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How to Parent an Extremely Sensitive Child

When little kids have big feelings, it may require a different approach.

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.

Image from Pexels.com

It’s your first child. Naturally, you’re going to be highly motivated to pull out all the stops, learn all the tricks and be the “perfect” parent. Since your child doesn’t come with an owner’s manual, you’ll more than likely rely on friends, family, the internet and your own ideas about what’s appropriate and what to expect from your child.

Dr. Kevin Leman, author of First-Time Mom, says many first-timers who are trying to be great parents push their firstborn a little too hard. There’s a tendency to approach parenting from the perspective of raising the perfect child. Unfortunately, the child often gets buried underneath those high expectations and can feel as if they never measure up.

“Your firstborn child is already going to be highly motivated,” says Leman. “Instead of using conditional love and asking them to continually jump through new hoops, choose to be a nurturing, encouraging presence.”

Leman identifies 10 traps first-time parents often fall into:

A critical eye.

Be aware of your standard of behavior. When is the last time you had a perfect day? Children are the same way. Training takes time and the standard is not perfection. Accept your child as he is and recognize that he is not going to excel at everything.

Overcommitment.

Children want to be a part of a family and they want to identify with their home. When you choose to live an overcommitted life, you are training your child to identify her heart with what is outside the home.

Not enough Vitamin N. 

First-time parents often fall into the trap of thinking that they can make their child happier and better adjusted by what they give to their child and the experiences they provide for their child. Vitamin N stands for No! Too often, giving our child things becomes a substitute for being their parents.

Lack of Vitamin E.

One of the biggest myths today is the concern over self-esteem. Instead of telling your child how wonderful she is just for being a child, you want to teach your child to think in a constructive, positive manner. Esteem comes from accomplishing something and from giving something back. If a child learns how to do something and her parents comment about what a great job she did, she recognizes that the most significant people in my life – my mom and dad – notice what I’ve done and what I’ve accomplished and recognize that I have a role to play.

Playing the competition game.

Human development is not a race. Early development does not guarantee that a child will be above average her entire life. Instead of comparing your child, enjoy him.

Overexcitement.

As a first-time parent, you will go through many trials and anxieties for the first time. Babies do best with calm, confident parents. It gives them a sense of security, serenity and peace. Your baby will take his cues from you. Don’t treat minor instances like they are life and death occurrences.

Over-discipline. 

As a first-time parent you may not be as familiar with age-appropriate behavior. As a result, you’re more likely to over-discipline your child. Your goal is not to control your child, but to be in authority in a healthy way. One mother told how her 9-month-old walked up to the couch and grabbed some decorative pillows. The mom said she told her daughter not to throw them on the floor. The child looked her straight in the eyes and threw them on the floor. Instead of recognizing this as age-appropriate behavior, the mother viewed it as intentionally defiant behavior on the part of her child.

Under-discipline.

The flip side of over-discipline is letting your child do whatever they want without any consequences. With firstborns in particular, you need to lay out exactly what the age-appropriate rules are and follow up. Since firstborns don’t have an older sibling to model behavior, you must be specific about what you want them to do.

Letting other people raise your child.

It is too easy to give into your parents’ or in-laws’ advice. As a first time parent, it may take you awhile to assume your role as a full-fledged adult. You are the parent. No one knows your child better than you. Be responsible for the decisions you make in raising your child.

Allowing your child to be the center of the universe.

Up until age two a child’s favorite word is “mine,” which is totally appropriate. Past this age, teach children how to share and interact with a variety of other children. Teach your child to be aware of other people and not just selfishly barge ahead.

Looking for more? Check out this episode of JulieB TV on this topic!

How do you teach respect? Will your child’s strong will conquer you before you conquer it? There are 6 rules to raise your children by that might help!

As a parent, you have probably thought about these questions and experienced the confusion of trying to figure out the best way to raise your children

According to psychologist and author Dr. Kevin Leman, we have arrived at a place in our society where the family focuses solely on the child. He says American parents have become permissive and democratic, and children have become sassy and entitled.

Today, many popular dramas portray children in adult roles with little respect for parents. The shows depict parents as ignorant, out of touch with the culture and not smart enough to raise a child. Innocent as it may appear, this role reversal seems to encourage teens to be disrespectful to their parents, discounting their authority and their understanding about life issues.

If a child wants to do something and their parents say no, they sneak and do it anyway. Instead of earning money to buy new shoes, many teens believe parents should foot the bill. In fact, many young people think the idea of doing chores around the house without getting paid is unfair and beyond the call of duty.

Leman believes that allowing young people to operate in this manner is counterproductive.

