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4 Ways to Help Highly Sensitive Children Manage Big Emotions

Getting comfortable with their discomfort.

Key points

  • Expect big meltdowns with kids who are wired to be big reactors. You can't always (or even sometimes) prevent them.
  • Avoid trying to minimize or talk kids out of their emotions.
  • Less is more when kids are in meltdown mode. Don't try to problem-solve when your child is dysregulated.

I recently wrote a post on 10 habits of highly sensitive (HS) children, and have been overwhelmed with responses from parents. They are desperate for help to better understand what makes their kids tick and for tools to respond to them in the most loving and effective ways. (I have also heard from many adults who felt misunderstood as children and who are struggling mightily as a result.)

With this in mind, the following offers guidance on how to support these kids who are wired to register their feelings and experiences more deeply than others and who, thus, have a harder time adapting to life's transitions and challenges.

1. Manage your expectations. Many parents feel they are doing something wrong and failing because they can't seem to prevent their children's epic meltdowns. They are doing all the "right" things that they have read about: validating emotions and offering calming tools like deep-belly breathing and bear hugs. Not only aren't these tools working, in many cases, anything they try seems to escalate, not reduce, their children's distress. These parents feel like total failures. At the same time they are very concerned about what seems to be such outsized reactions from their children.

The problem is the expectation gap. This delta—between their expectations for their child, who is a big reactor, and their child's ability to manage her emotions—is a source of great frustration and despair. Once these moms and dads accept that: their child may have to melt down; that it is not their fault that the meltdown happened; and, that they can't prevent or stop the meltdowns, there is a great sense of relief. They are also able to feel less angry and have more empathy for their children. They are much better positioned to be the rock their children need in these tumultuous moments. Which brings me to the next insight...

2. Avoid minimizing or talking kids out of their feelings. Because we love our kids so much, our knee-jerk reaction when our kids are distressed is to make the uncomfortable feelings (for them and us) go away. "Don't be sad, we'll see grandma again soon." "You've already watched two episodes of 'Peppa Pig', isn't that enough?"

Trying to talk kids out of their feelings doesn’t make them magically disappear. In fact, they usually get amplified and more likely to be "acted-out." When five-year-old Caleb's moms tell him not to be sad that they are going out for "date night", that he will have a great time with the sitter, Karly, he responds: "I Hate Karly! I am going to be so mean to her if you go out."

Shutting down the process is a missed opportunity to help children make sense of, not fear, their feelings. What kids need when they are distressed is precisely what we need in these moments: someone who listens, accepts our feelings, doesn't judge, and doesn't tell us what to do or try to make it all better. Someone who can sit with our uncomfortable feelings and trust that we have the capacity to work them through, with their support.

When we avoid or minimize our children’s feelings, we interfere in this process. We send the message that we are uncomfortable with their difficult emotions and don't want to hear about them. This makes it less likely children will share their feelings with us, depriving them of a chance to express and work them through.

The major mind shift to make is that feelings are not harmful to children. Sadness and joy, anger and love, pride and self-doubt, jealousy and empathy can coexist and are all part of the complex collection of emotions that makes us human. Our job is not to rid or protect our children from their difficult emotions (which is actually not possible), it is to help them understand and effectively cope with all of their feelings.

For Caleb, this meant acknowledging that he doesn't like it when they go out; that they don't expect him to be happy about it and understand why he wants them home all the time. And, that they also know he will be okay and trust that he will figure out the best way to be with Karly (diffusing the power of his threat and making it much less likely he would actually act-out. with her.)

3. Stay present while giving your child space. When your child is in the "red zone", his brain is flooded and is not open to processing information. This is not the time to problem-solve or teach your child a lesson. Your child needs you to be his rock, to be a calm presence.

But what I see a lot of parents doing when their child is in meltdown mode is repeating phrases along the lines of, "This is a tough moment. I'm here with you" over and over. While this is clearly intended to soothe their child, paradoxically, it often results in an increase in dysregulation. The more parents makes these statements, especially when telling their child what he is feeling ("I know, you're really angry"), the more the child escalates ("I AM NOT ANGRY!!") ⁠When children are in this highly dysregulated state, less is more. Repeating an empathic statement does not make you more empathetic. Acknowledging your child's distress one time and then being a quiet, calm presence until the storm passes is often what is most loving.

4. Problem solve once your child is calm. When the storm has subsided, comment on what a great job she did calming herself down, no matter how long it took. Then tell the story of what happened. “You were really mad when mommy wouldn’t let you have TV time this morning before school. You lost control and threw the remote at me. You didn’t mean to hurt me—when you are upset your body takes over. I am going to help you learn to manage your big feelings—that’s my job. What are some ideas you have?” Listen to her ideas and share yours.

For more on how to help children manage their big emotions, please see my other posts.

Facebook images: Prostock-studio/Shutterstock

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