Invisible Wounds of the Sensitive, Emotionally Intense Child
The hidden trauma of being an exceptionally sensitive and intense child.
Posted Jul 25, 2018 | Reviewed by Ekua Hagan
This post is about challenging, but important subject—the "invisible" psychological wounds for the sensitive and intense child. It also serves as a sequel to an earlier post, “Were You an Intense Child?”
This may stir up some uncomfortable feelings, but the goal here is not to re-traumatize ourselves or to blame anyone. Please take this process at your own pace, and ultimately, trust your judgment to discern what is helpful, and leave behind the rest.
Psychological damage can happen in invisible ways, from a parent’s lack of emotional awareness, subtle put-downs, allowing dysfunctional sibling rivalries, or over-control. Children who are emotionally gifted, either due to their innate wiring or necessary adaptation, are more likely to fall into certain roles and dynamics, such as becoming enmeshed or parentified. Their emotional trauma may not be a result of conscious or malicious acts but remain unspoken of and unnoticed for years.
No matter how gifted and empathic, all children have particular needs that must be met. They have the right to safety, to be protected from harm, to receive love and attention, to be spontaneous and playful, to have their needs heard and recognized, and to have appropriate supervision, boundaries, and guidance. On top of these fundamentals, emotionally intense children face unique challenges, for example with sensory sensitivity and emotional regulation. They are acutely aware of and have intense responses to what happens to them and around them, which may exacerbate the impact of any childhood difficulties.
From the outside, the emotionally deprived child may seem fine, for all their basic physical needs such as clothing and schooling are provided, but the lack of outside corroboration makes the invisible wounds more damaging. In some homes, there is even the pressure to maintain the illusion of a happy family to "save face." If their parents and society told the child that they were loved, yet they did not feel it, this discrepancy could create immense confusion and guilt.
Parenting a sensitive and gifted child can be incredibly rewarding, but it requires a high level of maturity and awareness. Unfortunately, not all parents are equipped; They may not be intentionally abusive or exploitative, but limited by their vulnerabilities.
The following might be a difficult read, but it will help us to understand the impact of not having our emotional needs met. It is critical that we do not fall into the trap of simplistic or linear thinking, of blaming or victimizing. Instead, let’s see this as an opportunity to come closer to ourselves and our inner truth, and to make room for new insights that will help us heal and grow.
“Dissociation is the common response of children to repetitive, overwhelming trauma and holds the untenable knowledge out of awareness. As the child gets older, he will turn the rage in upon himself or act it out on others, else it all will turn into madness.”
― Judith Spencer, Satans High Priest
Toxic Family Dynamics and Deprived Needs
The Emotionally Blank Adults and the Unseen Child
Either due to limited psychological capacity, mental illness, undiagnosed neuro-typical traits (such as autistic-spectrum, Asperger’s or ADHD), extreme work or health demands, some caregivers are unable to be emotionally responsive to their children and leave them feeling abandoned or invisible.
For children to develop a sense of self-worth — a feeling that they matter in this world — they must first have their parents validate their fundamental worthiness through a process called "mirroring." They need to be shown by their parents, both explicitly and implicitly, that they are unique, wanted, and welcome. Mirroring can be achieved by explicitly praising, applauding, acknowledging, and valuing the child, but it also includes the more subtle clues — gestures, expression, or a tone of voice.
No parents can be the perfect mirror all the time — there will be times when they are not able to be there for their child. This, too, is natural, and not a problem if mis-attunement does not happen often. With enough good mirroring experiences, the emotionally healthy child can draw on their memories and will no longer need excessive reassurance. As adults, they have a firm sense of self-esteem and a belief that they are fundamentally good. If, however, the parents’ emotional distress or insecurities meant that the child did not get enough mirroring, the development of their sense of self would be disrupted.
