Discipline your highly sensitive child without hurting his or her heart – with these positive parenting solutions. These tips are based on expert research and the product of my own experience.
I found my three children playing with my least favorite substance on this entire planet. Yes, slime.
Though I appreciate that they were getting along, I did NOT appreciate that their bonding activity of choice was playing with slime on our new living room rug. I was especially perturbed when I saw that their blue slime was smashed deeply into my white rug (curse me for getting a white rug with three kids).
Before I could stop myself, my assertive (aka scary) mom voice came out.
In typical oldest kid fashion, my 9 year old son explained what happened. My youngest son quietly tip-toed away.
My spirited 8 year old daughter, on the other hand, erupted into an ugly cry. Tears flooding out of her eyes.
I started to make constant exceptions for her to avoid watching my child struggle with big emotions. However, I knew in the long run that I wasn’t doing the right thing or giving my daughter a better life by sheltering her from negative emotions.
Disciplining sensitive children can feel almost wrong; however, it is important we still teach them right from wrong.
Identifying Sensitive Kids
When it comes to disciplining my daughter, I felt conflicted. And while the experts at the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) have some great advice on discipline, I struggle to find the answer I needed.
Rest assured, if you think you are raising a sensitive person. It is a actually a common personality trait.
Yes, personality trait; not disorder. High sensitivity (also called Sensory-Processing Sensitivity or sensory processing disorder) is a temperament type – one that’s shared by 20% of the population.
Sensitive adults who carry this trait of high sensitivity may even be able to recall experiencing emotional reactivity at a young age.
In the book The Highly Sensitive Child, Clinical Psychologist Dr. Elaine Aron explains several traits that are shared by highly sensitive kids. These traits include:
- Intense emotional reactions- ex: cries easily and is prone to social anxiety
- Deeply processes experiences- thinks about things that happened for a long time aka deep thinkers
- Extra empathetic– shows great concern for others, often compassionate kids
- Easily overstimulated– needs down-time, nervous system revs up quickly at a loud birthday party or even the sound of a flushing toilet
- Sensitive to subtle changes- sensitive to “itchy” clothes, loud noises, and bright lights, picky about food
I can’t deny that my daughter fits that description to a T. She is sensitive to heat and itchy clothes; however, she is one of the most caring children I know.
To the outside world she is holding it together, but inside she is often battling sensory overload and strong emotions.
Learn 3 unexpected red flags of sensory disorders.
Taking a Cautious Approach to Discipline
Disciplining sensitive kids can feel like a huge challenge. In fact, many parents avoid it all together to steer clear of the pain and drama.
However, great things come with the hard work that is required for raising an emotional child.
Parents of sensitive children learn early on that harsh discipline or punishment would only aggravates the situation (and cause more parenting problems).
Related: How to Encourage Shy Kids to Try New Situations
The good news is that there are different ways to talk to sensitive people about big feelings, and specific parenting strategies to help.
If you follow these 5 simple strategies in gentle discipline, you can find a solid middle ground that takes into account your child’s emotions.
Check out these 8 Must-See Gifts and Products for Sensitive Kids
1. Accept the Sensitivity
Understand that your child’s sensitivity is not a negative trait. It is a very positive feature and a good thing. In fact, they pick up on social queues, are quick to show empathy, and have big hearts.
When your sensitive child is upset, they need to feel accepted and understood. The last thing they need is for you to walk away upset.
Your child may freak out if the food you are serving them has strong smells.
You may not understand your child’s needs, and their feelings might not match up with your own feelings, but that is okay.
Your sensitive child needs you to listen and be their safe space. They need you to:
- Accept them: Tell them it is perfectly fine to feel the way they feel
- Relate to them: Share a personal experience where something made you feel uncomfortable
- Comfort them: Offer some quiet activities, like reading or one of these calming exercises
Acknowledge your child’s emotions by saying to your child, “I see that you are upset”.
Read: When I Learned to Trust my First Instinct with my Kid’s Emotional Needs
2. Set Boundaries
Sensitive children need clear boundaries and set limits. Such as, “we clean up our toys before we get out new toys.” Or, “when we are upset we do not hit.”
Depending on your child’s age, the best way to do this is to pick at least 5 simple boundaries, and be very clear. In our home, our boundaries include:
- Clean up your toys when you are done playing
- When it is bedtime, you do not complain
- Do not lay your hands on anyone in a negative way (hitting)
- After you eat, bring your dishes to the sink
- No slime on the carpet (I had to slide that one in)
Your child needs you to stick to your rules and be very direct with consequences. It’s all about creating a predictable environment and regulating your child’s emotions.
3. Use Logical Consequences
Many parents raising a sensitive son or daughter will admit that they have a hard time disciplining such children.
The boundaries above only work if you have natural consequences to go along with them. When your child understands and expects certain consequences, it provides a solid foundation for them.
Have you ever found yourself saying “Do this or ELSE!”? That is the opposite of a logical consequence. Threats and bribes are not effective discipline techniques for kids, and strict discipline does not jive well with your kid’s sensitive nature.
An example of a logical consequence would be “If you don’t clean up your toys, you will not be able to take out any other toys today.”
4. Set the Tone
Furthermore, when your child is upset, do not mirror their frustrations. Your sensitive child needs you to remain even and set the tone.
Getting upset will only add to the sensory input and frustrate your child.
Learn How to Coach Your Kid Through Emotions here.
It is hard to stay calm and composed all the time; however, it is important to display the same attitude that you want your child to express.
If you have to, go in the other room and take a deep breath before you face your child.
5. Praise Their Efforts
Reacting to even the slightest changes is a common trait of sensitivity.
Discipline doesn’t have to be all tears and consequences. It is important to praise your child for their positive steps in the right direction.
Sensitive kids need plenty of encouragement. Even if your child is not successful, praise their efforts.
However, be sure your child is earning the praise you give. Parents who praise children no matter what they do often lead to kids with lower self-esteem than those who earn it.
Related: Improve Your Kid’s Emotional Intelligence with These 5 Tips
Final Thoughts on Disciplining Sensitive Kids
Knowing how to discipline your sensitive child can feel like a huge challenge. Following this simple strategy will help you provide a safe ground for teaching your kid right from wrong.
When you approach sensitive individuals with an emotional support plan and an open mind, you will be well-equipped to handle these unique challenges.
This method is even mom-approved for carpet slime situations.
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