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Does your little person seem to struggle with physical sensations like seams and tags? Do they feel and express big feelings? Maybe they ask you lots of questions about what is coming up that day? Combined with anxiety, the anxious highly sensitive child may find the world a big, scary and overwhelming place.
This article by Psychologist Kim Shortridge may help you in understanding your child’s needs, and adapting your parenting to meet them.
How do I know if my child is “highly sensitive”?
Many highly sensitive children tend to have big feelings and specific sensory preferences (and dislikes!). This is because their nervous system is more alert, and quicker to react, to different stimulus.
According to Elaine Aron, approximately 15-20% of people would meet her criteria for being highly sensitive. You can undertake the test on her website here to better understand your child’s temperament and physical experience.
“Highly sensitive” is not a diagnosis or a label. Each highly sensitive child will have a different combination of traits.
How do I know if my child is anxious?
It’s important to remember that worries are normal, as they’re linked to our fight/flight survival instincts. If people didn’t have fears, they would make all sorts of silly decisions that put themselves and others in danger.
Your child may be anxious about one particular thing/situation, or they may have many worries. When children are worried, then tend to seek lots of reassurance, ask lots of questions about what’s coming up, complain of physical issues like a sore tummy, and will try to avoid things that make them feel uncomfortable/anxious.
If your child is significantly distressed, or their worries stop them from doing things they should be, then it’s something that can and should be addressed with a psychologist.
What if my child is BOTH highly sensitive AND anxious?
Then you have a little person with big feelings! Your child is likely become overloaded with sights, sounds, smells, tastes and feelings, and will find their emotions harder to regulate.
Sensory overload often fuels anxious thoughts, and when kids are anxious, the reverse sometimes happens. Their anxiety fuels fuel sensory overload.
An example might be a child who doesn’t like seams in socks, and needs to go through 4 pairs before they find a suitable one. This then makes them late for school, which makes them feel worried about getting into trouble or looking silly. They may then try to get out of going to school.
It’s s cycle of sensitivity, anxiety and overwhelm that can repeat over and over in a number of ways.
If you have an anxious, highly sensitive child you may find that they tend to be insightful about their own, and others emotions.
This ability to ‘tune in’ to emotions is great attribute, but when it’s combined with the sensory overload, it can also be highly taxing for them.
Highly sensitive children are often working with limited resources because they have used them all up just coping with the day. If you find that your child holds it together beautifully at school but let’s all of their emotions loose when they get home, it’s because home is a ‘safe’ place for them to be who they are.
But that doesn’t always make things easy for you and the rest of your family.
Top 10 tips for helping your anxious, sensitive child
Children’s needs vary depending on their developmental level. This advice is intended for parents of children who can use and understand language.
Here are some things that you can do to help:
- Encourage your child to see their sensitivity as a strength
Sensitive children are often able to connect with others’ emotions in a way that both they and the other person will find rewarding. It will also mean that they are more able to tap into creative thinking. This is a positive attribute that you can encourage your child to be proud of.
- Parent your child in a way that doesn’t trigger their sense of overwhelm
If you have an anxious, sensitive child, you may need to ditch an authoritarian, consequence-based approach to parenting. You might instead try a parenting style that provides boundaries and structure. Parenting in a calm way provides your child the chance to feel connection with you, and makes it easier to teach the right way to do things.
- Help them connect with like-minded peers
When sensitive kids find others who see the world in the way they do, they thrive. This will foster a healthy self-esteem, will give them a chance to share hobbies and interests, and feel a sense of belonging that is great for their well-being.
- Help your child identify their triggers
What sets your child’s worries off? Is it loud crowds? Is it scratchy tags? By pre-empting and preventing some of those sensory triggers, your child won’t be using their resources just trying to cope with a physical sensation. They’ll have more capacity to cope with social and emotional demands and have a better chance of developing resilience.
- Be mindful that your child will need downtime
Try not to fill your sensitive, anxious child’s day with activities. Prioritise tasks, use online shopping, get groceries delivered, get a friend or family member to help; you know your child best, and will know how you can be creative to reduce their sensory exposure.
- Practice calming/coping strategies together
Your child will likely find it hard to see that they are struggling, so you might have to encourage them to use a coping strategy. It might be breathing, swinging, or whatever else works for your child.
- Encourage bravery
Try not to allow your child to avoid the things that worry them. Your child will stop going around and around the ‘worry-avoid cycle’ if they are gently encouraged to step out of their comfort zone and do the things that worry them. You might need help from a psychologist in implementing this strategy.
- Say what you see; praise them for being brave
Acknowledging that your child is tackling something that is tricky for them is important and is great for their self-esteem. However, if you know that your sensitive child doesn’t respond well to praise, find a way to connect with them so that their bravery is still reinforced.
- Try to avoid responding to repeated requests for reassurance
Many anxious children seek frequent affirmation from parents and teachers. Over time, we need them to find confidence in themselves and not look to others for attention and praise. Instead of giving your child the same answer to the same questions, try asking your child to repeat back to you what you’ve already said, and praise them for knowing the answer.
- Amid all the ‘parenting’, don’t forget yourself
The better you’re feeling, the better you’ll parent your anxious, sensitive child. Make sure that you do things that you enjoy like seeing friends, getting sleep, and having the occasional 5 minute cuppa so that you get some downtime for yourself. You and your child will be better off when you are in the right ‘space’ to be a responsive mum or dad.
Work out what is right for your child
There are many other things that parents and children can do to cope when they are anxious and highly sensitive. This list of tips is obviously not exhaustive. Working out what is right for your child may mean talking to other parents, reading some great books, or talking to a professional.
Occupational Therapists and Psychologists can help anxious, sensitive children in many ways. Children can learn strategies to evaluate their worry thoughts, and come up with more helpful thoughts. They can also learn how to cope with the feelings in their body.
If you think your child is anxious and/or highly sensitive, please feel welcome to contact Kids First Children’s Services to chat about y our child’s needs and find out how we can help.© 2018 Kids First Children’s Services
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Elaine Aron – http://hsperson.com
Aron, E. N. (2002). The highly sensitive child: Helping our children thrive when the world overwhelms them.
Rapee, R. M., Wignall, A., Spence, S., Cobham, V., & Lyneham, H. (2008). Helping your anxious child: A step-by-step guide for parents (2nd ed).
American Psychiatric Association. (2014). Diagnostic and statistical manual of mental health disorders (5th ed). Washington DC: Author.