There are challenging kids, and there are “over-the-top” challenging kids. Research suggests that around 15% of all children are considered highly sensitive. What does this mean for parents of kids who exhibit these characteristics? More importantly, what kinds of behaviors classify as highly sensitive? Knowing that your child may be more sensitive than most need not be overly burdensome, there are many strategies for helping highly sensitive children thrive. Are any of the following comments true about your child? If so, read on to discover positive ways to help your child celebrate their uniqueness and succeed.
Does this sound like your child?
“Dressing is always an ordeal for my daughter. No tags, and sometimes no socks, because the seams drive her crazy.”
“My teen has never been a touchy kid. It used to be tough to get him to slow down for a hug, but now he even pulls away and acts like I’ve violated his space.”
“My child is such a picky eater. I feel like I’m always special order cooking from the ‘brown and white’ food group.”
“My son just can’t sit still – he’s always squirming and wiggling. It’s almost impossible to get him to slow down, look me in the eye and really listen.”
“My daughter’s mood swings are extreme and sometimes very sudden. The littlest things can set her off. Talk about intense! Her meltdowns wear me out.”
“My child is easily over-stimulated. Large groups of kids, crowded places or busy stores are usually a prescription for trouble.”
These comments are from parents who have one thing in common: highly sensitive children! These kids are easily overwhelmed by intense or aversive sensations from their body or their surroundings. They are almost always kids with highly sensitive nervous systems, and their challenging behavior is about much more than defiance or disobedience.
Why Disciplining Your Highly Sensitive Child Doesn’t Help
This issue hits close to home for us: two of our kids, when they were young, had meltdowns at the feeling of clothing changes, tooth-brushing, or cold toilet seats. The sound of a blender, a vacuum cleaner, thunder storms or fire alarms inevitably led to intense reactions. We learned early on that disciplining our highly sensitive children for their reactions was like punishing them for getting a cold.
Because parents are often blamed for their child’s difficult behaviors, parents tend to focus on getting rid of the behaviors instead of understanding the behaviors. We have seen over and over that there is a very strong overlap between “difficult-to-raise” children and those with sensory challenges. (Both groups comprise about 10 – 15% of children.) The specific behaviors that would clue a parent in to these sensory challenges are numerous and varied, but these children are often louder, more intense, sensitive, active, emotional and/or strong-willed than their peers. If you don’t have one of these kiddos in your family, you probably have a close friend or relative who does!
Parental Self-Reflection is Key
The first practical step for parents of such a child is to spend a little more time understanding “What’s going on with my child?” instead of “What should I do?” By learning more about their child’s nervous system, parents can get strong clues about what might be causing the specific challenges that their child is facing. For example, I (Lynne) coached a mom whose desperation about “what should I do?” led her to seek help through coaching. First we addressed “What’s going on?” As the mom began to understand her daughter’s nervous system and the constant state of “fight or flight” her daughter lived in, the mom had an “aha!” moment. “Could it be my daughter’s constipation and crabbiness is affected by her sensory challenges?” I explained that stress can often throw off digestive function. The mom completed her flash of insight: “And the way we’ve been handling it has only added to her stress!” This understanding brought subtle but powerful changes in how the mom responded to the situation, and her daughter’s condition improved dramatically.
When we better understand what’s going on in our child’s nervous system, we can better empathize. When we empathize, we are calmer, our children are calmer, and we can more creatively and positively develop solutions.
If you are wondering if these sensory processing issues are contributing to your child’s challenges, ask your pediatrician about a referral to a pediatric occupational therapist. An excellent book on this subject is “The Out-of-Sync Child” by C. Kranowitz, or for a one hour video overview of sensory processing, check out our Challenging Children DVD. If you’re looking for assistance, we would love to help you with your challenging child — read more about parent coaching with Lynne Jackson, OTR.