I spoke to a Simplicity Parenting family life coach about the ways us parents can help build resilience in our sensitive children — while still nurturing their wonderful qualities.
One day, when my son was a chubby cheeked 4-year-old, I switched on the stereo system while the volume was still cranked up to television levels. The whole house was suddenly and deafeningly filled with classical music at heavy metal volume. As I scrambled to adjust the levels, my sweet boy stood there and yelled imploringly “WHY IS THE MUSIC so LOUD and so SAD?!”
Now almost 9 year old, my boy is still highly sensitive to the subtlest of emotional nuances in any situation. Once, after having a particularly rough day, I picked him up after school and he asked me how my day was. I answered, all sunshine and kittens,” It was great, my love!” He didn’t say anything for a moment, looked at me dead on and said “Take off your sunglasses and tell me again.”
I was floored. Another time, while driving, a certain song came on the radio and I suddenly felt a pang of wistful sadness. I said nothing, kept driving, but my son said from the back seat, the back of my head the only thing he could see, asked “What’s wrong, mom? How come you seem sad all of a sudden?” This kid — it’s like he picks up on invisible energy.
Related: How My Children Save Me From Myself
In fact, when he had some psycho-educational testing done, his EQ (emotional quotient) was higher the 95th percentile, confirming what we had a hunch about already. His emotional intelligence is almost through the roof.
He is my baby, my youngest and last child, and he holds the special place in my heart that comes with that place. But then, when I see how empathetic and tender his little soul is, I want to wrap him up even tighter and keep him safe with me, always. I know, though, that this is not the way to prepare a child for independence. Parenting a child like this – one who is all pink underbelly, who feels everything that is felt by everyone he encounters – has its unique challenges.
Living in an urban city, we often encounter people asking for spare change and it cracks something inside of him every time. I try to explain to him that we can’t save everyone and he genuinely doesn’t understand.
Last winter, he wouldn’t rest until I helped him prepare care packages, which we then hand delivered, one by one, to individuals on the street who needed them. He would hand over the package, say ‘Happy New Year!’ and then climb back into the car with a big smile on his face and say over and over ‘That felt SO good. It felt really really good.’
That night, as I tucked him in, he said ‘I really am so lucky to have a house and clothes and food and a family.’ I mean, come on. You could have mopped me off the floor right there.
It’s a character trait he and I share, and one that I am proud of, if not with reservation. I like being a helper, and kind, and empathetic. However, I have learned over the years how to protect myself from the wounds of the world as best I can. I avoid sad movies and documentaries because they destroy me. I struggle in large groups because it’s just too much. I can only handle the news in quick snippets.
I have learned how to wrap my soft spots in armor. But, so far, my son has not – he is not yet 9-years-old. I love his tenderness, his enormous heart, his desire to soothe everyone’s sadness. It is one of the very best things about him and he inspires me every day to try harder, think more, and love bigger. But, there’s a flip side to this soft, beautiful trait: my sweet boy is very vulnerable to sadness, to hurt, and emotional pain.
Though I want to protect him and keep him safe, I know that my job as his parent is to prepare him for real life, for the world that isn’t concerned about keeping his heart tender.
Related: Why You Should Let Your Child Fail
He feels things so deeply, so personally, and takes everything into his heart when he encounters the normal pitfalls of growing up: his sister, who knows how to wound him with just a few words; the kid in his class who commented that my son hadn’t finished his work yet; the little girl who asked him about the spot of eczema on his arm. He takes comments that are nothing more than a moment to the speaker and internalizes them to the point where he is devastated, sad, hurt. He will say, “Why would she want me to feel sad?”
I spoke to Lynne Newman, a Simplicity Parenting family life coach, about ‘in the moment’ and ‘outside the moment’ things you can do when your child is feeling emotional about a situation.
Some of the ‘in the moment’ things you can do:
1. Acknowledge their feelings, even if you don’t agree with them or think they make sense.
“And that hurt your feelings? That’s not fun.” This lets them know that you are a safe space for their feelings, which is important for the long term and when situations become bigger. Give them the language and vocabulary they need so they can get better about identifying their feelings as they get older.
2. Connect the story.
Sometimes kids who are highly sensitive let their emotions disproportionately color their experience and memory of a situation. Dig a little bit deeper into what happened to help you – and them – get some perspective.
“Tell me what happened.”
“Why do you think your sister said that?” “Do you think it’s true? Do you ‘ruin everything’? No, you’re right. You don’t.”
By encouraging our sensitive kids to reframe the situation, use objectivity, and look for the evidence to back up their understanding – ‘she said it because she was mad at me, not because it’s true.’ — we can help them shift their emotional reaction to one that is a bit more rational, which is a healthy tool for a highly sensitive person to learn.
Depending on their age, you can do this for them, guide them through it, or encourage them to start doing this on their own so that eventually, this is a toll they can use with or without you.
3. Understand your child’s triggers.
Newman suggests practicing objectivity yourself by being aware and honest about your child’s triggers. My son has had struggles academically and is not athletically inclined. This plays a big role in his level of self-esteem so he is particularly sensitive in situations that magnify these things.
Whenever he is telling me about an upsetting situation that involves either of these things, I take it into account. It helps guide me when we are having a conversation: often, he is not upset that another child ‘looked at him weird’ when he was still working on his assignment, but interpreted a passing glance as proof that the other child thinks he is ‘stupid.’ So, then it becomes about working through that feeling – and not the look he got from the other kid.
Some ‘outside the moment’ things you can do:
1. Advocate for your kid.
Sometimes, connecting the story and reframing the situation on their own isn’t possible, and our sensitive kids need a little extra help. My son came home upset one day because some boys at school were quizzing him with math questions and saying, “You don’t know?” and then laughing when he didn’t have the answer. I talked to him and got his full version of the story, then spoke to his teacher.
The boys were asked for their version of the story. It turns out that the quizzing was something they did to all the boys, including each other in the way that boys often do – showing off, being competitive, but actually innocent and not directed at any one kid. My son needed me to do some of the talking for him to get to the bottom of the situation.
2. Practice rational and objective thought processes with situations that aren’t as emotionally fraught for your child.
Maybe this is while reading a story about a kid who’s having a rough day, or while talking about something that he’s observed recently. It’s the conversations and lessons that happen when our emotional self isn’t ramped up that stick the best, and will serve your child well when they do encounter a situation that’s more personal.
3. Observe moments of mindfulness.
Newman practices this with her daughters as much as she can. Take pause in the middle of an activity, whether it’s a walk on a hiking trail or playing a board game, and acknowledge the good in that moment: how nice is it to feel safe and happy in our house, the sounds of the birds and the breeze in the trees, and so on.
This is simply a way to teach your child to find moments of peace in every day. It’s something I have to remind myself to do, too, even now. We’re learning together, me and my boy.