Periodically, we have a family movie night with our 6 year old son after our toddler goes to bed. Movie night is usually marked by popcorn, juice boxes, endless questions about plot—and, our son bursting into tears and burrowing into the pillows during a dramatic point in the film. It’s not a temper tantrum, or a fit over the popcorn disappearing. Rather, his crying is usually an empathetic response to a character’s anguish in the movie.
It’s pretty understandable at the beginning of Star Trek, where we witness a death. But the original Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory? Is it that heartbreaking when Charlie is scolded by Willy Wonka, or when Charlie and his grandfather break the rules? Apparently, it is. Even preschool fare like Caillou, or Little Bear, might trigger a bout of crying.
This reaction isn’t limited to movies, either. Sad books also affect him. In one book, a dog’s human friend leaves the dog behind. I had to read the rest of the book aloud while my son sobbed into the pillows. A Magic Treehouse book about the Titanic bothered him for days.
Although his empathy and bond with characters is sweet, it can be crippling as well. Sometimes, it’s almost as if he feels too much or too intensely. After a little bit of reading, I found that this characteristic is common in highly sensitive children.
What does it mean for a child to be sensitive?
In general, kids are more sensitive than adults. Missing dessert or losing a favorite object is a bigger deal for them. But even among children, there are those who are especially sensitive. These children tend to exhibit some (or perhaps even all) of the following behaviors:
- Sensory sensitivity (to texture, taste, smell, etc)
- A high degree of empathy or recognition of how others feel
- A fear or discomfort of new situations
- Difficulty in transitions
- Unusual perceptive skills (for “reading” people or animals)
- Intense emotions
- Taking many factors into account before making decisions or acting
According to Elaine Aron, who wrote the book The Highly Sensitive Person, this kind of sensitivity describes about 15-20% of the population.
The Positives of a Sensitive Child
Although the strong emotions of sensitive children can be hard to deal with at times, this sensitivity also can produce many wonderful assets, such as:
Some research even suggests that sensitive children from a positive home environment actually respond better to stress than their peers. So, rather than thinking of sensitivity as a liability, instead think about all the ways it can help your child.
Parenting a Sensitive Child
My son is smart, articulate, creative, and friendly. I’ve never heard him say a bad word about anyone, and he generally comes home from school happy and delighted with his day. But sometimes, his sensitivity emerges in unexpected ways. During the first week of school, I got a call from the teacher that after being reprimanded for something minor, my kindergartener disrupted the class and hid under the table. Thankfully, that was a one-time event, but in retrospect, it seems connected to the huge change in his life that school represented.
Later in the year, he complained occasionally about never getting to be “the boss” with his friends, and once or twice said that he didn’t really like himself all that well. It all broke my heart, of course, and I wondered how in the world to parent my gentle guy. Luckily, there is a lot of advice for parenting sensitive kids:
- Be cognizant of self-esteem. As I mentioned, my son is very critical of himself. I spend a lot of time pointing out the positives and reminding him to go easy on himself.
- Use clear expectations. Most sensitive children respond well to talking about expectations. They tend to follow rules when they know what is expected of them. They do not respond well to shaming tactics or harsh discipline.
- Although it may feel like the right thing to do, don’t rescue your child. Support him, encourage him, and give him the tools to succeed…but swooping him and rescuing him constantly will be counterproductive.
- Give your child language with which she can discuss his feelings. This can help her identify her emotions and thus cope with them more successfully.
My son’s sensitivity is trying at times, but usually, it’s a wonderful trait. He’s an amazing and patient older brother (even when his sister breaks his toys and swats at him) and a caring person. He’s a day-brightener with a rich imagination, and although I worry about him at times, I also know that his sensitivity is also one of his greatest assets.
For Further Reading: