Do you have an “over-the-top” challenging child? If so, it probably means that your child has high sensory or emotional sensitivity, or both! And along with sensitivity is almost always higher anxiety and intensity.
It’s important to distinguish and understand as best you can the differences between these two types of sensitivity and how they may be an issue for your child.
Signs of a highly sensitive child
You might have a child with significant sensory challenges. These kids are easily overwhelmed by intense sensations from their body or their surroundings.
The specific behaviours that would clue a parent in to these sensory challenges are numerous and varied. These children are often louder, more intense, sensitive, active, emotional, and/or strong-willed than their peers. (If you don’t have one of these kiddos in your family, you probably have a close friend or relative who does!)
You may relate to statements like:
- “Dressing is an ordeal for my daughter. No tags, and sometimes no socks, because the seams drive her crazy. And then there’s toothbrushing and nail trimming!”
- “My teen has never been a touchy child. It used to be tough to get him to slow down for a hug, but now he even pulls away and acts like I’ve violated his space.”
- “Loud, unexpected sounds can just set her off. Fire drills are traumatic, just like blenders and vacuum cleaners when she was young.”
- “My child is such a picky eater. I feel like I’m always special order cooking from the ‘brown and white’ food group.”
- “My son just can’t sit still – he’s always squirming and wiggling. It’s almost impossible to get him to slow down, look me in the eye, and really listen.”
- “My child is easily overstimulated. Large groups of kids, crowded places or busy stores are usually a prescription for trouble.”
If you are resonating with these descriptions, we have a more in-depth questionnaire for you. In our chart, the two side columns list characteristics that cause stress for kids, and the centre column describes a child with a well functioning sensory system.
Understanding what this means about your child is not based on a certain number of items checked in the side columns, but rather the degree that those issues interfere with daily life. There might be a few things that are really stressful and limiting for your child. For example your child can’t use a public restroom because the smells and flushing sound are so aversive.
There is significant overlap between sensory processing challenges (including sensory sensitivity) and diagnoses like autism and ADHD, but sensory processing challenges can be a stand alone issue as well. Depending on how it is measured, the prevalence among kids with sensory sensitivities can be anywhere from five, 16 or even 21 percent.
The latter study also called for increased services for those kids with both sensory sensitivities and “an externalizing disorder” (“problematic behaviour related to poor impulse-control”), because of “the extremely high level of family impairment reported.”
The good news is “warm and supportive parenting practices seem to suppress genetic risk for externalizing.” In other words, researchers have measured that effective parent training can be significantly helpful for kids who struggle with these issues, and their families.
Review our Sensory Processing Questionnaire to have a better understanding of whether your child is sensory craving or sensory avoiding.
Signs of a child with a sensitive temperament
A close cousin of a sensitive sensory system, is a sensitive temperament. A child that has a sensitive temperament usually has some sensory sensitivities as well, but the core characteristic is emotional sensitivity and depth – the child that is observant and perceptive about other’s emotions and asks the kind of insightful, deep questions that make you want to consult a psychologist or theologian! They are often very perceptive in social situations and tune into body language and facial expressions.
In general, children with sensitive temperaments are more prone to anxiety and perfectionism, and many are gifted kids. Elaine Aron, a lead researcher in sensitive temperaments, suggests that around 15 percent of all children are considered “highly sensitive.” Click here for a questionnaire she has developed about highly sensitive children.
This issue hits close to home for us: our two youngest kids had strong sensory sensitivities. Anxious outbursts could happen with the feeling of clothing changes, tooth-brushing, or cold toilet seats, and the sound of a blender, a vacuum cleaner, thunderstorms, or fire alarms inevitably led to intense reactions.
One of those two, our youngest son, was also labeled by his pediatrician as a “poster child for ADHD,” and our daughter had a highly sensitive temperament in addition to her sensory sensitivities.
What we didn’t realize was that although our oldest child didn’t have significant sensory issues (a few emerged as a young teen), he had an extremely sensitive temperament. As an adult he is deeply concerned and grieved about the need for justice and compassion for everyone. But in the early years, that sensitivity and perfectionism mostly looked like being strong-willed, a deep thinker, and very determined about fairness.
We learned early on that disciplining our highly sensitive children for these reactions was like punishing them for getting a cold.
Needless to say we had an “exciting” household! The various sensitivities and intensity compelled us (particularly me!) to learn what we could to help our kids, and in turn led to my career shift to pediatrics. My years of working with kids with sensory and behavioural challenges, and my husband Jim’s work with at-risk teens taught us a lot about the needs of sensitive, intense kids.
Disciplining a sensitive child usually doesn’t help. What does?
The journey to help your child starts by setting aside judgments or unhelpful, negative thoughts (like “Here we go again,” or “I’m so sick of this!”) and respond with God’s grace, realizing that your child’s challenging behaviour is about much more than simple defiance, “bad attitude” or disobedience.
If you have a sensitive, intense child, probably their physical sensations and/or their deep, strong emotions and thoughts are overwhelming, stressful and even anxiety-producing for them! And their behaviour often reflects this. (You’re probably not at your best either when you are overwhelmed, stressed and anxious.)
When life overwhelms sensitive kids they can be prone to what seem to be big overreactions or “misbehaviour,” that are really about off-loading stress. Although this can be so tough on a family, there is help and hope for you and your child.