“There are certain realities by which children are going to have to live their adult lives,” says Leman. “The sooner we start teaching what I refer to as the rules of the game, the better.” Here are the 6 rules to raise your children by:

  • You’re never going to be the center of everyone’s attention all the time. This means that children should not be the center of attention in their families. Parents should be the center of attention.
  • Everyone must obey a higher authority no matter how old they are. Therefore, parents should expect children to obey, not hope that they will obey.
  • Everyone needs to be a contributing member of society. Too many children constantly take from their families without ever giving back. Leman suggests parents ask themselves if their children ever perform routine chores around the home for which they do not get paid. The only acceptable answer is yes.
  • Everyone is responsible for his or her own behavior. A child who does something wrong ought to feel bad about it and be held accountable for his behavior. Too often parents feel bad when a child does something wrong. Why should a child accept responsibility for his behavior if someone else takes responsibility for him?
  • You can’t always get what you want and what you do get, you get by working and waiting. Children should receive the things they need and a conservative amount of the things they want. More children need to hear the word “no!”
  • You experience happiness, which is the elixir of success, in direct proportion to how sensitive to and considerate you are of others. Self-centeredness and unhappiness go hand in hand.

Finally, Leman admits that teaching your children these rules won’t create “perfect kids.”

We all make mistakes and sometimes children have to learn these lessons the hard way, but by making them aware of the real world, children will have a better chance at becoming happy, well-adjusted young adults.

Image from Unsplash.com

Looking for more? Check out this episode of JulieB TV on this topic!

When state police called science writer David Dobbs to say that his teenage son had been driving 113 mph, he somehow kept from yelling, “What in the heck were you thinking?” Probably just like any other parent, he considered his son’s actions to be reckless. His son, however, refused to take ownership of that title. He said he chose a long, empty, dry stretch of highway on a beautiful day to drive his car that fast. 

After hearing many parents complain about not being able to get into their teen’s head to understand what makes them tick, Harvard-educated researcher Shaunti Feldhahn and her co-author Lisa Rice took on that challenge. With input from more than 1200 teens, Feldhahn and Rice discovered some interesting insights into teens’ lives. The results of their work are in the book, For Parents Only, Getting Inside the Head of Your Kid.

In general, the culture believes peer pressure pushes kids to rebel and behave in reckless ways without thinking of the consequences, teens don’t care what their parents think, they don’t want rules or discipline, parents don’t listen, and teens give in easily to negative attitudes. Feldhahn and Rice say those beliefs aren’t necessarily accurate, based on their findings.

What’s really happening is this: Our teens are experiencing the intoxicating nature of freedom and the fear of losing that freedom, and they want to figure out who they are as an individual. When they test their parents’ authority, they really want them to stand firm instead of giving in. Teens want to know their parents are making an effort to understand them even when they make mistakes. They tend to stop talking because they think their parents are poor listeners, and what seems like an attitude problem might actually be a sign of insecurity.

While the authors do not endorse bad behavior or make excuses for poor choices, they do believe that their newfound knowledge could help parent-child relationships.

Although many parents believe they lose a lot of influence and that peers become more influential in the teen years, Feldhahn and Rice found that freedom is most influential. One psychotherapist said, “Freedom is like cocaine to a teenager. It’s intoxicating. It’s addictive. And it’s often their biggest motivator”. Nearly 3 of 4 teens surveyed said they felt strongly motivated by freedom. Many said they couldn’t get enough of it. However, even though they want their freedom, teens said they understood that too much, too soon wasn’t good for them. 

When asked which they preferred, a parent who acted more like a friend or a parent who acted like a parent, 77 percent wanted the parent, not the friend. While teens may want their freedom, deep down they realize they need their parents to provide structure and security for them while they figure out the whole freedom thing. Additionally, knowing what freedoms are most important to your teen is essential.

Rice recalls when one of her teenage daughters called to say she had been involved in a really small accident and that everything was okay. She said her mom didn’t need to come and that she was going on to her friend’s house. Of course, Rice headed to the scene. Her daughter had been on her cell phone while driving, which was against the rules. The first thought was to take away the cell phone as a consequence, but the cell phone was a big part of her daughter’s freedom. 

After discussing what happened, the daughter asked to pay off the repair costs instead of her phone taken away.

This meant turning over almost all of her paycheck for four months. As a result, she learned a very important lesson and did not resent her parents for taking her cell phone or grounding her.

If you want to get inside your kid’s head, this insightful book offers very practical ways to engage your teen during their struggle to separate themselves from you as a parent, and ultimately become a productive, healthy adult.

