7 Things To Never Do While Raising A Sensitive Child

If your child gets emotionally hurt easily and reacts with strong emotions, chances are that he’s a highly sensitive child. Here’re 7 things to never do while raising a sensitive child.

By Arun Sharma  • 11 min read

7 Things To Never Do While Raising A Sensitive Child

Reena had some guests at her place the other day. She called her 9-year-old son, Vijay, to the kitchen. Handing him a tray with a few cups of tea, she said, “Go and serve them to Uma aunty and others.” Vijay took the tray and walked over to where the guests were sitting. He kept the tray on the floor, picked up the cups and placed them on the centre table. Observing what Vijay did, Uma aunty said, “Vijay, why did you keep the tray on the floor. Is that how you serve something? Shouldn’t you keep it on the table?”

Vijay didn’t like what he was told. He walked back to the kitchen and told Reena, “Does she have to tell me how to serve in front of everyone? This is why I never like to come to the drawing room when there are guests.” Saying that he stomped back to his room.

Children are a bundle of emotions, and some are more sensitive than others, like Vijay.

In her article, ‘Highly Sensitive Children’, published in Early Years Educator (2010), Tania Schmieder says, “High sensitivity is a temperament trait found in 15–20 per cent of babies and young children, which is often misunderstood and mis-diagnosed, and is only recently becoming much better understood.”

So, according to the study, it can be surmised that one in about five children is a highly sensitive child. These children process information more deeply and reflect on issues with greater subtlety. As a result, they also show higher emotional reactivity.

Why are some children highly emotional or overly sensitive?

Individuals who display high levels of sensory processing sensitivity (SPS), measured by the Highly Sensitive Person Scale (HSPS), are considered highly sensitive. But, what exactly is SPS?

Acvedo et al published a study titled, ‘The highly sensitive brain: an MRI study of sensory processing sensitivity and response to others' emotions’, in the journal Brain and Behavior (2014). According to the study, SPS is “associated with enhanced awareness and behavioral readiness to respond to salient environmental stimuli, particularly important social situations.”

Children who have higher levels of SPS have a nervous system that works harder. As a result, they are more alert, observant, able to understand problems better, and empathise and understand others’ feelings. All these qualities also make them highly emotional and prone to becoming overwhelmed or emotionally exhausted.

What causes higher levels of SPS?

Apart from personality traits, it has been found that genes also play a big role in determining how sensitive an individual may be.

According to Todd et al’s study, ‘Neurogenetic Variations in Norepinephrine Availability Enhance Perceptual Vividness’, published in The Journal of Neuroscience (2015), “carriers of the ADRA2b deletion variant showed higher levels of subjectively experienced perceptual vividness for emotionally salient images (EEV) than noncarriers.”

So, highly sensitive individuals are biologically wired to think and react emotionally, irrespective of the culture or the society they are born in.

According to Aron et al’s study, ‘Temperament trait of sensory processing sensitivity moderates cultural differences in neural response’, published in Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience (2010), “individuals high in SPS should be less likely to exhibit cultural differences in a perceptual processing task because they are more likely to be highly attentive to all aspects of a stimulus.”

How can you recognise a highly sensitive child?

Various personality tests are available online to determine if a child is highly sensitive. However, displaying certain behaviours can also be a signal that you have an emotionally sensitive child. Some of them are:

  1. Dislikes surprises
  2. Feels shy and hesitant, especially in the presence of strangers
  3. Prefers a routine
  4. Is sometimes clingy
  5. Prefers to spend time alone

Therefore, parenting a sensitive child presents its own set of challenges as issues like intense emotions, unique perceptions, and over-the-top reactions need to be handled with a lot of care and sensitivity. If you are the parent of a sensitive child, here are 7 things you should never do:

1. Don’t try to change your child: The cultural background of parents, to a large degree, influences the way they perceive their child’s behavioural traits. For example, display of restraint and reserve is much appreciated in most Asian cultures. However, in the West, the predominant opinion may regard it as a sign of shyness or anxiety. Therefore, stop looking at your sensitive child as an aberration. Instead, try to understand that he is not sensitive by choice but that it’s his biological trait. Labelling your child, trying to change his behaviour, or coaxing him to develop a tough attitude will only end up harming him. 

"It's not easy for parents to accept sensitivity as a natural trait in their child, because it requires them to change their whole approach to parenting. So, while the child is comfortable with all his emotional reactions to almost everything, parents feel emotionally drained just trying to cope with them. Unless parents understand and shift their attention to appreciating and encouraging their child's other strengths, and help him use his sensitivity in productive ways, they will tire themselves trying to change the child." —*Arundhati Swamy

2. Don’t be impatient: Highly sensitive children are overwhelmed or overstimulated by multiple factors like bright lights, large crowds, pain, criticism, other people’s moods, and socialising with strangers. They are reluctant to accept changes and slow to adapt to new situations. So, don’t get impatient and testy with your child’s behaviour. Instead, be considerate and give her enough time to come to terms with her feelings and move forward.

3. Don’t suppress his emotions: A hypersensitive child experiences a deluge of intense emotions. Not being allowed, or lack of opportunities, to express his feelings may make your child act out or feel depressed. So, create an environment where your child feels safe to express himself. Also, teach him how to recognise and verbalise his emotions like anger, frustration and sadness. Make him learn some relaxation techniques like deep breathing exercises to calm himself down when he feels overwhelmed.

4. Don’t get upset: A sensitive child is not only more aware of others’ sentiments but also more emotional than other children. So, be very careful when showing your disapproval, correcting or admonishing your child. Using harsh words to criticise, speaking in a loud voice to show your displeasure, or giving physical punishments to instil discipline can have a devastating effect on her psyche. Be calm and collected in your approach towards your child.

5. Don’t bend the rules: Emotional children usually exhibit strong reactions. So, parents of such children worry about how their child would react to something he doesn’t like or is opposed to. Sometimes, this can prompt parents to bend the rules to make their child feel happy. If you are a parent who relaxes the rules to keep your sensitive child in good humour, stop doing so. Remember, such an attitude will not prepare your child to face the world existing outside the four walls of his home.

6. Don’t neglect routine: Highly sensitive children usually dislike surprises and feel uncomfortable with changes. They prefer the world to be a predictable place, where they know what is going to happen next. This helps them regulate their emotions and not feel overwhelmed. So, help your child create a routine for herself and stick to it. Also, ensure that your child is not overscheduled and takes enough breaks during the day to soothe her nerves.

7. Don’t sound discouraging: According to John C Maxwell, an American author and speaker, ‘Encouragement changes everything’. It cannot be truer than in the case of a sensitive child. Validate your child’s feelings, dispel his doubts and give him plenty of encouragement. Help your child understand that successes and failures are a part of life, and that he shouldn’t focus too much on failures.

With proper nurturing, a highly sensitive child can grow up into a well-balanced, empathetic, creative, reflective and perceptive individual who not only stands by those around him, but also can lead from the front. So, listen to your child, stay close to him, recognise that there is nothing wrong with him and remember our tips to help your child become an asset for the society.

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*Arundhati Swamy is a counsellor and the Head of Parent Engagement Programs at ParentCircle.

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