Both the process and the necessity of mirroring are vividly demonstrated in the Still Face Experiment, conducted in 1975 by Edward Tronick (On Youtube, Under “Still Face Experiment” you can watch a short but provocative video clip). In this experiment, the mother was asked to keep a blank face and not respond to her child’s attempts to engage with her. When the baby received no emotional responses, he “rapidly sobered and grew wary,” he made repeated attempts to get the interactions with his mother, and when these attempts fail, he withdrew and turned away with a hopeless facial expression. These series of events happened so fast that they were almost undetectable. This experiment shows that mirroring is also the way via which we learn to regulate emotions; Babies are not born with the ability to manage their feelings and need to learn such skill by having another person as a mirror.
While all children must learn to emotionally self-regulate, this skill is critically important for the empathic child. They have an active mirror neuron system, so they are more susceptible to emotional contagion—the tendency to absorb, "catch," or be influenced by other people’s feelings. Without adequate mirroring, they are easily overwhelmed by other people’s energies and emotions. Feeling bombarded, they may eventually learn to shut down, numb themselves, or even dissociate from reality.
In some families, the adults may react contemptuously to their call for connection. Emotional dismissal and neglect are crippling for sensitive children, who, from a young age, strongly need a deep and authentic connection. Given their heightened perceptive abilities, they are also highly aware of their surroundings and would not easily bypass the messages of contempt or dismissal coming from those around them.
In a nutshell, we are not born with solid boundaries, a sense of self and emotional regulation skills. As children, we need someone to validate our experience and help us to wind down from distresses. Unfortunately, not all parents have the capacity to hold the needs of an intense child.
“...the child cries because they need something. If the child had the ability to take care of the problem themselves, they wouldn’t cry. …Failing to meet a crying child’s needs also teaches the child that their needs and feelings are unimportant and even dangerous and that they are bad and unworthy of love.”
― Darius Cikanavicius
The Controlling Parents and the Enmeshed Family
According to the separation-individual theory (Mahler, Pine, and Bergman 1975), at birth, all infants naturally have a symbiotic relationship with their mothers. However, as part of healthy development, they ought to recognize their parents as separate from them and develop a sense of self. In some situations, however, the parents are not able to let go and would limit their child’s independence and autonomy by depriving their children of the opportunities to explore, to risks, to make the necessary mistakes, and to gain resilience in the world.
Anxious parents may — subtly, through their emotions outpouring and behaviours — convey: “Don’t go”, “You can’t go,” “I cannot survive with you,” “Don’t grow up," “The world is a dangerous place,” or “You cannot make it on your own." These unconscious messages not only violate the child’s emotional boundaries at the time, but it also sets them up for guilt and shame in future relationships.
Behind these parents’ need to control is often their fear of not being needed. They may be dissatisfied with their own lives or marriage, and use their children as a way of filling the inner void. Alice Miller has famously described this situation in her seminal work, The Drama of the Gifted Child: The parent, upon having a child, may feel that finally she has someone to love her unconditionally, and uses the child to fill her own unmet needs (In old psychoanalytic texts, a female pronoun is often used. When drawing on these theories we ought to be mindful of not perpetuating the mother-blaming culture). We can see how this can easily happen with the empathic child: When the parent feels down, the child can quickly sense it and would show their genuine concern. Their intuition, insightful questions, and profound love make them the most available and loving ally.
The result of this dynamic is enmeshment—a relationship in which two or more people are overly involved with and reactive to one another. In an enmeshed family, the boundaries between family members are blurred, or too permeable. There is a kind of "spill-over" happening, where an emotional change in one person would quickly reverberate and escalate throughout the entire household. Research shows that growing up in an enmeshed household often leads to difficulty in identifying and regulating one’s emotions.
When parents let their needs override the child’s needs to separate and individuate, the child would have to manufacture an identity tailored to the parents’ demands, out of the fear of losing love and approval.
Thus, the child growing up in enmeshment often has a blurred sense of identity and have trouble with boundaries. They are used to being intensely affected by, to the point of feeling responsible for, other people’s feelings.