Knowing that your child may be more sensitive than most can empower you to help them grow in the wonderful purposes that God has determined for all that sensitivity and intensity. (I’ve often wondered what it would have been like to raise strong-willed Apostle Paul, or impulsive, sassy Peter as kids!)
One of my first coaching clients had a really sensory sensitive 5-year-old. She’d even have screaming outbursts about how her carseat felt unless her mom put a soft towel in it. Lily was also about as strong-willed as a kiddo could get. Her dad told me he calmed himself when dealing with her with the thought, “God made you!”
Tim and Jody worked hard to parent according to the Connected Families Framework, giving Lily lots of thoughtful choices to meet her valid need for healthy autonomy.
I got invited to Lily’s graduation party. (They joked we had saved Lily’s life!) All that intensity had been used to joyfully share the gospel with her peers at her very large high school, start a bible study, be elected Homecoming Queen, and give a crazy-amazing commencement speech as valedictorian!
Now — can you take it to the bank that if you “do the right stuff” your child will turn out just like that? Of course not! But we want to encourage you — don’t paint a dismal picture for your child’s future because they are struggling now. There are many strategies for helping highly sensitive children thrive!
But everyone blames me for my child’s difficult behaviours
Unfortunately, parents are often blamed for their child’s difficult behaviours. Because of that, parents tend to focus on getting rid of the behaviours instead of understanding the behaviours. When this happens, kids feel misunderstood and opposed, they usually resist parents’ efforts, and the situation escalates.
1. Try to understand, “What’s going on in my child?”
The first practical step if you’re the parent of such a child is to spend a little more time understanding “What’s going on in my child?” instead of “What should I do?” By learning more about your child’s nervous system, you can get strong clues about what might be causing the specific challenges.
So consider — “What’s it like to be my child?”
- What was happening just before my child really started to struggle?
- What was the environment like – what sensory system might have been overwhelmed? Was it chaotic and visually overwhelming, loud, confusing, too many people?
- Given my child’s wiring, was their skill level a mismatch for the demands of the situation? (for example, limited movement for too long a time)
- How might fatigue or hunger have been an issue? (for example, after school can be a predictably difficult time for a sensitive child.)
- Did my child have reason to be anxious? (Anger feels safer than anxiety, so it can be a quick default reaction for an anxious child.)
- Did my child experience failure or rejection? Is it likely they were discouraged, ashamed or had hurt feelings?
- Simply ask your child – “Is there something that made this situation harder for you than usual?”
One mom’s “Aha!” moment
I coached a mom whose desperation about “What should I do?” led her to seek help through coaching. First, we addressed the more helpful question, “What’s going on?”. As the mom began to understand her daughter’s nervous system, and the constant state of “fight-or-flight” her daughter lived in, the mom had an “Aha!” moment.
“Could it be that my daughter’s constipation and crabbiness is affected by her sensory challenges?” I explained that stress can often throw off digestive function. The mom completed her flash of insight: “And the way we’ve been handling it has only added to her stress!”
This understanding brought subtle, but powerful, changes in how the mom responded to the situation. Her daughter’s condition improved dramatically.
2. Show empathy to your highly sensitive child
When you better understand what’s going on in your child’s nervous system, you can better empathize. When you empathize, you are calmer, your child becomes calmer, and you can more creatively and positively develop solutions.
So practically, what does this look like?
Objectively describe what your child might have been experiencing:
- “It was really noisy in here, and then someone bumped into you!”
- “You were working so hard on that picture, and it didn’t turn out like you expected.”
- “When we didn’t have your favourite cereal, that was an unhappy surprise.”
You might even want to empathize with their experience:
- “The noise was stressful for me, too.”
- “I get frustrated when things don’t go like I expect.”
- “I don’t love that cereal, but I’m sad when I’m out of coffee in the morning!”
You can also validate what’s important to your child:
- “You have more fun when you play with just a couple of kids.”
- “You really like to do a good job on your pictures.”
- “You love that Cinnamon Toast Crunch! It’s your favourite!”
When we respond to our kids with empathy, it represents the empathy of Jesus:
“For we do not have a high priest who is unable to empathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who has been tempted in every way, just as we are — yet he did not sin. Let us then approach God’s throne of grace with confidence, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help us in our time of need” (Hebrews 4:15, 16).
Jesus gets us. And because of this He can help us. And when you empathize with your sensitive, intense child, they know: You get them, and you can help them.
Once you are sure your child feels understood and has started to calm, you can gradually transition to solution questions, like:
- “Do you need a hug?”
- “What does your body need right now?”
- “What shall we do to solve this problem?”
More specifically, this way of responding communicates the four key messages of the Connected Families Framework: You are safe with me, and loved no matter what; and you are capable of solving problems with others, and making right anything you’ve made wrong.
These messages, along with the many sensory-based resources we have for sensitive kids, can get your child started on using that awesome sensitivity and intensity for God’s wonderful purposes to be a blessing in this world! Psalm 139 only confirms this:
I praise you because I am fearfully and wonderfully made;
your works are wonderful,
I know that full well..
If you are wondering if these sensory processing issues are contributing to your child’s challenges, ask your pediatrician about a referral to a pediatric occupational therapist.