If you’re the parent of a young child or toddler, you know the joys (and consequently devastation) of a helium balloon. My 4-year-old, Jackie, held tightly to the string of a balloon that had been floating around the house, left over from a surprise “just because” package from work. Her face lit up with pure delight as she ran around the house with it. I warned her not to let go of the string, because if she did, it would float to the top of the high ceilings in the living room, making it unreachable. She dismissed me with a “Yeah, yeah mom,” as kids do, and continued to play as I made lunch in the kitchen.
One minute later, there was a terrible shriek. Bone chilling. And the weeping and wailing began. Jackie had accidentally let go of the balloon and, sure enough, it had floated up to the high ceiling, out of reach. And now the world was ending. (TBH, I may or may not have rolled my eyes.) As I stopped preparing food and prepared to go comfort Jackie, I heard her younger 2-year-old sister, Maddie, attempt to comfort her. “I’m here! I’m sorry, sissy! I’m sorry!”
Jackie’s response through screams and sobs? “No Maddie, it’s not your fault. You don’t need to apologize. THE BALLOON NEEDS TO APOLOGIZE!”
If you’re the parent of a young child or toddler, this scenario seems pretty typical, right? But what do you do when this is a daily occurrence? Or even multiple daily occurrences? What if your child cries easily and often? They have multiple meltdowns a day because they are so highly sensitive. How do you handle the crying, outbursts and tantrums and still discipline a sensitive child, without crushing their spirit?
Recognize That Emotions Are OKAY.
Many of us were taught at a young age to suppress our emotions, whether it was our parents’ intentions or not. Telling a child, “You’re fine… don’t cry…” when they’re upset minimizes their feelings. Instead of building a connection and safe space for them to process through, it actually tells them that their emotions make you feel uncomfortable, angry or annoyed and can slowly chip away at the sense of security they feel with you. We are often triggered by our children’s behavior, taking us back to how we were parented. So be intentional about allowing their big emotions and responding with connection instead of reacting as if they are wrong. Make space for them to feel, no matter if you see their emotions as logical or ludicrous. Try switching up, “You’re fine… don’t cry…” to “I can tell you are feeling ____. It’s okay to feel that way. I’m here.”
Help Them Learn Emotional Intelligence.
ABCs and 123s are great for our children to learn, but what about emotional intelligence? Children are not born knowing how to regulate their own emotions. It’s absolutely a skill that needs to be taught! So help your child learn to recognize what they are feeling by giving them the vocabulary of emotions. Talk about your own feelings, read books about naming and dealing with emotions, and above all, be there for them without judgment of their emotions. Then, help them find effective calming strategies like: Count to 10, Take Deep Breaths, Read a Book, etc. Often if your child is acting out, or “misbehaving,” it is most likely due to an underlying unmet need like being hungry, tired or feeling disconnected. Grabbing a snack solves 97% of our household meltdowns. (Because yes, kids get HANGRY, just like mama!)
Practice A WHOLE LOTTA Patience With Your “Orchid Child.”
Human development specialists W. Thomas Boyce and Bruce J. Ellis explained the opposite ends of the human temperament continuum using two Swedish words, Orkidebarn, which translates to “Orchid Child” and Maskrosbarn, which translates to “Dandelion Child.” Where Dandelions are known for surviving the most challenging circumstances and still thriving, Orchids require “just right” conditions to flourish and grow. Children who show more of an “Orchid child” temperament are just the same. They need more time, patience and help at learning to self-regulate their emotions. So hang in there! Be the calm in their chaos, and show empathy and compassion for their big feelings. It’ll take time, but they will learn how to process through their emotions more quickly and effectively as they mature.
Have Confidence In Disciplining Without Damage.
For many parents, the term discipline has been confused with punishment. We want to discipline (aka teach) our children in order to prepare them for the real world. However, neuroscience shows us that children’s brains are naturally impulsive and lack the self-control of adults. Many times children simply cannot (as opposed to will not) follow through with our demands because their brain doesn’t yet have a fully-developed frontal and prefrontal cortex, both of which are crucial to regulating self-control. However, parents often try to force their children to learn to obey through consequences, time outs and other methods that serve to control the behavior. And these types of discipline can absolutely get our children to conform, but that may not necessarily teach them what they truly need to be successful in life: self-control.
In order to teach self-control to our sensitive child, we need to:
- First focus on responding with connection. Get down on their level, or try to make eye contact with them. Acknowledge, name, empathize and validate the emotion they are feeling. For example: “I can see you are upset because you don’t want to stop playing. That is very difficult. I understand.”
- Then, stay calm and caring while still maintaining control of the situation. Avoid raising your voice, pointing fingers or threats. Make space for them to feel angry, upset, frustrated, sad, etc., without trying to “fix it.”
- Next, provide a simple directive on what needs to happen. The fewer words you use the better. An example may be: “It’s time to leave,” or “We are leaving now.”
- Then, firmly hold the limit you’ve set. Avoid trying to explain your reasoning or rationale at this moment. For instance, don’t say, “We have to leave right now or we’ll be late and then we’ll miss the whole appointment! Hurry up!”
- Finally, once the emotion has been regulated (through the help of naming the emotion and working through it using calming strategies), we can come back full circle to discuss step-by-step what happened, without blame or shame, and provide ways to handle a similar situation better next time. (Ask your child what they could do differently next time. If they aren’t sure, provide some options such as using a specific calming strategy and talking about what they are feeling. Be sure to end the conversation with encouragement for next time and remind them that you love them, no matter what!)
★Bottom Line: You’re NOT Doing It Wrong… It’s Just That Hard
No one has this parenting thing down to a “T.” You know, there’s no such thing as a perfect parent. A sensitive child can be extremely draining… but rest assured, you are not alone. Connection is the key to handling a highly sensitive child, or any child for that matter. You’ll just need to cultivate a bit more patience with your Orchid child. Helping your sensitive child learn how to self-regulate their big feelings will take longer, since their brain needs to be more developed (i.e., older). But give it time and you will see tremendous growth! Meanwhile, keep those tissues handy.