One of the most important influences on a child’s development is the quality of their relationship with their parents and other caregivers. That said, some children are more strongly affected by the caregiving environment than others.
You have probably heard of temperament traits such as introversion, extroversion, and contentiousness. Did you know that sensitivity is also a temperament trait? The scientific term for temperamental sensitivity is “sensory processing sensitivity.” Like other temperament traits, there is a continuum with people falling somewhere along the continuum from high sensitivity to low sensitivity. It is estimated that approximately 30% of the population has high sensitivity.
High sensitivity is typically associated with four main characteristics: a greater depth of processing information from the environment, being prone to overstimulation, greater emotional reactivity and higher empathy, and a greater capacity for sensing subtleties in the environment. We can liken highly sensitive people to living smoke detectors who can detect subtle changes in the environment that the majority of people may miss. In children, high sensitivity can present as children displaying intense emotions, being thoughtful and thinking—or worrying—deeply, becoming quickly overwhelmed in busy or loud environment, not liking to be watched while performing a task, finding it hard to fall asleep and wind down after a busy day, being tuned-in to others’ emotion and displaying a high level of empathy for their age, appearing cautious or slow-to-warm-up in new situations, and being strongly affected by both small and big changes.
Research shows that highly sensitive children are more affected by the parent-child relationship. Highly sensitive kids tend to do exceptionally well in nurturing and supportive environments but are at higher risk for developing a range of physical and mental health conditions in harsh and unsupportive environments compared to children who are less sensitive. In other words, highly sensitive children are more sensitive to their environment for better and for worse.
So how do we provide supportive and nurturing environments for our sensitive kids?
5 Steps of Emotion Coaching for Highly Sensitive Kids
All children need emotional support from their caregivers, but the benefits of emotional support can be even greater for highly sensitive kids.
As a clinical psychologist and parent coach, I often teach parents the Gottmans’ 5 steps of Emotion Coaching. Emotion Coaching can be thought of as the emotional guidance and support parents can provide to their sensitive kids to support their optimal emotional development and meet their emotional needs. As an Emotion Coach, you want to not only help your children to navigate the world of emotions and the tricky situations that trigger those emotions, you also want to show up for them in a way that gives them confidence that they can turn to you when they need you.
Be aware of your child’s emotion
To provide your sensitive kids with emotional support, you must be aware of their emotions. To do this, you must first practice slowing down, being fully present, and tuning in to your child’s verbal and non-verbal communication. What is your child’s facial expression telling you? What is their body posture signaling? What are they saying? Once you have become aware of your child’s emotions, you are then in a position to support them.
Recognise the emotion as an opportunity for intimacy and teaching
Once you are aware of what your child is feeling, it can be helpful to recognise this moment as an opportunity for emotional connection and guidance. If you dismiss the emotion or try to shut it down, the opportunity for intimacy and teaching will be lost and your child may learn that they cannot trust you to be there for them when they experience big feelings. They may learn to turn away from you rather than towards you when they are having a hard time. Instead, when you become aware of your child’s emotion, say to yourself “this is an opportunity for me to show up for my child.”
Listen empathically and validate your child’s feelings
Once you become aware of your child’s emotions, it is important to listen—really listen—to your child’s experience. When your child is sharing their thoughts and feelings with you, practice giving them your undivided attention. You can show them you are listening deeply to what they are saying by reflecting back (paraphrasing) what they have said to you. You might say things like, “Ok, it sounds like you are feeling angry because I spent more time with your brother yesterday.” Once you have listened deeply, it is helpful to validate your child’s experience. “I understand. It can feel unfair and make you angry when we don’t get as much time together as you need.”
Help your child verbally label emotions
Children learn to verbally communicate how they feel through their conversation with others and by watching how you communicate your own emotions. I often say to parents that children learn about their emotions from the outside in! When you become aware of your child’s emotions through their non-verbal and verbal communication, you can help them to label the emotions they might be experiencing. Let’s say your child is about to leave for a friend’s birthday party when they start to fidget, complain of a tummy ache, and say they don’t want to go. You might reflect, “Honey, you seem anxious. Are you feeling nervous about the party today?” By helping children to label their emotions, you not only help them to make sense of their internal experience, but you also help them build their emotional literacy and their ability to communicate their emotions to others. These skills are essential for highly sensitive kids to thrive as highly sensitive adults.
Set limits when necessary while helping your child to problem-solve
There are times when we all need to set limits with our kids. It’s important to move through steps 1-4 before setting limits when possible. For example, if your child becomes aggressive towards their sibling, it is helpful to listen to how they feel and validate their experience before setting limits around aggression. That might sound like, “You felt really angry with your sister because she walked through your Legos and broke your castle. You spent a long time building that. I get it and I’m sorry that happened. I can’t let you push your sister when you’re angry, but let’s think about other things you can do when you feel angry.”
Sometimes when children are upset or bothered by something, they simply need us to hear them, understand them, and empathise with their experience. Often that will help them feel calmer and settled and there is no need to solve the problem. Other times, children may need help to solve the problem. As with limit-setting, problem-solving should occur only after your child feels that you have really listened to them and understood how they feel.