DON’T ever say that to me again! Do you understand? DO YOU UNDERSTAND?!: How to Respond to Highly Sensitive, Reactive Children

This morning I very calmly and gently explained to Martin, my 4-year-old, that when he places a cup down on our glass coffee table he needs to be gentle. His response: “It’s not fragile! DON'T EVER SAY THAT TO ME AGAIN! Do you understand? DO YOU UNDERSTAND?!  And this is not atypical—he explodes like this on a regular basis, whenever we need to correct him or set a limit, or when he can’t do something perfectly right away. When we try to reason with him he shuts down—he’ll often just cover his ears or run away.  We are at a loss as to why he is so hyper-sensitive and how we are supposed to set limits with him.

Children like Martin have a more sensitive temperament, meaning they experience and react to their feelings and experiences in the world more deeply. (They are sometimes referred to as “orchids” because they are affected by and reactive to even minor changes in their environment versus “dandelions” who are tough and thrive even in challenging circumstances.)

Temperament is a child’s inborn way of approaching the world—the “why” that explains the meaning of his behavior. Temperament is something we are all born with, not something children choose or that parents create. It’s why some of us revel in new experiences and others are anxious and need time to warm up to unfamiliar situations. It’s how we’re wired which influences the way we process our experiences in the world.

Sensitive children tend to have a harder time handling typical stressors, such as not being able to master a new skill right away or having to adapt to a change, such as a new teacher or a shift in their daily routine. And, like Martin, highly sensitive children are also more likely to feel overwhelmed or out of control when being corrected by an adult. When they feel out of control on the inside, they act out of control on the outside. While Martin expresses his feelings--in this case by shouting--another child might burst into tears or throw a tantrum when feeling overwhelmed.

Highly sensitive children are also more likely to experience anxiety. They lack an internal filter which means they are processing everything going on around them. Parents often describe these kids as not having an "off" button. They live in a state of high-alert to prepare and protect themselves from a world that can feel very overwhelming.  

What can parents do to help especially sensitive children learn to manage their emotions and cope?

  • Remain calm and try not to get reactive yourself. When we get revved up it tends to increase children’s distress, leading to more out-of-control behavior. Remember not to take their words literally. Young children are driven by emotions and are irrational by nature. When children lash out, it is their way of saying they are overwhelmed and are having a hard time coping. They don’t mean what they say. (“I hate you” doesn’t mean they actually hate you. It usually means they don't like a limit you are setting.) The more you react to their behavior, the more you reinforce it. When you remain calm they are likely to settle down more quickly. 

  • Acknowledge your child’s feelings and keep language brief and simple. We tend to say too much when trying to calm children, thinking (hoping!) that, somehow, we can talk them out of their upset. But when children are out of control, they can’t process all those words and ideas. Attempting to do so just further overwhelms them. The most sensitive and effective response is to simply acknowledge your child’s emotional state. Say something brief and empathetic such as, “Wow, those are very big feelings.” (Avoid telling him exactly how he is feeling as that just triggers more defiance: "I am not angry!!") When you stay empathetic and calm, it communicates that you are his rock; that you understand and that he is not alone. 

  • Reflect on the encounter when your child is calm. Our natural impulse as adults is to use logic to teach our kids a lesson in these maddening moments. But when children are overwhelmed emotionally, they don’t have access to the part of the brain that enables them to think and reason. Wait until your child has calmed down to engage in any reflecting and teaching.

  • Retell the story: “Mommy asked you to be gentle when you put your cup down on the glass table because it is fragile and can break. I meant this to be helpful — just like when your teachers give you a direction at school — but you got very upset.” Pause to allow your child to respond. You might ask to see if he thought you were angry or were criticizing him. Explain that sometimes people hear things in a way that the other person doesn’t mean. This helps him begin to understand his feelings and reactions.

  • Recall past experiences when your child successfully managed a challenging moment. “Remember when you fell off your scooter. Daddy tried to help but you got really mad at him because you didn’t like the feeling of falling. It made you feel out of control. Daddy understood and just stayed by your side. When you were calm he showed you how to balance and you were off!”

  • Let your child know you will be his partner in learning to manage his big feelings. One of the greatest gifts you give your child is letting him know you understand, accept and appreciate him; that you won’t minimize or judge his feelings and will help him cope when he is having a hard time managing his big emotions.

It’s important to be aware that some children who are emotionally sensitive also have some sensory sensitivities. For example, a child who gets very distressed when something unexpected happens, or who flies off the handle when any limit is set, may be over-responsive to sensory experiences like sounds or tactile sensations (such as clothing with tags or seams). Children whose sensory systems are highly sensitive and reactive tend to feel overwhelmed by the world. They feel bombarded with sensations they can't cope with which can result in big emotional reactions. This is something to keep in mind and potentially explore as you are decoding the meaning of your child’s behavior. (To learn more about how sensory processing challenges can impact behavior, read this blog.)