Part and parcel of being a parent means hearing a lot of unsolicited advice. As the parent of a highly sensitive child you often hear things that hit the wrong nerve or make you feel like smacking your head against a brick wall – or worse still, make you feel like a lousy parent.
The problem is that when it comes to highly sensitive children many people like to share their opinion with you despite a total lack of understanding of what being highly sensitive actually means. And that’s just the kind of ‘help’ that parents of a highly sensitive child can do without. Like these ten ‘advice’ gems, which I have either personally heard or which have been shared in the HSK community.
- “All she needs is a good smack on her behind. That will sort her out.” I think any parent could challenge the dubious merits of hitting a child, but such measures with a highly sensitive child will do nothing but immeasurable harm. Tough punishment, including raised voices, will have the opposite effect on a highly sensitive child who will be too upset to get the message behind the punishment.
- “You’re making her inflexible by not making her attend the family party.” Busy events can be overwhelming for a HSC, so much so that it can takes days to get back on track in terms of sleeping and eating patterns as well as mood. Choosing not to take your child out of their normal routine will not create an inflexible child but will actually send your child the message that you respect their boundaries. As your child gets older those boundaries will expand with support and gentle guidance.
- “Oh just leave him, he’ll come round.” Ignoring an emotionally distraught HSC in the hope he’ll just suddenly feel fine with a situation will not usually yield any positive results. Whatever is bothering a HSC is real for that child no matter how trivial it may seem to a non-HSP adult and acknowledging the issue is better than ignoring it. If a HSC says his top is scratchy he will most likely feel the same in an hour’s time. If her sandy feet are causing discomfort that won’t change because a carer things it’s better to wait until they get home to clean them. The upset or discomfort is real and a HSC will continue to let you know it.
- “Your son takes things too personally.” HSCs think deeply. They reflect on everything they hear and will take things to heart. Over time you can help a HSC see that not everything is literal and about them, but it takes time and even then there is always an element of doubt. Dismissing their feelings out of hand with a generalising statement is not helpful.
- “He really needs to get more involved with the team.” Many HSCs, particularly boys, do not like team sports because of the competitive pressure, the physical aggression or the teasing culture within some teams. It does not mean they are not team players. Forcing a HSC to participate in team sports when they feel uncomfortable with the idea can actually greatly damage their self-worth and self-esteem. However, team sports can also be a fabulous boost to a HSC’s confidence in the right circumstances and Ted Zeff has an excellent chapter in his book The Strong, Sensitive Boy (US Link here) on this topic. If a child really isn’t interested in team sports then there are plenty of individual sports to try instead.
- “It’s only a dog/fireworks/siren!” The fear or alarm a HSC feels is real, no matter how little a thing it seems to a grandparent or teacher. Dismissing a dog as “only a little dog” doesn’t change anything in a HSC’s eyes. The fear needs to be acknowledged and talked about – not dismissed and no HSC should EVER be belittled for their fear.
- “He needs to toughen up.” How many times have we heard this as parents of a HSC? The world we live in is far from a highly sensitive person’s paradise but we already adapt to a large extent to survive within in. Toughening up is something I will never ask my children to do. Putting a virtual armour on my sons so that they are less sensitive to their environment seems to me to be one of the worst things I could ask them to do. It means them not being who they are. What I will do is work with them to find the tools so they can cope with certain situations but I will never throw them in the deep end and order them to swim in order to toughen them up.
- “She cries too much.” HSCs are more emotional than their peers. They wear their hearts on their sleeves and if something bothers them they find it hard to hide, and as per number 4 above HSCs do take things personally. But why should they hide their feelings? What determines ‘too much’ crying? Is that what we really want as a society? Children that become adults that are emotionally stunted? Again, it is about giving our HSCs the tools to cope in environments they are uncomfortable with but not ridiculing them for their tears and not telling them to hide how they feel.
- “She needs to get on with it, however distracting the environment is.” Being distracted by the other 30 children in the classroom is something that a HSC deals with every day. Later a busy office environment may offer the same disruption to concentration. Learning how to cope in a noisy, active environment is a huge problem for a HSC, but no matter what a teacher thinks, the problem is real and a HSC needs support and tools to help. It won’t just happen – instead a HSC’s school work will suffer.
- “Well he doesn’t behave like that when he’s with me. Sounds like attention seeking behaviour to me….” If I had a euro for every time I heard this I would be much wealthier than I am. No, you probably don’t see the upsets, tantrums and meltdowns that a parent sees from their HSC. A HSC puts up their defenses, dropping them only once in the safety of their home and in the arms of mama or papa. In fact a HSC can often seem a little Jeckyl and Hyde – the perfect student in class but an emotional whirlwind at home. That’s how HSCs cope. Actually it’s how HSPs cope. Taking a parent at their word is far more helpful than remarking that such behaviour is never seen in class or at grandma’s house.
When ‘advice’ is offered to you it’s easy to doubt yourself and your parenting skills. It’s common to wonder if you are actually facilitating your child’s sensitivities, making things worse rather than better, but have faith in the knowledge that you, as a parent, know your child better than anyone else. Acknowledging the issues your HSC faces and providing support for them when they need it will help your child grow into a confident adult who feels accepted for who they are. I truly believe our primary role in parenting a HSC is to work with our children to find the tools that help them function best without asking them to change or hide who they are. I believe we should nurture the sensitive side of our children and protect them from those who will quash those traits given half a chance. Only then will we have raised emotionally stable adults who are sure of who they are.