Parenting sensitive children is a tremendous privilege and responsibility. Here are six ways that we can help our highly sensitive child thrive through our parenting.
I entered my daughter’s room and settled on her bed across from her. She side-eyed me with a curious but guarded expression. In those eyes, I could see the leftover hurt from our hour-long shopping debacle. A hundred shirts, a hundred rejections, and one impatient mom. Since I knew she was a highly sensitive and emotional child, I knew I had to approach the situation with intentionality.
“I messed up. I’m so sorry. What are you feeling? I really want to know.”
Avery took a breath, and the hidden floodgate opened. Lots of tears, lots of feelings — several failed shopping trips’ worth of them.
“I don’t like my shoulders. My friends and sisters don’t have muscly shoulders like mine. They’re all tiny. And everybody wants me to wear clothes that aren’t me.”
The more she talked, the better I understood her complex inner world: Today wasn’t about the clothes or our relationship. It was about body image and sibling comparison, insecurity, and identity. And here I thought it was about shirts.
6 Ways to Help Your Highly Sensitive and Emotional Child Thrive
Parenting sensitive and emotional children is a tremendous privilege and responsibility — a privilege because they have extraordinary capacities for intuition, joy, and love; a responsibility because their souls are tender and more easily hurt. They don’t live on the surface of life. Rather, they ponder, they worry, they stew. When they’re happy, the house fills with sunshine. But when they’re sad, the house hides in shadow. When they’re hurt, they may brood for hours, even days.
So how do we parent our sensitive children? Here are six ways that we can help our highly sensitive child thrive.
1. Acknowledge Their Emotions
Our sensitive children long to be noticed and valued for who they are. Yet because they tend to respond so strongly, we can be tempted to accommodate their moods.
Is she angry? The whole family walks on eggshells. Is he disappointed? We change plans to appease him.
Continually catering to one child’s moods can backfire with other family members, creating resentment and frustration. So while it’s important to acknowledge the sensitive child’s emotions, we must not allow those feelings to dictate the household mood.
During one dinner, as the rest of the family ate, laughed, and told stories, my son Blake picked listlessly at his spaghetti. Before long, his siblings began feeling guilty for being happy when he was upset.
I motioned for Blake to join me in the next room and then asked, “What’s going on?”
He said, “I was looking forward to French toast.”
I offered him a sympathetic smile. “I’m sorry, Blake. I know I promised French toast, but we’re out of syrup.”
He nodded, though I could tell he was still unhappy. Blake is sensitive, so I’ve learned to draw him out and double-check his responses in case a deeper issue is hiding underneath.
“Did something else happen today?”
“No. It’s just the food,” he said.
“OK.” I grinned, and he seemed to soften. “Bud, it’s OK to feel disappointed, but it’s not OK to sulk. Are you able to rejoin the family without making us feel like we’ve betrayed you?”
He offered a wan grin.
Our sensitive kids’ emotions shouldn’t dictate the mood of others in the family. But sometimes, we must help our children find healthier expressions and understand their boundaries. After all, God calls us to demonstrate kindness and self-control even when we’re upset, frustrated, or hurt.
2. Help Their Emotional Vocabulary
At every age and stage, sensitive kids (really, all kids) need to learn not only how to talk about feelings but also how to label and express their emotions in healthy ways.
With toddlers and preschoolers, try asking a simple question: “Are you feeling mad? Sad? Disappointed?” Teaching young children to identify and name their emotions takes the edge off of outbursts and tantrums. Sometimes they don’t know how to express exactly what they’re feeling. Teach them to identify their feelings using an emotion chart, such as the Adventures in Odyssey emotion chart.
With school-age kids, Bible stories and other healthy stories can serve as conversational springboards that cultivate emotional maturity. We can ask our kids questions like:
- “What is this character feeling?”
- “When do you feel that way?”
- “How do you think God would feel about the way this person reacted?”
3. Help Them Practice Responses
When our kids were preschoolers, my husband, Kevin, and I gave them opportunities to practice healthy emotional expression during our family devotion times. We’d choose a simple passage such as “Do all things without grumbling or disputing” (Philippians 2:14). Then we’d act out a familiar scenario in different ways.
For the first round, the kids would play the parents, and Kevin and I would be the children. Our kids would announce, “It’s time to leave the playground!” Kevin and I would begin wailing and moaning, toddler-style. We might even roll around on the floor in mock temper tantrums.
