There are a number of characteristics of highly sensitive people that can make them a little more reluctant to step out of their comfort zone. And that goes for children too – probably even more so. So our HSCs often need a little nudge to help them along the way – but when does a push go too far? When should a child’s wishes be respected and when should we try and persuade a HSC to do something they don’t think they want to do?
To get things into perspective, a highly sensitive person (HSP) often dislikes change, particularly unplanned changes, or ones they feel unprepared for. In general, HSPs prefer to stay in trusted environments with familiar faces. They are also likely to display perfectionist traits – so when a HSC does something, they want to do it well. Actually, more than well, perfectly. None of these traits makes stepping out of a comfort zone easy.
These characteristics mean that trying new things, going to new places, and meeting new people are not necessarily high on a HSC’s wish list. In practical terms, there are many situations that present no issue at all for a non-HSC but which feel terrifying for a HSC.
Starting nursery school. Starting primary school. Going to a friend’s party. Staying with a babysitter. Climbing a slide. Going to play at a friend’s house. Going to the doctor’s or dentists. Starting swimming lessons. Learning to ride a bike.
I can speak from experience about all of these events. But when do you push a HSC and when do you accept that he or she is just not ready to do something?
Some situations speak for themselves. At some point a child has to start school, whether they like it or not. Pushing a HSC to go to school is something many parents will end up doing. Doctor’s and dentist visits are also something that we all have to do at some point, love it or loathe it.
Going to a friend’s birthday party isn’t a must. But do we want our children refusing all party invites for the rest of their childhood because they are terrified of being in an unfamiliar house without their mother or they fear the noise they will endure at a party? That’s not so straightforward.
Should we push our HSC to go to swimming lessons, or join a judo club, when they say they want to do it but are so nervous about starting that stress eats them up? Should we push pass the tantrums, the tears and the distress in the changing rooms, the stares from other parents and children and force them into the pool or sports hall? That’s not an easy decision to make for any parent.
Spending time alone with your partner is important, vital for your relationship, but if your HSC screams bloody murder at the idea of someone else looking after him should you go out anyway? Let a babysitter deal with the aftermath?
Does it matter if a three year old won’t go on a slide because it terrifies her?
They are all questions my husband and I have faced. Issues we have had to work through. Lessons we have had to learn.
The biggest lesson I have learnt is this: time helps. As a child gets older their fears subside or change. Their confidence grows. They have had time to observe; they see their peers doing things and see that it is safe. Some things they get used to.
Other things remain troublesome. And you need a plan.
In every case it’s helpful to prioritise. Is it essential or important that your child does the thing he fears? If you live next to water then swimming lessons earlier rather than later is definitely desirable. Otherwise maybe lessons could wait a while.
Then it’s time to look for solutions. Assess what your child is comfortable doing and where their boundaries lie. Maybe going in a swimming pool with you is acceptable to your child but you being out of sight whilst he takes part in a group lesson is a huge barrier and one he won’t go over anytime soon. So look for compromises. Break things down into little actions. Take small steps, one at a time, towards the end goal. There are not many things that really demand all or nothing from us or our children.
If you want your child to get over her fear of the slide take her to the play park and together just watch other children using the slide. Use books with pictures of slides to talk about it with your child. Find the smallest slide you can for your child to go up and down once you think she may be open to the idea. Or help her to sit half way up and hold her. Show her it’s safe. Cheer every positive little step she makes. There are many steps you can take to help her get used to the idea that a slide is fun. It may take weeks. It may take months. But pushing her up a slide and then down again so she faces her fear head on is extremely unlikely to help her. Small nudges, rather than one big push.
You will not always be successful, at least not in the short-term. We talked about swimming lessons for my son when he was four and five, the same age as his friends started and his resistance to the idea was huge. We tried a practice lesson and it just ended in tears in the changing room. And in the end we left it for a while. He went swimming with us every now and then to gain confidence in the water but whenever we mentioned lessons he freaked.
Then when he was six we organised a swimming instructor for him and his brother whilst we were on holiday. He flourished with the practically one-on-one instruction, the small pool and either me or his father sat poolside. His confidence rocketed and after a week he declared he was ready for lessons when we got back home. And just like that, just before turning seven, he started group lessons and got his (Dutch) A Diploma within six months. He went on to swim for his B Diploma and is more comfortable in the water than I ever have been. He needed to build his confidence, see that he could do it, and he needed time.
Birthday parties remain problematic. He hates going to a house or place he doesn’t know and hasn’t been before. He was recently invited to a birthday party and was desperate to go – but was very stressed about the fact that he had never been to the house before where the party was being hosted. He couldn’t picture how the party would play out. That stress outweighs the excitement he feels about the party itself. So I spoke to his friends mum, and she immediately invited me to come along and said when he felt comfortable I could go – and if he didn’t reach that stage I was welcome to stay. I ended up staying for the duration and helping out – he had a blast. However I know that should he be invited there again there is a big chance he will be fine with going – without me. There is usually a solution – but it may take up your time, make you feel uncomfortable or test your patience. But it may well just help your HSC take a step that will get them comfortable enough to try something they were previously reluctant to try.
I think one of the most important elements of parenting is building our children’s self-confidence and belief in themselves. Parenting means helping our children have a good self image, feeling positive and good about themselves. Our children should also know it’s okay to fail, okay to try again. And with a HSC this can take more from us that we had ever imagined – but the pay off is worth every little baby step.