Every kid has his or her own unique temperament. Temperament refers to differences in behavioral style based on innate and learned traits. For example, some kids are introverted, others are extroverted, some run around constantly, some like to sit and read. This sensitivity revolves on an axis.
Like all of our characteristics, there are levels of sensitivity, ranging from low sensitivity to high, and we all fall somewhere along this spectrum.
It’s estimated that about 20% of the population has a highly sensitive temperament. It’s important to note that this is a completely normal type of temperament.
High sensitivity is usually associated with four main characteristics:
- Greater depth of processing information from the environment
- Predisposition to over-stimulation, being flooded with emotions
- Strong emotional responsiveness
- High empathy along with a heightened ability to sense subtleties in the environment
People who are very sensitive can be compared to smoke detectors. They can detect subtle changes in the environment, changes that most people miss. In children, high sensitivity is often expressed with intensely strong emotional responses and reactions.
When very sensitive kids are angry, they’re very angry, when they’re happy, they’re very happy. They’re considerate, they think and care deeply. Their high sensitivity is manifested by how quickly they feel "flooded" by emotions in a crowded or noisy environment, and they tend to be empathetic, clever, intuitive, creative, careful and conscientious. Their brains thoroughly process stimuli from the environment.
For better or for worse, highly sensitive kids are intuitive in responding to the environment around them.
So how can you provide a supportive and nurturing environment for your sensitive children?
1. Be aware of their feelings so you can provide children with emotional support. For this to happen one has to slow down the pace and increase presence and readiness for verbal and non-verbal communication. Aside from what they say, pay attention to what their facial expression conveys, what their body position signals, what their tone of voice indicates. When you’re more aware of your child's feelings you’ll be in a better position to help.
2. Recognize emotion as an opportunity for closeness. Often kids' negative emotions challenge parents trying to "put out fires" and solve the problems by removing any obstacle or negative emotion from the kid's small, vulnerable heart. But we can't turn off their feelings. Instead, tell yourself that when kids are having a hard time, you can be there for them.
3. Listen empathetically. When kids share thoughts and feelings you’ll learn to give the appropriate attention, show that you’re listening, that it’s important to you, and that you want to understand. Do this by mirroring what they say, something like "Okay, this sounds like you're angry because I spent more time with your brother yesterday."
4. Help them verbally express feelings. Kids learn to express their emotions by talking to others. Kids learn about feelings from the outside in. It’s important to help them name what they’re feeling so we can help them understand their inner experience.
5. Set boundaries when needed while helping solve problems. Obviously part of our parenting role is to set boundaries, but this task must come after we have done everything else!
For example, if he pushed his sister, listen to his feelings, validate, name the emotion and limit behavior. Something like: "You're really mad at your sister because she knocked down your Lego castle. You spent a lot of time building it, I understand and I'm sorry it happened. You can’t push your sister when you're angry, but let's think of other things you can do when you’re upset ... "
In conclusion, sometimes when kids are upset about something, all they need is for us to just be there with them and for them. We’ll hear them, understand and feel empathy for what they experienced.
Written by Dana Amar - Certified Behavior Analyst, MA in Special Education, lecturer and expert in Family Development.
This article was written in partnership with the JAMA parenting app.