supporting their interests)
At the very core of anxiety is the need to feel safe and loved. This is true for adults as well as children. Kids need to have a felt experience of dwelling in their own goodness. In the absence of feeling safe, good, and loved, highly sensitive kids, like adults, attempt to find perfection and anchors outwardly through their obsessions and compulsions. The more you talk about these with your kids, the more they will reduce. And the more you help your child feel safe and loved both through your attuned parenting and by helping them find their inner spaces of safety and self-love, the less anxious they will feel.
To this end, and upon request from several parents, I’ve created an MP3 for kids to help them find ground and safety amidst their own anxiety. If you’re a parent, I encourage you to listen to this with your child or children every day if possible. And if you’re not a parent, I encourage you to listen as you imagine your inner child taking in these words. This is how we reparent ourselves, growing our own inner wise parent as we imagine holding our young self through their fear, grief, and anxiety. And this is how we help our highly sensitive children grow their own inner ally and wise parent, rooting them into a deep sense of their own goodness, safety, protection, and wisdom.
You can also do a shortened version of this visualization by teaching your child the following affirmation:
My body is healthy and strong (place your hand or your child’s hand on their belly – ask permission first)
My heart is happy and calm (place a hand on their heart)
My mind is smart and wise (place a hand on their head)
My soul is filled with light and goodness (scan above their body from head to toe with your hands)
And all is well.
Final Note: By no means do I possess the ultimate roadmap for how to parent highly sensitive children, nor do I believe one actually exists. For just as there’s no formula for life, there’s no definitive formula for raising kids. My husband and I mess up a lot and we’re always learning about more effective ways to parent our sons.
What I can share, however, is that the longer you parent with attunement, the easier it gets. In the earlier days of parenting our firstborn son, I often longed for a wise elder to show me the way. Eventually, I learned to trust both myself and my son to teach me our way. When we listen closely and are willing to learn from our mistakes, we discover a built-in treasure map that is contained inside the soul of each exquisitely beautiful child. Keep listening, keep falling, keep pausing, keep course correcting, and above all, keep connecting, and you, too, will find your way together.
The Highly Sensitive Child by Elaine Aron
In Defense of Childhood: Protecting Kids’ Inner Wildness by Chris Mercogliano
Differently Wired by Debbie Reber