Your child reaches for a candy bar at the checkout counter and you say, “No.” He proceeds to throw a tantrum. Do you:

A.  Plead with him to stop?

B. Step over him and walk away?

C. Buy him the candy bar so he will stop embarrassing you in public?

Your child looks at you with disgust, rolls her eyes and says, “You can’t tell me what to do.” Then she turns on the television to tune you out. Do you:

A. Send her to her room?

B. Leave the room for a minute to get yourself together in preparation for dealing with the situation?

C. Ignore the behavior?

It is 7:00 a.m. You go in to wake your son for the third time. He growls at you and refuses to get up. Do you:

A. Go in and physically get him out of the bed?

B. Turn up the radio so loud he can’t possibly sleep through it?

C. Remove yourself from the situation and let him sleep?

If you’re a parent, you’ve probably encountered at least one of these situations and have been confused about the best way to discipline your child.

According to Dr. Kevin Leman, author and parenting expert, we have arrived at a place in history where American families have become child-centered. American parents have become permissive and democratic, and American children have become spoiled, sassy and out of control. In response to each of the situations above, Leman would say that all of these children need a healthy dose of “reality discipline.”

Many of today’s popular sitcoms and commercials portray children in adult roles with little respect for their parents. The parents (on the other hand) are shown as ignorant, out of touch with the culture, dumb and not smart enough to raise a child. Innocent and comical as it may appear, this role reversal seems to encourage children to be disrespectful to their parents and other adults, discounting their authority and understanding about life issues.

If a child wants to do something and their parents say no, they just sneak around their backs and do it anyway. Instead of earning money to buy new shoes, many teens believe their parents should foot the bill. The idea of doing chores around the house without being paid is often referred to by many young people as unfair and beyond the call of duty.

Leman believes that allowing young people to operate in this manner is not preparing them for the real world.

“There are certain realities by which children are going to have to live their adult lives,” said Leman. “The sooner we, as parents, start teaching what I refer to as the rules of the game, the better.”

Six Rules to Raise Your Children By

1.  You’re never going to be the center of everyone’s attention—not for long at least. This means that children should not be the center of attention in their families. Parents should be the center of attention.

2.  Everyone must obey a higher authority. Therefore, parents should expect children to obey, not hope that they will obey.

3.  Everyone is expected to be a contributing member of society. Too many children constantly take from their families without ever giving back. Leman suggests parents ask themselves if their children are ever expected to perform routine chores around the home for which they are not paid. The only acceptable answer is yes, according to Leman.

4.  Everyone is responsible for his or her own behavior. A child who does something bad ought to feel bad about it. Too often parents feel bad when a child does something wrong. Why should a child accept responsibility for his own behavior if someone else does it for him?

5.  You can’t always get what you want. And what you do get, you get by working and waiting. Children should receive the things they need and a conservative amount of the things they want. More children need to hear the word no.

6.  You experience happiness, which is the elixir of success, in direct proportion to how sensitive to and considerate you are of others. Self-centeredness and unhappiness go hand in hand.

Applying the Six Rules Using Reality Discipline

Although most parents can see value in raising their children by these rules, the real challenge comes in trying to put them into action. In his book, Making Children Mind Without Losing Yours, Leman gives parents specific ways to use their authority correctly as they bring up obedient children with loving discipline. It is called reality discipline.

The key to reality discipline lies in the answers to these three questions.

How do I:

  • Love my children?

  • Respect my children?

  • Hold my children accountable?

“In order for reality discipline to work the first thing that must happen is the child must feel loved,” Leman said. “Reality discipline uses guidance and action-oriented techniques. Action-oriented discipline is based on the reality that there are times when you have to pull the rug out and let the little buzzards tumble. I mean disciplining your children in such a way that he/she accepts responsibility and learns accountability for his actions. Children expect adults to discipline them. If the discipline is loving, it will be geared toward instruction, teaching and guiding.”

Finding Middle Ground

It takes time to raise a child to be a responsible citizen. Leman believes there are far too many households in America where children do not feel loved. Many parents have either chosen to parent from an authoritarian or permissive stance.

The authoritarian parent: makes all decisions for the child, uses reward and punishment to control their child’s behavior, sees himself as better than the child and runs the home with an iron hand, granting little freedom to the child.

The permissive parent on the other hand, is a slave to the child; places priority on the child, not on his/her spouse; robs the child of self-respect and self-confidence by doing things for him that the child can do for himself; provides the child with the “Disneyland” experience; and/or makes things as easy as possible with inconsistent parenting.

Both of these parenting styles set the stage for anger and rebellion in the child.

“I believe there is middle ground between authoritarian and permissive,” Leman said. “It is being authoritative. Authoritative parents do not dominate their children and make all decisions for them. They use the principles of reality discipline, which are tailor-made to give children the loving correction and training they need.”

