• Kylie van Gelder

Having a Highly Sensitive Child Has Taught Me So Much About Parenting

As parents we develop skills we didn’t even know were possible


Parents want more for their child. They want the best. We want them to have the world, to be happy, have opportunity, and to feel true love and connection. When you struggle to understand your child’s needs, providing these can feel very challenging.

At least this is how I initially experienced life with a highly sensitive child.

My first born baby came into the world after a wonderful pregnancy. He was the baby we had been waiting for.

I remember bringing him home with the expectation of knowing exactly what he would need. After all, I was now officially a mother — and one who had been reading about motherhood for years.

To my surprise, meeting all of my child’s demands were tougher than I had anticipated.

My husband would say our son was like a Ferrari — he could go from 0 to 60 in 3.5 seconds.

After almost a week of 3 hour long nighttime screaming sessions when he was just 2 months old, I’m ashamed to say I came close to understanding shake the baby syndrome.

The thought still creates guilt, but the guilt propelled me on a path of discovering him.

The love we have for our children goes beyond our own expectation.

This was the first time I stepped back and questioned what he truly needed, rather than assuming I would just know.

From there, my husband and I began learning about highly sensitive kids. We took a parenting course specifically for this beautifully group and we’re constantly learning new things as he grows.

Our son is now 5-years-old. Here’s what we’ve learned so far.

1 — What is a highly sensitive child? According to Dr. Elaine Aron, author of the book The Highly Sensitive Child, highly sensitive children have a nervous system that is quick to reactive to everything as it is highly aware.

These kids have big emotions and they don’t yet understand what emotions are.

They can be more sensitive to sights, sounds, touch, taste and smells. My son for example, is very sensitive to tags in his clothes and sounds.

Highly sensitive kids also have this capability of honing into exactly what is happening in the environment around them. They tend to be highly empathetic as well, which can be a wonderful heartwarming trait.

“Highly sensitive children are deep thinkers, creative, intelligent and empathetic. They are the heart-centered leaders we need for our future.” — Sarah Boyd

The other side of the coin, however, is because they soak up their environment so intensely, they struggle to have an outlet for release aside from the extreme.

This is when my husband and I were awakened with the next learning on the list.

2— It’s not about us. It’s about him. While this seems obvious when having children, having a highly sensitive child requires parents to really look deep inside ourselves to shed our learned behaviours.

I talked a little about this in a recent article, specifically what I’ve learned from having young kids in my forties. You can read about it here.

When a child behaves a certain way, we react according to what we learned from our parents, grandparents, teachers, media, etc. For many children this approach can still work.

However, for most, we need to break free from this generational conditioning and create new parenting guidelines that work specifically for our children.

With a highly sensitive child, this is even more necessary. Regardless of how we’re feeling in that moment, he’s likely feeling it 10x more strongly. He soaks up energy in the room, experiences and emotions at a level we struggle to grasp. Yet, again, it’s not about us and how we want to respond. It’s about what he needs.

Most of the time, how he’s reacting — extreme sadness about a certain food we don’t have in the house or a rage infused tantrum — is almost always linked to something that happened much earlier during the day.

He’s simply held on to the emotion and expressed it later and inappropriately. This took us a while to understand, especially considering our own generational conditioning. It’s a work in progress, I’ll admit.

Taking deep breaths, assessing the situation and openly talking to him has helped us immensely.

3 — Highly sensitive kids learn about emotions differently than “regular” kids. Again, this was an eye-opener to us. We assumed our kids would learn about emotions as they arose and we would talk about them and teach them to express them.

Being that highly sensitive kids feel so much more intensely, learning about their emotions and how to express these is different.

Think about a highly sensitive child in school who’s told to sit down and be quiet. Meanwhile, little Johnny is bouncing around next to him. Sally is crying because she wants to go home and Michael is angry because he doesn’t want to share his toy.

Our highly sensitive child is soaking all of this up, feeling it 10 times more and is not allowed to get out of his chair or say a word.

When he gets home, there’s an explosion in the form of deep sadness or anger.

And believe me, this doesn’t only happen to school. It also happens at home. His younger sister expresses her emotions, my husband and I express ours. We all do and he’s there, soaking these up like a sponge — good and bad.

When he bursts, he doesn’t understand what’s happening or why it’s happening. We don’t always either.

He needs to learn how to feel and express his emotions through words, but also at the appropriate times. This is the trick and key to helping him.

Providing our son with the right words to use and teaching him to use them at the right moment is where we’re at now.

He has tools for the bottled up emotions that get expressed as anger when he can’t immediately release any of what he’s soaked up. Our job now is consistently helping him use these tools (e.g. punching a pillow, running around outside, dancing to heavier music, singing really loud).

These are harder for him to understand and use correctly. Naturally, he’s only 5. It’s hard enough for us as adults with a fully developed reasoning function in our brain.

Mainly, we’re learning to remain calm, and evaluate where things are coming from. We miss it sometimes and other times we get it right.


We find reading to him immediately after school or busy events helps him "come down", as does breath work - for him and for us.

As we’re learning to support him, we see he’s also learning to understand himself on a deeper level. This is so wonderful to see. In other words, OMG, we're doing it more or less right!

 

In the end, as parents we are gifted with beautiful souls. Having a highly sensitive child presents itself with a wonderful opportunity to discover how best to support him and how we, as parents, can improve.

Learning about highly sensitive kids has taught us an enormous amount — and we’re only just getting it. It’s about him and his needs. Helping him discover his emotions and express these appropriately feels like the happiness, love and connection we’ve always wanted for him.

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