“Don’t touch. That’s very hot.” They were simple words of warning from my husband to our daughter as she reached for the syrup he’d just warmed up in the microwave, but they sent her running into her room, where she slammed the door and began to cry. Laughter probably wasn’t an appropriate response on my part, but it was syrup, for crying out loud. I had to laugh. It was that or go crazy because the reality of living with a highly sensitive child is that emotions run high — both hers and mine.
I suppose it should come as no surprise to me that I have a sensitive kid — after all, I was one myself. To hear my mom tell it, my sensitive nature was apparent very early on. She says I was acutely aware of her emotions even as a nursing infant. As a young child, I always wanted to know why my people felt the way they did, first to make sure it wasn’t my fault and second to see if I could help them feel better. Mom struggled to find a way to discipline me that didn’t result in a complete grief-stricken meltdown. In preschool, I was very concerned with doing things right and was exceedingly self-critical when I didn’t achieve perfection. Mom remembers the deep indignation and hurt I felt the day “Kenny pulled my sweater.”
Clearly, the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree. Mine is a kid who cries over literal spilled milk. A harsh word to get down from off the table before she hurts herself is enough to send her scurrying into her room in tears. Being told “no” (and at 3, it happens a lot) frequently results in a fit of hysterics. I spend a lot of my time kissing minor boo-boos “all better” because she can’t move on until I do. When she’s in the car and feeling especially small, she wants to hold my hand (which is just a bit challenging when one is driving). Bugs (both real and imagined) are currently a big concern for her, and she can’t continue with whatever she was doing until I’ve “cleaned it.” She becomes upset if she’s in any way wet or dirty, and she’s easily frustrated and embarrassed.
When you’re such a little person, you need help managing big feelings, and that’s where mom comes in. I see it as my role to help her cope with her sensitivity, not change who she is as a person. I know that she finds comfort in routine, and I do everything I can to keep her on her schedule and to make sure that schedule includes plenty of downtime. Baby girl gets a lot of encouragement when trying something new, but I praise her efforts as opposed to the outcome. I try to set her up for success by teaching her problem-solving skills and helping her break tasks into smaller steps. As her capacity for language grows, we’re working on adding “feeling words” to her vocabulary. When she throws a tantrum, I provide sympathy and solace, but I do not give in to her demands.
For every time I handle it well, though, there’s at least one time that I completely screw it up. I’m sometimes fall into the trap of bending the rules in order to avoid upsetting her, but I know I’m not doing her any favors by being inconsistent with my limits. Take picking her up. She’s big for her age, and especially now that I’m in my third trimester of pregnancy, I probably shouldn’t be carrying her around. I’ve pushed her too hard (like when we carted her all over Europe before she was even 2) and suffered the consequences. Overall, I’m concerned that I’m cultivating in her an unhealthy (not to mention unsustainable once baby brother makes his debut) dependence on me.
The good news is that not only is there nothing wrong with being highly sensitive, it can also be a gift. The heightened awareness with which highly sensitive people walk through the world often makes them more compassionate to suffering. Many times, sensitive kids end up being intellectually gifted and creative. They are future artists, innovators, and healers. If we give them the tools to navigate their sensitivity, tender-hearted children can grow into adults with rich emotional lives, which means all the good stuff in life? They get to feel it more deeply.
Even when you’re a highly sensitive person yourself as the parent, it’s easy to get annoyed and even angry with a child who won’t eat their snack because it’s the wrong color or who can’t get through the first 5 minutes of Moana without shrieking. Take a deep breath, empathize without giving in (you can turn the movie off, but don’t go get them the purple fruit snack), and remember that sensitivity isn’t a moral failing — on your part or theirs.