Twenty percent of children are highly sensitive (HSCs). These children are emotionally tuned into the world around them and have a highly reactive nervous system, which struggles to filter out unnecessary sensory input.
They experience their environments intensely and are easily overwhelmed; their heads fill up quickly from processing everything happening around them. Emotions spill over and HSCs in particular quickly feel out of control, ending in a complete meltdown.
Luckily, there are ways to help your highly sensitive child handle their emotions better and stop them spiralling out of control.
1. Understand your child’s triggers
Being forced to step out of their comfort zone, bustling crowds, an unexpected change in a situation, physical discomfort, going to a new place, seeing new faces, trying a new activity, or not being able to do something well. These are all typical minefields when it comes to highly sensitive children. Knowing what makes your child react intensely will help you manage situations better and prevent your child becoming overwhelmed.
2. Help your child put their feelings into words
Training the right side and left side of the brain to connect takes time, patience and practice. A child’s strong emotions stem from the right side of the brain and easily overrides the ability of the logical left side of the brain to function effectively. By helping a child understand their emotions and put them into words you help them make the connection between both sides of the brain – and in time help your child to get a grip on their own emotions.
Talking about emotions with your HSC is important so they start to understand which emotion is in control of their actions. They learn why they react to a particular experience in a certain way. It really helps a child be able to put a face to their emotions.
3. Acknowledge a child’s feelings
We connect with our children when we show them that we relate to how they are feeling. Don’t dismiss their feelings, or fight their emotional response. Acknowledge their feelings without being judgmental. Even if your child’s gripe seems a little crazy it helps them to know that you understand how they feel about it. You can talk more about the logic of their grievance once they are calm and can listen to reason.
4. Hold your child
Touch is a powerful way of letting your child know you get it, that you know they need help and comfort. Sometimes a hug is all they need.
5. Wait before taking action and keep discipline gentle
Dishing out consequences or trying to correct behavior whilst a child is overwrought will only add fuel to the emotional fire. Once your child is calm you can talk about what happened and look at how your child could tackle the same situation differently next time.
HSCs are more often than not conscientious and aware that they have done something wrong. They mentally beat themselves up about what they have done without parental interference, and want to avoid the same mistake again. Telling your child ‘we all make mistakes’ will help ease the guilt they may feel. ‘Gently does it’ is a great mantra to practice with your HSC.
6. Change their physical state
Often you can help your child to change their emotional state by changing their physical state. Encourage older children to take a run around the block, or a younger child to punch a cushion. The act of moving changes a child’s focus.
7. Help them with the why
A HSC may have a disproportionate reaction to a situation. It’s sometimes hard to understand why something that seems so low level could possibly evoke such an intense reaction.
My eldest has a panic reaction to dogs. With a little coaxing and talking we established that the fear probably stems from an incident at his grandmother’s. A very energetic, playful Dalmatian dog jumped up at him when he was knee high and knocked him over. He was little, the dog was big and somewhere along the line that left a negative imprint for years to come. Talking about it made him realize that he’s actually not scared of all dogs. He’s still anxious around big dogs, but the rest he can handle calmly and logically.
Helping a child understand the reason for their feelings helps them connect their emotions with logic. With older children this could also be achieved by means of journaling.
8. Teach your child how to relax
Avoiding a meltdown is obviously better than trying to help your child recover from one. Teaching a child how to reset their mind and body is a real gift. What works differs from one child to another so it’s worth experimenting with different ideas. For one child it could be kicking a ball around, for another it is using breathing techniques, or it could be drawing or blowing bubbles. A few minutes of yoga could be the answer, or a session with play dough. Quiet time in their bedroom may be what they need.
Work out what helps your child and then hang a reminder (or make a poster) in a prominent place for your child when emotions start taking over. You could also try the Happy Sensitive Kids bucket activity to help your child understand that some activities fill their bucket, but others help to empty it.