I have always known that my son was different than most kids I know. Not just because he was mine, but because he always did things his way and on his terms. He goes from one extreme to the next in a matter of seconds, and discipline has always been a challenge. Not simply because I hate having to be the bad guy, but because nothing ever seemed to work. No amount of research (or professional help) seemed to give me the tools I needed to parent him and deal with his emotions.
Only recently have I figured out the root of his emotional highs and lows — he’s a highly sensitive child. And coming to this realization called for a complete overhaul in the way I approach disciplining him.
I admit, I’ve never been much good at being a disciplinarian. I tend to annoy easily, especially when misbehavior is happening. While I’m working on being more mindful when I discipline my son, sometimes my patience runs thin. Extremely thin. That’s only exacerbated by my son’s highly sensitive nature, because he is so attuned to the change in my demeanor.
Highly sensitive children feel things at a much deeper level than most children. Even a perceived slight can send them into an emotional tailspin. This means that criticism cuts them more deeply than it would another child. And since the root of discipline is a criticism of their behavioral choice, discipline must be handled with care.
So, with that mind, I’ve had to adjust my approach to discipline. Conventional ways to handling incorrect behavior just won’t work with a highly sensitive child, even though we wish it would. As parents of highly sensitive children, we need to find avoid “traditional” punishment while also not coddling them — which is no easy feat. Since I’m just coming to these realizations, learning how to adjust my discipline tactics has been eye opening, to say the last. But I’ve found a few simple changes in my approach to discipline are beneficial not only to my son, but also to my relationship with him.
Don’t Isolate Them
If they are in a dangerous situation, of course, you need to remove them from it. But it might be helpful to rethink time-outs. Highly sensitive children need the reassurance that they still have a strong connection with you. So, as a result, a time-out where you are removing them from your orbit may not be the most effective way of curbing their behavior. I admit, I used to rely on time-outs, until I realized that they only make it harder for my son to calm down, so we ditched them.
Using your words is supremely important. For you and your child. Talk about their behavior, your expectations for them, and the rules and allow them to have a voice. Acknowledge their feelings, and see where you can come to a compromise. If you’re flexible, they’ll be more willing to adapt.
Poor behavior must have consequences, but there are ways to go about it. Tone is a good way to get your point across. Don’t yell (I know, sometimes it’s hard not to.) Highly sensitive children often shut down even more when they’re being yelled at. But speaking to them in a firm, serious tone will let them know that you mean business.
Limit Your Use of Consequences
For us, when my son isn’t listening (usually about cleaning up his toys), I tell him that if he doesn’t, he will not be permitted to play with that toy for the next hour, or I will take away watching television until he does what it asked of him. If he knows that he will lose a privilege, he is more inclined to correct his behavior. If he doesn’t, then I always follow through with my threat. He needs to know that I’m serious, and consistency is key.
Don’t Shame Them
Shaming is such an easy route to take with comments like “why would you do that?” or “what’s wrong with you?” I admit, there are times where I would use this kind of language with my son. I’m not proud of it, but I’m human. But what we might think of as a harmless, empty statement is anything but to a highly sensitive child. They hear that and think they’re a complete failure. And repeated use of phrases like that can damage your relationship long term and no one wants that.
Remember, in the end, to reconnect with your child and let them know that you love them regardless. They do need validation that you’re not going to be mad at them forever and you love them unconditionally. Reinforce the good behaviors too. A simple “thank you for doing x, y, z” can go a long way. After I’ve done my disciplining, I always give my son a ton of kisses, and tell him that I love him to the moon and back. But I also remind him that sometimes, I have to be the bad guy. Neither of us like it, but since nobody’s perfect, sometimes I have to be a little mean. We usually have a good cuddle too.
It’s so hard to discipline a highly sensitive child. There are times when you want to leave and never come back. It’s okay, you’re allowed to have those feelings. Just as you validate their feelings, validate your own. But remember, our highly sensitive littles ones are learning to navigate their emotions and feelings at the same time we are. We’re all learning the best ways to handle it. So cut yourself — and your child — some slack.