Parents who use the authoritative approach:

  • give the child choices and formulate guidelines with him/her;

  • provide the child with decision-making opportunities;

  • develop consistent loving discipline;

  • hold the child accountable;

  • let reality be the teacher and convey respect, self-worth and love to the child and therefore enhance the child’s self-esteem.

Authoritative Discipline Involves at Least Three Things:

  • Discipline by way of action – the discipline should be swift, direct, effective and as closely tied to the violations as possible. For example, you have told your child it is time to get in bed. Your child is blocking with all kinds of stalling tactics. Reality discipline says that you don’t argue or negotiate. You simply state – “If you don’t go to bed on time your bedtime will be even earlier for the next three nights,” or “Don’t go to bed on time and give up your favorite TV show for a week.” Be pleasant, but do not waver or hesitate and make sure you follow through on exactly what you said you would do.

  • Parents must listen to their children – There is great power in listening, but few of us tap that source of power. Really listening to your children helps you understand where they are coming from and what they are thinking. It allows you to make better decisions when it comes to discipline.

  • Parents should give themselves to their children – Giving of yourself (not things) to your children is an essential ingredient for effective discipline. The simple truth is children want their parents. They want our time.

Understanding Your Child’s Reality

According to Leman, reality discipline has an “eye of the beholder” element. One of your major goals in using this type of discipline is to help your child think and learn. In order to be successful, you have to understand what reality is for your child. It is what your child thinks that counts. Your child’s reality includes extracurricular activities, favorite television shows, privileges like staying up late, etc. Your child’s perception of what is happening is the reality you must deal with.

For example, if you find your child throwing a temper tantrum in the checkout line, understand that their goal is to get your attention and ultimately for you to break down and buy the candy bar. Leman would suggest that you calmly step OVER the child and walk away – not out of viewing range, but far enough away that you are no longer an audience for the show. When there is no audience, the show stops.

What Sets Reality Discipline Apart?

Reality discipline has distinctive characteristics that need to be practiced in every home where children live, claims Leman.

“Parents should never seek to punish, but to discipline, train and teach,” Leman said. “If ‘punishment,’ pain or some kind of consequence is involved, the parent is not doing it or causing it – reality is. This directly connects to the six rules and learning how the real world works. If your child is refusing to get up and go to school, stop being the human alarm clock and let them face the consequences of being late to school. Reality discipline helps parents avoid inconsistent wandering between authoritarianism and permissiveness. It is the best system for teaching accountability and responsibility in a way that it will stick and it is your best bet for avoiding what I call the ‘Super Parent Syndrome.’”

Avoid the Super Parent Syndrome

Even when parents are using the reality discipline concept, it is possible to fall into the trap of being a “super-parent.”

Dr. Leman believes there are four kinds of faulty reasoning that parents need to avoid:

  • I own my children – Reality discipline reminds parents that the goal is not to own or keep children, it is to help them learn to be responsible and accountable persons in their own right.

  • I am judge and jury – Although we have authority over our children, we should always use it with tender, loving fairness.

  • My children can’t fail – Children should fail on occasion because failure is good for them. Home should be a place where children can learn more about themselves. It should be a place where children can make mistakes as they try out things they have decided on their own. Parents should not interpret their child’s failures as a direct reflection on them.

  • I am the boss – what I say goes. There are many situations where a parent knows what a child should do because the parent has been down that road before. Reality discipline, however, helps you guide your child without dominating him and making decisions for him.

What Reality Disciplinarians Do

Your mission, should you choose to accept it as reality disciplinarian, includes:

  • Being consistent, decisive and respectful of your children as persons.

  • Using guidance rather than force, but being action-oriented and not satisfied to just use words.

  • Holding your children accountable for their actions, whatever those actions are, and to help your children learn from experience.

  • Realizing that you, as parents, are the most important teachers your children can ever have.

There are no 100 percent guarantees when it comes to any single style of parenting. Every child has his/her unique personality and needs. The foundations for reality discipline are based on really knowing and understanding your child. Will the strategies work all the time? No. Will there be times when you are ready to throw up your hands in total frustration and resign from your job as parent? Probably. But, if your goal is to raise healthy, responsible children, the best strategy is to keep working your discipline plan.

Nine Ways to be Your Child’s Best Friend

1.  The discipline should always fit the infraction.

2. Never beat or bully your child into submission.

3.  Use action-oriented methods whenever possible.

4.  Always try to be consistent.

5.  Emphasize the need for order.

6.  Always require your child to be accountable and responsible for his or her own actions.

7.  Always communicate love to your child even though their behavior may have been irresponsible.

8.  Always give your child choices that reinforce cooperation but not competition.

9.  If you choose to spank your child (many parents don’t), it should be done when you are in control of your emotions.

Looking for more? Check out this episode of JulieB TV on this topic!