Highly sensitive children may be at risk for becoming highly sensitive, emotionally hyperractive adults. The diagnosis generally given to these adults is borderline personality disorder. People with bpd have particular difficulty sustaining healthy relationships and marriage and are prone to suffer significant personal emotional pain as well. Prevention of this complication of childhood emotional sensitivity therefore can be a great blessing.
I recently offered a birthday present of two days of babysitting for a family with several kids including a strikingly attractive and highly sensitive 5-year-old daughter, Cindy. On the one hand, Cindy was acutely attuned to all that was going on in the family, and intensely emotionally reactive to any situations that could be perceived as negative toward her or her preferences. At the same time, little Cindy’s ability to shriek, accompanied by dramatic sobbing, had earned her a position of tyrannical control over the full family. When her siblings or parents didn’t do what she wanted, her sobs and shrieks often succeeded in bullying them into changing their minds.
“Hmm…,” I thought, realizing that the current situation had potential to train Cindy to grow into functioning in the manner of someone who might be labeled with a borderline personality disorder. “I think I’d better implement the one-hand-can’t-clap principle.”
In fact, I enjoyed a great weekend. Just as one hand can’t clap, if parents (or parent subs like me) remove themselves from the room when an anger-prone child erupts, the anger eruptions gradually cease. And in the meantime, the child’s anger ceases to control or even to stress the parents.
I explained early on to young Cindy that I had no interest in listening to shrieks, so I would not be listening. Instead, I’d remove myself from the room where she was having her tantrum. I added that any time she wanted to shriek she was welcome to do it. I’d just go into another room with the other kids and have fun with them. As soon as she was ready to join us though I’d always welcome her back.
I explained to Cindy also that I don’t talk with people when they are angry. I just listen to people when they “use their talking voice.” Any time she wanted to calm down enough to “use her words” instead of yelling, I’d be delighted to listen.
I completed the planning phase of my anger intervention by asking Cindy if she likes crying and shrieking. Cindy thought for a moment and then answered unambiguously “Yes.”
“Where then would you like to do it?” I asked. My hope was that giving Cindy her choice of screaming place would ease the potential pain of seeing a parent figure walk away from her when she was mad.
Cindy chose the stairs, which would be easily available whether she was downstairs or up, and from which she could see pretty much all the rooms in the house. I reminded Cindy that she was free to sit on the stairs to cry and shriek as much as she would like. Then when she was ready to calm down she would be welcome to rejoin us.
Cindy and I talked further about how the stairs, in addition to being her shrieking space, could also be her quiet chair. She could go there to separate herself from situations she couldn’t handle in order to calm herself down.
Though we didn’t do it this one weekend, Cindy’s parents would later put a basket on the stairs with books and toys for quiet play. These would help Cindy to distract herself, facilitating her self-soothing recovery from angry-upset mode.
I would have added one more factor if Cindy had been an older child and less compliant. I would have explained to Cindy that she was not to follow me when I went into a different room to remove myself from her screaming. If she did, I would walk outside. If she followed me outside I would get in my car and drive away for 15 minutes, and for longer time periods if she again followed me angrily when I returned.
Did Cindy stop her tantrums? No. She had several angry/sobbing/shrieking episodes over the course of the weekend. In each she surprisingly willingly walked over to the stairs and sat there to scream. Yet whether she shrieked or not mattered little to the rest of us because the tantrums no longer controlled us. The rest of us just went in another room and had fun.
The bottom line is that if parents want their child, boy or girl, to stop screaming, they’d best stop interacting with screaming as if it were a legitimate mode of communication in a relationship. Rewarding screaming by interacting with an angry child, or for that matter with an angry adult, is going to get you more screaming, arguments and tantrums. By contrast, when parents leave the room in response to a child (or adult) who consistently bullies them with anger, the angry behavior tends to wither and gradually disappear.
One hand clapping makes no sound. One person becoming angry makes no arguments. Children and also adults who learn that talking works better than throwing fits to get what they want grow up to become lovely people.
Susan Heitler, Ph.D. specializes in helping couples to develop more positive relationships. Her book The Power of Two and online relationship skills program called PowerOfTwoMarriage.com teach the skills that keep relationships strong and loving.