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Raising Sensitive Kids: What Your Kid’s Tantrums Have to Teach You

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“It is because I think so much of warm and sensitive hearts that I would spare them from being wounded.” – Oliver Twist, Charles Dickens

A few blogs ago, I talked about the myth of ‘over-sensitivity’ and how our culture tries to shame people who experience ‘too many’ feelings. This process starts when we are very, very young, and in fact, I would say that children are the ones who are most likely to be accused of being too sensitive. Soon they learn their ‘inner perceivers’ (the spidey-senses that help them read energy and respond to it) are detrimental to their social standing, and so they began to grow a hard shell and cease listening to those inner voices and those finer feelings.

Learning to grow a tough outer shell and refusing to be vulnerable can be a difficult experience for any child, but for the highly sensitive child, it is traumatic. In fact, for the highly sensitive child, the world itself can often seem traumatic. Loud noises. Bright colors. Rough playing at the park. Scratchy fabrics. New foods. New people. Changes to their routine. A sharp tone. A scowl from a classmate.

All of these things which might seem like ‘no big deal’ to other kids or adults can leave the highly-sensitive kid reeling. And, in return, many parents and teachers often respond with frustration. Even the most compassionate parent can sometimes feel themselves wanting to say: Get over it, kid! It’s just a new t-shirt! Or, Why can’t you just have fun like the other kids!?

Inevitably, as parents, we often wonder what did wrong. Why is our child so sensitive? Why can’t he just take life as it comes? What is going to happen to him as an adult if he doesn’t learn to just grow up? Am I coddling him by giving into his fits? Is this because I drank coffee while I was pregnant? Is it due to vaccines?

And so on and so forth. We rip ourselves apart wondering why our kid turned out this way, and how we can help him change so that he can better fit into the world.

But what if we were approaching the ‘problem’ from the exact wrong direction? In other words, maybe instead of changing our child to fit into the world, we should be trying to change the world itself. Maybe instead of shaming highly-sensitive children, we should be celebrating their gifts and asking ourselves: What does my child have to teach me? What can I learn from watching my child interact with the world?

Let me share a story from a friend of mine. Her daughter Teddy is a highly sensitive child. For years, my friend struggled with raising her and meeting her needs.

As she says, “I used to jokingly call Teddy my little terrorist. Since the day she was born, she has not been afraid about making her demands known. She is also very particular about her space. She doesn’t let her family members just come up and grab her and kiss her. It has to be on her terms—she chooses when she wants to be affectionate. She is also very cautious around other kids. She sits and watches at the park for 30 minutes or more before she decides to join in on the fun. She just observes with this very serious look on her face. It can be very frustrating—I want her to play and ‘be normal,’ not sit there by the sidelines.”

However, when I challenged my friend to spend a couple weeks trying to ‘re-program’ the way she thinks about Teddy and her sensitivity, something amazing happened.

“I spent two weeks forcing myself to ask ‘What does Teddy have to teach me? What can I learn from Teddy’s sensitivity?’” she says, “And you know what? Something amazing happened. I learned that I am the one who has growing to do. I asked myself why I need to Teddy to be so immediately affectionate with people. Why do I need to her to put on a happy face and ‘perform’ even if she is scared or not ready? And then I realized it was because of my own insecurity. I always try to people-please and put on a smile even when I am hurting. It is how my own mother raised me—to value appearances over authenticity. And now here I was trying to do the same thing with Teddy…and she is only three years old!”

My friend continued, “I also learned that I need to change the way I think of Teddy’s habit of observing other kids. Again, I realized those were my own hang-ups talking. It sort of embarrassed me that she wouldn’t join in with the other kids right away. It made me think that the other moms might be judging me. I realized this was a very silly thought—again I was thinking about what other people thought of me as a parent instead of listening to my own inner voice. There I was a grown woman, afraid to listen to myself and what I thought was right, and Teddy, a little tiny girl, was completely connected to her own spirit and bravely listening to her own voice—even when I was trying to encourage her to do otherwise! That is pretty amazing. Now I see her as a warrior…she is so brave and not afraid to FEEL. It has been a huge wake-up call for me. When I feel sad or angry now, I try to connect with that feeling and I even ask myself: What would Teddy do? Would she put on a fake smile and act like her friend’s rude words didn’t hurt her? Or would she say ‘Hey, that wasn’t nice!’ It’s been a total life-changer for me.

All this time I wanted Teddy to be ‘normal,’ instead of celebrating her unique, incredible little spirit. Shame on me! We need more Teddys in this world—more highly sensitive kids—not less!”

I agree with my friend. I cringe when I see parents strong-arming their kids into being affectionate when they are not ready. We need to be teaching our kids to listen to their inner voice so that they can value and protect their own bodily autonomy. We also need to teach kids that it is okay to take their time. To observe. To collect information. To listen to their gut before they jump right in. Most importantly, we need to be parenting from the heart, not from a place of ego (i.e. What am I doing wrong? What will people think of me? How can I impress other people? How can my child impress other people?)

When you stop parenting from this place of fear and shame, your entire outlook will change. If your kid throws a tantrum in Target, you won’t immediately switch into feeling like a bad parent or into thinking you have a bad child. You will be able to stay calm, assess the situation accurately (He is upset right now because he is getting tired, and because he is feeling stressed by the loud noises and bright lights), and you will be able to respond effectively (Let’s go home and spend some quiet time.)

One valuable idea might be for you to set up a ‘sensitivity oasis’ in your home. You can buy a playtent or make your own little fort with pillows and a sheet. Make it a place where you and your child can escape from the chaos of the world. Hang up little twinkle lights and maybe have a little music player that will play calming music. Put down soft pillows and a few stuffed animals to snuggle with. Whenever your child is feeling overwhelmed (or you are!), escape to your sensitivity oasis. You can even ask your child to help you give your oasis a special name—like Narnia, or something magical and special that will have meaning for him.

Highly sensitive people are often the people who end up changing the world for the better. They fight for civil rights. They speak for the voiceless. They are artists, poets, and creators of beauty. They challenge us to think…to feel…to connect. To ditch our hard outer shells and be vulnerable. Be brave. Be sensitive.

Here is to the highly sensitive kids and the parents out there who are raising them with fierce support and love. Let’s not change our sensitive kids—let’s change the insensitive world.