Our kids would erupt in a chorus of giggly advice: “Mommy! Daddy! You can’t throw fits! God says don’t complain!”
Then we’d act out the scene again, this time demonstrating a positive attitude and emotional self-control. (The second scene never prompted quite as many giggles.) Next, we’d swap roles and reenact the scene — parents playing parents, kids playing kids — allowing our children to demonstrate both positive and negative responses, emotional outbursts and emotional self-control.
These devotions were a fun way to give our family a neutral moment in which to practice expressing sensitive feelings. Of course, our kids still needed time to mature, but the more we practiced, the better they became at sorting through emotions in real-life situations. The next time we left the playground, there might still be tears, but not a tantrum.
As our children entered elementary school, we started talking through possible emotional scenarios:
- “What do you do if you feel left out on the playground?”
- “What do you say when a friend hurts your feelings?”
Simple what-if conversations engage our kids in problem-solving. These conversations don’t protect our children from challenging situations, of course, but they do make the situations less scary and overwhelming.
4. Share Your Emotional Journey
Avery pulled her would-be cake out of the oven with a moan of dismay. I glanced over to see a slab of rubbery batter glued to the bottom of the pan.
Fat tears started falling from my emotional child. “I always mess up,” she said. “I’m terrible at everything.”
I attempted the usual parenting wisdom — “It’s OK to mess up; you’re still learning” — but she batted it away with brutal self-criticism.
Desperate, I told a story: “Have I told you about the first time I cooked for Daddy?”
A long sniffle and a headshake. “No.”
“It was our first dinner after our honeymoon, and I overcooked the chicken so badly, we couldn’t even chew it. I ended up crying at the table. Poor Daddy didn’t know what to do.”
A small smile twitched around her lips. “Really?” As I recounted the full story, her tears turned to peals of laughter.
My story stopped Avery’s downward spiral, but I couldn’t tell if she’d gotten the point. A few weeks later, when she had another epic baking fail, I overheard her laughing with her sister: “Did you hear about the time Mommy accidentally made chicken jerky?”
Recounting our own failures — especially the emotional ones we didn’t handle with grace and resilience — gives our sensitive children comfort and hope. They remind kids that it’s OK to be imperfect, and it’s OK to still be growing, no matter how old we are.
5. Try Do-Overs
I was taking the kids out for lunch, a rare treat. But the arguments began before the minivan door even shut. In the ten seconds it took to back out of the driveway, tensions were already escalating from mild disagreement to imminent warfare.
Frustration and uncertainty flooded me: Do I pull out my Scary Mom Voice? Call off lunch? Call a do-over? I pulled the car back into the driveway and parked. Surprised by what I’d done, the kids quieted down.
I turned to face them. “Do you guys think this is the way God wants us to talk?”
“Let’s try this whole thing again, this time being selfless and kind.” I put on a singsong voice: “Oh, darling, loving children who would never argue about something as silly as food, where would you all like to eat?”
The kids started giggling, and they joined in, this time showing more patience and respect. Our do-over had allowed us a fresh start.
Do-overs can be a lighthearted way to reset. Kids arguing about which movie to watch? Let’s backtrack the conversation. Someone speaks too sharply? Let’s rephrase that sentence. The sensitive child makes a mistake and struggles to let go of guilt? Let’s rewind the last five minutes and give a fresh opportunity. This simple strategy helps feelers of all kinds to adjust our attitudes and move forward even after difficult moments.
6. Embrace Grace For Parenting Mistakes
Because sensitive and emotional kids are tender, we may worry about wounding them permanently with our missteps. But our kids don’t want perfect parents; they want loving, approachable parents. Growing parents. Parents who are willing to listen, apologize when needed, and change.
In all of this, we give our children hope that they, too, can grow. Remember the beautiful promise in 1 Peter 4:8: “Above all, keep loving one another earnestly, since love covers a multitude of sins.” As I learned that day in Avery’s room, we won’t ruin our children’s lives if we sometimes misread them, mishandle their emotions, or bungle a confrontation. Love covers sins, and grace will guide us through.
© 2021 Elizabeth Laing Thompson. Used by permission. All rights reserved. This article first appeared as “Tender-Hearted Kids” in the August/September 2021 issue of Focus on the Family magazine.