Parenting a sensitive child

In this week's edition of The Journey, we hear from a mum of a sensitive child and learn more about what techniques work best when it comes to disciplining sensitive children.

Are you the parent of a sensitive child? Sensitive children are quick to react and can do so intensely, to changes in circumstances or the mood of the home. Some of these children turn inwards while others, like mine, can be demanding and fussy if not treated with some, well, sensitivity.

My sensitive child is my daughter, but it could just as easily be a boy (sensitivity isn’t a gender issue) and her behaviour impacts on her brothers, especially her twin.

Before I go further, let’s define what a sensitive child is.

Perth-based counsellor Jennie Fitzhardinge describes it to me like this:

“Imagine a graph with a horizontal line which represents time and a vertical line which is emotional arousal (with lines marked 0-10). After a prompting event, a sensitive child can quickly shoot up to a 10, then quickly come back down to an 8 before settling. Another child, dealing with the same prompting event, will experience a slight bump, hitting possibly only 2-3 before becoming settled.”

In my family, and I suspect many others, there are three main challenges with this behaviour:

1. It usually occurs when parents are trying to do other things, such as get out the door in time in the morning or cook dinner at night.

2. It can spark copycat actions in another child of similar age if they see the sensitive one effectively being rewarded with attention for what can be inappropriate behaviour.

3. If other people in the family (in my case, my two sons and me) are less ‘sensitive’ and usually hit 2-3 on the emotional arousal scale when something unexpected happens, they tend to dismiss the sensitive child’s distress as “nothing to worry about”. This, in turn, can exacerbate the sensitive child’s reaction as they feel an injustice of not being listened to and understood.

It can be tempting to avoid disciplining a sensitive child to save oneself a lot of drama – especially if they’re also feisty and strong-willed like mine.

But parenting expert Michael Grose says that this, of course, can have damaging long-term consequences, as children need to learn to be social and likeable – that is, we don’t want to create monsters.

Mr Grose says it’s important for sensitive kids to feel the safety and security of some boundaries.

He also recommends:

Using consequences sparingly and delivering them as a ‘neutral cop’. This means not shaming the sensitive child, or ideally any children, with words such as “it’s all your fault”, or “you should be ashamed of yourself”.
Replacing ‘time out’ with ‘time in’. Mr Grose says sensitive kids tend to fret rather than reflect and it’s better to keep them close rather than put them in their rooms. Sensitive kids can also confuse temporary withdrawal of attention with withdrawal of affection.
Interestingly, my sensitive child’s father, who also has responses that can accelerate up that emotional arousal graph, has intuitively understood her needs better than me and has sat down with her during a meltdown, instead of telling her to get over it and move on.

One of the difficulties we face at home is that her generally more relaxed twin brother sees her receiving this parental attention and can act up as well.

For this, Ms Fitzhardinge offered me some very wise advice.She says it’s the nature of the attention we give to children when they are emotional that is key because this is the way we help them learn to negotiate their emotions. It’s important to validate a child’s emotions and describe them, rather than brushing off their concerns.

That means, for example, saying something like, “I understand you’re upset that you can’t wear the outfit you want to, but it’s still drying after I washed it and you can wear it tomorrow. Which one would you like to wear today - A or B?”

I’ve also found it helpful to explain that I don’t say ‘no’ to certain things for fun but to be a good mother. For instance: “It’s important for your health that you don’t watch TV for hours.”

As for a sibling close in age who starts acting out of character, try: “Hey, that’s not like you, are you feeling left out?”

Like a lot of good parenting, this equates to time and, as I’ve found, trying to allow for more time at ‘danger points’ during the day, such as getting to school. My sensitive child’s older brother meanwhile has also learnt to be more empathetic.

Ms Fitzhardinge stressed that it is wise for parents to be aware that the desire for control can be a sign of anxiety in children.

And on a positive note, she also reminded me that there are many sensitive people in the arts. They’re very observant and have many strengths. So be sensitive with that “difficult’’ child – they may be a future bestselling author, or famous actor or musician!


Sources and more information:Jennie Fitzhardinge (M Couns) Navigator Counselling and Coaching in Perth (