Up until recently, I didn't realise that our eldest daughter Ava was extremely sensitive. I suppose I didn't put two and two together. First of all, let me get one thing straight: being sensitive is not a bad thing. In fact, it can be a really powerful character trait if you learn how to channel it. It can, of course, also bring with it many challenges.
One of the people who has helped me to understand our child a little more, and see that she is a more sensitive child, is Joanna Fortune. She is a Clinical Psychotherapist and Attachment specialist, specialising in child and adolescent Psychotherapy.
I had an online consultation with her a few months back, and she was able to explain to me a lot of the behaviours that we’ve seen from Ava over the last few years. Suddenly it all made sense to me. The moodiness, the extreme emotions, the need for structure and control, the need for personal perfection.
On the flip side, there's the extreme empathy and kindness she shows those around her. To sum it up: she feels everything very deeply.
We realised that we were going to have to parent her more mindfully. We needed to take into account that she is going to navigate life differently to those who are not highly sensitive.
Here are a few really helpful strategies we have implemented to help our sensitive child thrive in the world.
Having quiet time is not a preference for people who are highly sensitive. It’s essential. We have to make sure that our child gets enough downtime, especially when she has had busy or tiring days.
We try to respect when she wants to stay home and play quietly with her dolls instead of going for a walk. This of course is not always practical, but we want her to know that we recognise when she is feeling overwhelmed and want to support her in that.
"Sit In" Not "Time Out"
Every now and then, Ava gets so overwhelmed that we can see a meltdown is coming. This should not be mistaken for a tantrum. It is a meltdown. Once it happens, she cannot control it. So the best way we have found to deal with it is to bring her into a quiet space where she can’t hurt herself (or anyone else) and let her roar and shout and get it all out.
We don’t leave her alone, one of us will sit there and just wait until we can hear it lessening. Once she calms down to the point of being able to hear what we are saying, that’s when we will jump in and try to distract her by asking her things that she can see, hear, touch and smell. Usually she will be ready for a big hug and sometimes she will talk about why she had a meltdown. Other times she won’t know, but she can always describe a funny feeling in her body.
Every night before bed Ava and I tell each other what our favourite part of the day was and also what was the thing we would maybe like to change (don’t say "worst"). This has become such an integral part of the day, and now she won’t go to bed without doing it.
It allows her to talk about her day, to process it, and maybe even to share some of the thoughts that have been bothering her. It’s made a huge difference in helping her settle down for bedtime too.
I’d highly recommend Joanna Fortune's book 15 Minute Parenting for tips and advice on parenting your sensitive child. What are the ways you help your child?