Big Feelings: Helping Sensitive Kids
To say that our world has been overwhelming lately would be an understatement. If we as adults are feeling the pressure from the pandemic, image the strain on our kiddos, especially those who are more sensitive already. My children both teeter on the sensitive side. Feelings are felt in big ways and not just their own. Our home is never at a loss for empathy, and while this can be a good trait to have, it also means breakdowns over slightly sad books or movies that are almost debilitating — I’m talking to you Lion King. It also means that when you live in Oklahoma and the tornado sirens start going off, your little one might need more than even a storm shelter to feel safe. Sometimes it’s a baseball helmet and a support puppy to calm those big fear feelings.
According to Jadzia Jagiellowicz, Ph.D., founder of the Highly Sensitive Society, up to 33 percent of the population is considered “sensitive,” meaning that they feel things intensely and can become overwhelmed by emotional and physical stimuli. Dr. Jagiellowicz, who provides mental health services to clients all over the world and conducts research on the neuroscience of sensitive individuals, says that their brains are both more receptive to incoming stimuli and more reactive to physiological cues—like an upset stomach or rapid breathing—than their less-sensitive peers.
Dr. Jagiellowicz also admits that there are many benefits to being a highly sensitive person. Sensitivity leads to empathy, self-awareness and creativity. Here are some ways to help your child manage their deep feelings in ways that also teach them coping skills.
Sensitive children frequently feel that their emotional reactions are misunderstood or dismissed by their parents and peers. So one of the most valuable, influential things that you can do for kids with big feelings is to just validate them and let them know it’s okay to feel that way. This will help them recover from big feelings faster and learn to better cope with them in the future.
Name Those Feelings:
Identifying and naming feelings can go a long way toward helping kids regulate their emotional ups and downs. Teach kids feeling words and then model how to express those feelings appropriately. If they’re shutting down and having a hard time speaking, make that explicit connection for them about what happened and the feeling that they’re experiencing.
Sensitive kids thrive on routine and prefer to know exactly what to expect. Before the first day of school, for example, try to bring your child to meet the teacher and see the classroom, so the environment feels more familiar right away.
Create Safe Spaces:
Because sensitive children take in more information from their environment and are more reactive to it, a little prevention is worth a pound of cure. Try to create opportunities for downtime after busy and stimulating activities. Help them set boundaries that enable them to safely process tough emotions.
Practice Gentle Discipline:
Among the characteristics of highly sensitive children is a strong awareness of hypocrisy and morality. Approach discipline carefully “because they’re already going to criticize themselves if they’ve done something wrong,” says Dr. Jagiellowicz. Communicate limits clearly and without judgment; and make sure consequences are fair and connected to family rules and norms. Above all, don’t make it personal: “You can’t have iPad time because you haven’t finished your homework yet” is preferable to “This iPad’s off-limits because you’re a bad kid.”
As parents, our first instinct when our children are struggling with their emotions is to jump in and rescue them from those yucky feelings. But Dr. Jagiellowicz says that would do them a great disservice. Instead, support them, be mindful of their emotional needs and give them the skills to manage life’s inevitable challenges.