“Open your mouth so I can clean your teeth properly,” I say to my son.
“I AM!” my four year old shouts back at me.
It’s the tail end of a discussion we seem to have most mornings when I am agitated by the rush to get my three sons ready for school.
“Don’t shout at me,” I snap and my son bursts into heart wrenching tears. I embrace him quickly and say sorry. I know by now not to raise my voice with my sensitive son; I know by now not to suddenly change my tone, but I’m human and sometimes the stress of the morning rush gets the better of me.
I feel like crap and I vow to be more mindful of my tone, the volume of my voice.
Nobody likes a raised voice.
Nobody likes a stern tone.
Nobody likes to be told off.
But for a highly sensitive child (HSC) all these things hit home even harder.
Here are eight reasons why a gentle approach to discipline works effectively with a HSC.
1.Highly Sensitive Children are Often Sensitive to Noise
The increased volume of noise when you raise your voice, particularly suddenly, impacts a sensitive child deeply; it startles and scares them. Raised, stern voices cause stress and anxiety in HSCs – and in many highly sensitive adults too for that matter. The wall of noise, as a HSC experiences a raised voice, blocks out your message.
2.Highly Sensitive Children are More Easily Upset & Overstimulated
A HSC’s emotions are more intense than a non-highly sensitive child. They are less able to dismiss feelings and shrug them off. Negative feelings are amplified and stay with a HSC longer, so chances are your child already feels scared, angry at themselves, upset or overwhelmed, when they know they have done something wrong.
Once upset the message behind your words is drowned out by their emotional state. Emotional overstimulation means that no more input is processed. Waiting until both you and your child is calm allows you to both talk rationally and quietly so you can focus on the message you want your child to hear. It usually takes around twenty minutes for a child to regain their composure.
3. Highly Sensitive Children Process Deeply
HSCs process sensory input deeply and that includes the things said to them and how they are said. This means words cut deep; a severe tone hits hard.
4. Highly Sensitive Children Have a Strong Sense of Shame
A stern tone, anger or disappointment shown in a voice evokes guilt or shame in a HSC – even if that voice is telling someone else off.
Imagine a teacher trying to establish the perpetrator of an incident in the class – a HSC feels a sense of guilt even though they are innocent of any wrong-doing.
If you are in public and your child’s behaviour needs your intervention it is best to remove your child from other people and find a quiet, private space. Their shame can cause overwhelm and an outburst if you publicly correct your HSC.
They act as their own disciplinarians; their sense of shame is often so strong that they beat themselves up mentally for what they have done, and feel terrible without an adult saying a word to them. HSCs are master self-critics and they don’t need to be told they are ‘naughty’.
5. Highly Sensitive Children Seek Approval
A HSC worries about getting into trouble and is made anxious seeing (or reading between the lines) signs of disapproval from those around them, be it at home or in the classroom. Praise works wonder for a HSC. Personal criticism, especially in the heat of the moment, is taken to heart and eats away at a HSC’s self-esteem.
6. Highly Sensitive Children Have a Strong Sense of Justice
Listening to a HSC instead of instantly passing judgement on their behaviour (and the reasons for it) is important as they have a strong sense of justice – of what is fair and right. Feeling that a decision is unjust and that their case has not been heard will deeply upset a HSC. They will be more embroiled in the seen injustice than in the message you want to get across about their behaviour or actions.
7. Highly Sensitive Children Communicate Subtly
HSCs pick up on tones, body language, emotions shown in someone’s eyes, the unsaid words. Voices can therefore seem loud and stern to a HSC, even when it is not intended. Making a conscious effort to speak quietly and gently to a HSC helps ensure that your words and messages are not misconstrued. This is something that is particularly difficult for non-HS parents who don’t necessarily appreciate just how loud or stern their voice comes across to their HSC.
8. Highly Sensitive Children Naturally Follow Rules
Communicating clear expectations, standards and rules will help a HSC immensely as they are adept at adhering to the rules. HSCs are not, in general, natural risk takers so they love rules.
HSCs have a strong internal moral compass and when they do something wrong they process the incident deeply to make sure they don’t make the same error again. They actually don’t need harsh words to learn from the mistakes they make. Gentle correction is enough.
The aim of any parent when ‘disciplining’ a child is to bring about a change in behaviour. The aim is to ensure that a child remembers the lesson for the next time so they act differently in the same situation. No one wins if the lesson is overshadowed by the severity of the punishment, or a caregiver’s reaction – and that can easily be the case with a HSC.
Some parents adopting a more gentle approach to discipline and behaviour correction find themselves facing criticism from extended family, friends and acquaintances (particularly those with a strict upbringing themselves) who accuse them of being soft on their child, of allowing their child to manipulate them or get away with unacceptable behaviour. If necessary, or if it makes you feel more comfortable, explain that you will talk to your child about the incident when he or she is calmer and when you are alone.
As parents of HSCs we have rules and standards and limits and our children need to learn to stay within those boundaries, but because of their temperament they learn those limits best through a gentle approach. Trust that you know your sensitive child best.