Supporting Parents of Highly Sensitive Children

One of the greatest challenges of parenting a Highly Sensitive child is to soothe our own angst and worry. A concern that is often voiced by these parents is not feeling confident in dealing with the daily challenges that confront kids who seem to feel everything in ‘overdrive.’

Supporting these families begins with a two-step approach.  The first is to help parents become more conscious of their own emotions so they can approach solutions from a place of calm and trust. An adult who is dis-regulated cannot authentically help a child in need. Yikes! This means we actually have to work on ourselves. Most parents (and teachers) would rather give advice than look at our own ‘stuff!’ 

The second is for adults to gain the skills that actually help a highly sensitive child feel safe in a world that often becomes ‘too much.’ While building this competency is not hard, it takes willingness and patience because it is a process— like learning how to become a fine artist. It can be tricky and messy…  and worth every imperfect moment!

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Sensory Processing Sensitivity, Sensory Processing Disorder or Both?

Picture it. A four-year-old is all dolled up in a in a lacy dress and matching gloves, holding a basket of flowers and ready to sprinkle petals as her aunt prepares to walk down the aisle. As her turn approaches the little one begins to whine, “I don’t want to go.”  She pulls off the itchy gloves and the tears start to flow… A tantrum is underway as she shrieks, “Take the dress off me! It’s too scratchy!!! No I don’t want to throw the flowers and you can’t make me!!!”


Let’s break down some of the reasons this child may be having such a BIG reaction… she may have Sensory Processing Sensitivity (SPS) or Sensory Processing Disorder (SPD). There is the possibility that she has both SPS and SPD (SPSD.) In addition, she may be acting in response to family stress, the lack of preparation for the event or a sudden overwhelming anxiety caused by a combination of the above factors.  

Highly Sensitive Children (HSC) and Highly Sensitive People (HSP) ‘have’ Sensory Processing Sensitivity. This term speaks to a trait that 15-20% of the population experience, whereby a heavy volume of sensory information bombards their nervous system, often causing over-stimulation. When this happens to a child they can become dis-regulated and need help processing their thoughts, emotions and behavior.

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Distractibility- Another Perspective

I had one of my ‘aha’ moments in physical therapy a few days ago and I’ve been thinking about this whole notion of ‘distractibility’ ever since.

I’m a pretty intelligent adult, with many academic credentials and yet I watched myself acting like a grade-school student who really didn’t care much for the lesson my teacher was so kindly trying to explain to me.

You see, my therapist has been working on an issue I’ve been having with my shoulder and she was concerned with the lack of progress. After my treatment, she invited me into another room and took out a moveable model of the shoulder. She started to patiently explain all the detailed parts, how the muscles, tissues, etc. fit together and how they affect each other. I realized that my mind wasn’t keeping up with the scientific explanation because I started to think about what I was going to eat for lunch. I knew her lips were moving but my mind was elsewhere.

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The Pause to Check System

The idea for this blog article came to me at a recent holiday party when I over-heard a conversation between two moms discussing how they were going to handle going to Christmas at their in-law’s houses. One mom lamented that the house is traditionally filled with bowls of sweets and decorated with breakables and treasured holiday-themed trinkets that her young son can’t help but touch. “He loves his grandparents,” she sighed, “but he doesn’t want to go to their house because he is scolded so frequently.”

This interchange brought up a memory of when my nephew was about a year old and he came to my house for the first time. Since I work with young children I knew that it was up to me to create an environment where he would feel happy, safe to explore and want to come back.

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The Gift of Trust

The holiday season is in full swing and this is the time of the year I find myself cringing as I observe parents in ‘high gear’ as they unintentionally put stress on themselves and the rest of their family. While the authentic desire to create some kind of magical holiday celebration is usually the impetus to the endless chaos of shopping, baking, cooking and decorating, many families wind up enduring stressed out days leading up to the big event.

Just yesterday, as I walked out of the supermarket to my car I watched a parent screaming at her two children to stop whining and asking for things. The three of them looked miserable as they passed the bell ringer who was cheerfully wishing them a “Merry Christmas!”

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Tantrums vs. Meltdowns

It is important as educators to use appropriate terminology whenever possible. One point of confusion for some early childhood specialists revolves around tantrums and meltdowns. While these words are often used interchangeably they actually have very different meanings.

Tantrums are either a manifestation of learned behavior or a result of built up stress. Sensory meltdowns happen when sensory input triggers an uncontrollable neurological response. Tantrums can be “stopped” even at the peak of breakdown because they are not being driven by neurology, whereas sensory meltdowns must run their course and can last several hours.

 

MANIPULATIVE TANTRUMS

Manipulative tantrums usually start off innocently and without much deliberate thought. Adults sometimes —unconsciously— contribute to this type of tantrum by being inconsistent with rules, routines or boundaries.

Children learn to push back when our “No” is inconsistent. If whining, persisting or demanding is eventually given in to it reinforces ‘manipulative’ behavior. Manipulative tantrums tend to happen with children who learn to have their wants and needs met through unhealthy behavior.

Having established rules and age appropriate consistent routines in place can prevent manipulative tantrums. It is imperative that the expectations placed on children are within their developmental ability, otherwise frustration will ensue.

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