Parenting my older son has always been a bit of a wild ride. He came out of the womb with the most serious expression on his face and was moody right off the bat. Either he was energetically smiling and cooing, or he seemed totally and utterly pissed. He perfected the “resting bitch face” when he was just a few days old.
In his early years, I chalked it up to him having a strong-willed streak and just generally being an intense soul. But as the years have gone by and I’ve gotten to know him in deeper ways, I see that above all else he’s a highly sensitive child. He is passionate and loves with all his heart, but he’s also extremely vulnerable. He’s easily upset and can’t just let things roll off his back like some people can.
I think that’s why some highly sensitive children come across as defiant or strong-willed. Because they feel things deeply, they have a hard time letting things go. They will put up a fight often because they feel so panicked about what is going wrong that they need to defend themselves from further upset.
All of us who have highly sensitive children know that it is really tough to discipline them. It isn’t always that they defy us or break rules more than other children, but it’s harder to set limits without pushing their buttons — without setting off the intense rollercoaster of their emotions.
I will tell you that above all else, I’ve learned you need to get really creative with discipline when you have a highly sensitive child. There isn’t going to be one right way to discipline that will work for your child. And even when you do find a way that does work, it might fail the next time, and you’ll need to start over.
Here are a few more things I’ve learned over the years when it comes to disciplining highly sensitive kids:
1. Avoid the blame game.
When a child does something wrong, it’s a natural instinct to say, “Look what you did!” or “Why would you do such a thing?” You’ve got to hold your tongue a bit with a highly sensitive kid. When you say stuff like that, they will hear, “I’m the worst kid in the world.”
Try something more like, “Let’s see if we can find a better way.” I know it sounds like hippie-dippie mumbo jumbo, but making little changes like that can help sensitive kids a lot in the end.
2. Check your tone.
Listen, we all yell. We all lose our shit from time to time. It’s part of being a parent and being human. But our most sensitive kids feel our anger in their bones. They can’t just laugh it off. And when they’re already in hot water, adding your own heat just makes everything worse for everyone. So practice deep breathing, lock yourself in the bathroom and scream, do what you need to do. But try to tone it down for your sensitive kid.
3. Don’t isolate your child.
Sometimes you need to remove your kid from a dangerous situation, or you need to set a limit when the rules are being broken. But using time-outs doesn’t always work for sensitive kids. They are apt to feel hurt or abandoned. You can remove your kid from the situation, but not necessarily isolate them from you — you, who also happens to be the most trusted person they know. I often sit with my son in the room I’ve moved him to. I just sit and wait until he’s calmed down enough to be ready to return to his activities. I don’t have to say anything or give in to his demands — just be present with him as he works it out.
4. Offer choices and alternatives whenever possible.
Sensitive kids don’t like to feel like it’s your way or the highway. They want to have a stake in things too. Sitting down with them (when everyone’s in a decent mood) and allowing them to help make the house rules can feel empowering. Obviously you get the final say, but even just offering to consider their point of view can make them feel less at odds with you.
5. Make sure to connect after disciplining them.
In the heat of the moment, you’re not going to necessarily be able to get all lovey-dovey with your kid. But you can make a point of it later. Talk about what happened. Normalize it for them: “All kids have lousy days sometimes.” Give them oodles of smooches and reassurances that they’re awesome and everything is going to be fine.
6. Remember that your kid is different than other kids. Don’t compare.
It’s so easy to see how other kids are disciplined and say, “Why can’t it be that easy for my kid?” First, anytime you see another family, you are only seeing a few minutes of their lives, so you have no idea how things really go down for them. Also, highly sensitive kids often require different discipline methods. That’s just how they are.
Consequences and boundaries are absolutely necessary sometimes for all kids. But it’s all in how you do it, especially when you are dealing with a particularly sensitive kid. As totally infuriating as it can be to parent and discipline kids sometimes, remember that in the end, what you are doing is teaching them.
You’re teaching them what is and isn’t acceptable behavior. You’re teaching them to be kind, upstanding citizens. And you’re teaching them how to regulate their emotions. Highly sensitive kids need you to do those things more slowly, gently, thoughtfully, and probably differently than other kids you might know.
And that’s okay.
You might not see it now, and when you’re in the trenches, it’s hard to feel like you’re doing a single thing right. But finding ways to be sensitive to your sensitive kid’s needs will allow them to flourish, blossom, and shine — to truly be the amazing kids that they are.