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4 Discipline Strategies to Use With Highly Sensitive Kids

Disciplining your children is never an easy task, but for parents of highly sensitive children it can be especially challenging. A child development specialist and family psychotherapist weigh in with tips for success for disciplining highly sensitive and emotional children.
mom disciplining sensitive daughter
By: Brittany McCabe

Being a parent is one of the most rewarding jobs on the planet and everyone who has the privilege of being a parent is truly lucky; however, it is not always easy. Usually, the most rewarding jobs come with hard work. It is through this hard work that we grow as parents and individuals and every now and then we are rewarded with those moments that stop us in our tracks, grab ahold of our hearts, and reassure us that what we are doing is good.  This job can pose even more challenges for the parent of a highly sensitive or emotional child.

More: 3 Pitfalls To Avoid When Apologizing To Your Child

What is a highly sensitive child?

parent comforting highly sensitive child

You may ask yourself, what is a highly sensitive child? Is my child highly sensitive? A child who is highly sensitive is highly aware and quick to react. They feel things on a deeper level. They are incredibly empathetic and perceptive to their surroundings and how they move through space. 

A highly sensitive child may have a complete meltdown because they finally worked up enough courage to swing on the monkey bars, only to back down with fear once they climbed up and were faced with the challenge. This “failure” to them can send them into a negative spiral with deep feelings of disappointment. In this type of situation, you may try to reassure your child that it’s OK to get nervous and they can try again when they are feeling a bit better; which would probably work just fine on a child who is not highly sensitive. For the child who feels deeply, these words don’t sway their feelings. 

According to Dr. Fran Walfish, leading child, couple, and family psychotherapist, who has appeared on The Doctors, Today, CBS2, NBC and more, explains that the highly sensitive child falls under a few different categories. “One category of the highly sensitive child is emotional, and another is rage. Through further research, I came across another category of the highly sensitive child, physical. These categories look different and cause different behavior; however, they are all caused by hypersensitivity, thoroughly deep feelings, and quick reactions.” 

Now that we understand some of the behaviors and components of a highly sensitive child, what are appropriate ways to parents, teach, and discipline?

How to Discipline a Highly Sensitive Child

mom disciplining a highly sensitive child

First off, it should be noted, being highly sensitive is not a disability or a syndrome, it’s a personality trait. Simple as that. Being highly sensitive is actually a wonderful personality trait, once a child and parent get an understanding of how to best organize and care for the deep emotions and feelings. Dr. Fran Walfish has a specific methodology when it comes to disciplining the highly sensitive child. She has created the “Parenting in 3-D” formula:

1.    Discard the Defensive

This is for the parent. We as parents need to be mindful of our own feelings and what we bring to the table. Because our children are separate from us, in terms of individual beings with their own thoughts, feelings, and reactions, they will sometimes (very often) be mad about the choices we make. This is OK. We as parents need to be aware of this individuality and validate their own feelings, in doing so, it is important to not become defensive and become overrun by our own emotions in these moments. “Don’t undermine the boundaries you attempt to create by being defensive or giving in. Instead, take a deep breath (or two) and think before speaking.” 

2.    Demonstrate Empathy 

When your child is upset and throwing a tantrum, it is important to show them empathy and understanding with words, instead of walking away to let them calm down. When we walk away, we may send the message to our children that they are not accepted. We need to warmly acknowledge how they feel and give them an opportunity to express their feelings. 

Say with warmth and sincerity, “I see you are angry with me, and I’m the kind of mom who really wants to hear about it right to my face. Tell me about how mad you are at me.” Also, address your child’s response with empathy. For instance, with a three-year-old, you might say, “Mommy sees you are disappointed. You want more play time and now it’s bath time. You got angry at Mommy. It’s hard to stop when you want more.” By being there for our children emotionally and physically, we are securing strong bonds with our children and them that they can trust us, even in their most challenging moments. 

3.    Directive Discipline

Once communication and emotional support have been made, it is important to set boundaries and follow through. Following through shows your child consistent behavior that they can depend on. We need to be able to “gently, clearly, and always” be supporting our children “as if you’re their positive coach getting them to their goals with the confidence you know they can do it.” When we are providing a consequence, we cannot do it in a vacuum. We need to provide the narrative they need in order to understand what they have done, understand their consequence, and learn from it. We can be open and communicative with our children as well. We can tell our children that we have the hard job of having to say no. It is hard because it upsets someone we love. But we say no because our job is to keep our children safe and to help them learn. When we use open communication with our children, we are expressing warmth and empathy and showing our children we are always on their team. 

4. Set the Tone

Dr. Fran Walfish has laid down a great framework when it comes to approaching discipline for highly sensitive children with the“Parenting 3-D” formula, but there is definitely a fourth component to it: the tone. Specifically, the tone in which we as parents should speak when disciplining our children. When speaking with Dr. Walfish about discipline, her voice was not only was filled with warmth, sincerity, and calmness, but there was also an intransitive nature that really drew me in and set my nervous system at ease. Now for many of us, this type of tone when disciplining our children feels out of reach. It is HARD to stay calm and leveled when your frustration levels are peaked by the end of the day, but it is important to remember our children feed off of us. They react to our reactions, words, and tones. 

It is important to handle our children with love, care, and respect. It is important to treat them as an individual who has their own thoughts and feelings and recognize that they have their own way of processing and dealing with emotions. In a study published in the Journal of Pediatrics, Robert D. Sege and Benjamin S. Siegel looked at how harsh punishment affected managing children’s behavior. They found that corporal and harsh punishment “measured an increased risk of negative behavioral, cognitive, psychosocial and emotional outcomes.” It is noteworthy that their definition of harsh and corporal punishment was described as both physical and verbal, as well as open-handed swats. Many of us parents would not categorize our punishments as harsh or corporal; however, we all have moments where we allow our own frustrations to get the best of us. These are good reminders that when we yell or raise our tone, it usually does not illicit the response we want from our children. 

All in all, we know parenting is a hard yet rewarding job. If you are a parent of a highly sensitive child, it is beneficial to recognize the positives of being able to feel deeply. Once you figure out a good rhythm and method for you and your child, you will be more equipped to calmly discipline your child and be there to emotionally support and coach them. Just remind yourself you are not perfect and there will be times you may forget and or let your frustrations get the best of you and that is OK; just remember to breathe. Take a deep breath and try again.

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