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Coping with Sensitive Children Print E-mail
Rob Pluke   
Wednesday, 13 August 2008
Coping with Sensitive ChildrenYou finally arrive at the dam, your car sagging under the combined load of crabby adults, restless children and jutting picnic gear. At the earliest opportunity, doors are flung open and the kids barrel out towards fresh open spaces. All but one: Simon stays slumped down in his seat, his head bowed. “I don’t want play here, mom. Please can we go back home?” His tears, all too familiar, begin to streak down his cheek. Now what?

As scary as it may seem, when it comes to our children’s emotional growth, love is not enough. The secret, according to the experts, lies in how parents interact with their children when emotions run hot. This is perhaps especially important when it comes to emotionally sensitive children.

Sensitivity, but not unusual
It’s estimated that roughly 20% of children are born with an inherent tendency to become highly aroused and emotional, particularly in the face of unfamiliar situations. As infants, they are often easily startled, they react with intensity and they are difficult to settle, once upset. And as these children get older, they may dislike staying away from home, be overly shy, and perhaps lack confidence. Many sensitive teens are at risk of being ‘worry warts’. Some may be rather serious; working too hard and laughing too little. Others are inclined to skirt around life’s challenges and live within quite narrow, predictable channels.

Of course every child is unique, and being born sensitive is nothing like a life sentence. Children develop and grow in unpredictable and surprising ways. But research shows that, over the years, sensitive children tend to remain sensitive at heart. It’s how they learn to cope with their sensitivity that counts! Parents play a vital role in this growth.

As we initiate our children into the challenges of the world, we have to teach them how to manage their emotional selves. This skill, typically practiced within the every-day ordinariness of family life, is like gold for sensitive children. Because they tend to get thrown by the helter-skelter of life, sensitive children need to learn how to regroup. Without this emotional skill, they may fall short of all that they can be.

Become an emotional coach

Parents of sensitive children need to become what renowned psychologist John Gottman calls ‘emotional coaches’. In essence, an emotional coach does the following five things when his child is distressed:
  1. become aware of your child’s emotion
  2. recognise the moment as an opportunity for intimacy and teaching
  3. listen to your child, and validate her feelings
  4. help the child to find words for her feelings
  5. set limits while looking to solve the problem at hand.

“Sorry, Simon, I know that you find these big picnics difficult and that Mr Jenkins makes you nervous. Now, I have brought your fishing rod and your book. I do want you to come out and say hello to everyone. But after that you can find a quiet place to fish and read. I also want you to join us for lunch. Be brave for me, and this afternoon we can go for a walk together”.

Heal yourself first
But these intimate, reflective moments can’t happen unless we parents develop our own self-awareness. Emotions are contagious, and the chances are that our children’s melt downs will leave us more than a little frazzled. Depending on our own backgrounds, we may find ourselves swamped by feelings of anger, frustration, helplessness and perhaps even guilt. Each of these feelings can make us more likely to react in unhelpful, perhaps even regrettable ways.

In fact, it often seems to me that our children’s emotional difficulties are custom-made opportunities for us to review our own emotional habits and beliefs. When our children are distressed we have a chance to develop what psychiatrist Daniel Siegel calls ‘response flexibility’: we become aware of our own feelings and this gives us the ability to choose how we respond. We become wiser. And, because our children are always in the process of becoming, the lessons woven into a parent-child dance never really stop.

Just the other day a respected elder colleague told me that he’s found parenting much tougher now that his daughter is in her twenties. I really didn’t want to hear that! I guess that’s why they call it ‘life-long learning’.

Rob is a Counselling Psychologist in private practice. He has been working with children and parents for the past fifteen years, with a special interest in emotional growth, identity development and fatherhood. Rob is married with three children.

People interested in purchasing a copy of Rob’s recent book; Parenting the Sensitive Child: Guidelines and practices, can order a copy at This e-mail address is being protected from spam bots, you need JavaScript enabled to view it . The book price is R110.

Rob will be speaking at the Baby Expo Durban. The Baby Expo Durban offers visitors the ideal opportunity to speak to experts in the pregnancy, parenting and baby fields. The Baby Expo Durban will take place from the 29 to 31 August at the ICC in Durban. Entrance to the expo is R50 and kids under the age of 10 get in for free.

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