As adults, they may struggle to tell the difference between their own emotions and those they care about, or feel compelled to rescue someone from their difficulties. They may find it difficult, therefore, to have balanced friendships and relationships, or they may find being around people’s emotions so overwhelming that they have to cut off from others.
What makes enmeshment insidious is that it is often shielded under the name of unity, family love, filial piety, or loyalty. In truth, however, enmeshment comes from fear rather than love. A genuinely supportive family is one that empowers the young person to forge their life paths. The child should not be bound to a conditional love at the expense of their sense of agency. They should not be their parents’ only source of happiness and well-being, nor should they have to absorb the emotional pain that was passed down through generations.
Rather than it being a malicious maneuver on the parents’ part, enmeshment is often a result of family patterns being passed down trans-generationally. They usually are not consciously aware of what they are doing but just repeating the cycle that had played out in their childhood.
“One of the most common corruptions of childrearing remains the controlling caregiver’s propensity to shape the child into an object aligned with the caregiver’s own unprocessed trauma. “― Darius Cikanavicius
The Under-resourced Adults and Parentified Child
Parental guidance and protection are needed to provide the foundation for the child’s sense of safety. Due to a limitation of their emotional resources and capacity, however, some parents are unable to be a solid role model. In these cases, the roles are reversed: the child has to not only become their own parents but even a parent to their parents.
Parentification is the word used to describe a role reversal within the family system. The parentified child is expected to fulfill the emotional needs of one or both parents (emotional parentification) or take care of the physical needs such as housework and babysitting siblings (instrumental parentification) that are not age-appropriate.
This can happen in various ways, and the toxic impact may not be immediately apparent. For instance, the parent might behave in a child-like manner, or they relate to the child as a peer, confidante, or friend. The child then believes they must step up to such roles to secure their parent’s love.
The parentified child may also have to step up as their siblings’ confidantes, comforters, advisers, and supporters. While there is a large body of literature that focuses on the neglect children experience from their parents, there’s less examination of how this neglect puts kids in the roles of parenting each other. Some who had grown up this way report experiencing tremendous guilt when they had to leave the family— for as they leave their younger siblings, they felt like they were the parents who were abandoning their own children.
With no one to look up to, to lean on, or to receive guidance from, they are weighed down by responsibilities, forced to grow up too fast, too soon, and deprived of a carefree childhood. Although learning to be empathic to others' needs is a healthy part of development, parentification is a boundary violation.
Children who are caught up in emotional role reversals live with a chronic feeling that they are falling short. Because they are by default not able to achieve the impossible mission of curing their parents of their original pain or marital dissatisfactions, they start to believe it was their fault.
Even as an adult, they have an overdeveloped sense of responsibility in relationships. They may develop compensatory emotional and behavioral patterns such as over-giving in friendships, not being able to say no, always wanting to rescue others from their pain, or attracting partners that take more than give. In the long run, these patterns could lead to physical and emotional fatigue, and the desire to shut down completely.
What makes the situation even more challenging is that it is very difficult for the empathically gifted child to be angry at their parents. Often, the parents do not set out to be abusive or neglectful but are held back by trauma and difficulties in their own lives. The intense child, with heightened sensitivity, compassion, and maturity beyond their years, feels compelled to help their vulnerable caregivers. Their protective instinct, however, holds them back from acknowledging the truth of what was lacking in their childhood. As grown-ups, they jump to defend their parents' inadequacies: "They did not mean it," "They did the best they could." Though this might be true, to achieve true forgiveness, one ought not emotionally or spiritually bypass the step of acknowledging the actual hurt from the perspective of the inner child.
“A child needs to feel safe and protected, which means that their body, psyche, and belongings are safe and secure from violation. Because a child is helpless and dependent on their caregiver, they need a guardian in this predominantly unknown and sometimes scary and dangerous world. “― Darius Cikanavicius