*This post originally appeared on The PediaBlog on March 22, 2017.
“Ask Us Anything”
My 6-year-old daughter is a highly sensitive person. She cries at the drop of a hat over every little thing. I have a hard time disciplining her because if I correct her, she instantly cries over the thought of “not being good enough for me.” Just last night I told her to put her book away and go to bed and she burst into tears and said she thought she was in big big trouble and was afraid I would stop loving her if she made me mad. I wasn’t even mad at her! My 5-year-old son is the complete opposite. I wondered if you would ever think about writing a blog about school age children who cry easily. Also, if you had any book suggestions about this topic, I would be happy to read any literature about this.
Being a “highly sensitive person” can, in the long run, be a very positive trait. Unfortunately, it can make childhood (and the experience of being a parent to a highly sensitive child) extremely challenging. Communication consultant Karen Alonge empathizes:
Most of the folks I know, both children and adults, who fall into the classification of Highly Sensitive don’t feel special; they feel annoyed by their sensitivity. And most of the parents of sensitive kids that I know don’t feel like their kids are special; they feel exhausted! Especially if they are not ‘sensitive’ themselves – it’s so hard to understand it without feeling it in your own body.
Empathy is a good place to start, Alonge says, when your school-age child is melting down:
Perhaps you may be able to reduce some of the crying by being empathetic before you are corrective. (saying “Oh, you really wanted to wear your favorite pink shirt and it isn’t clean! That IS a bummer!”) Correction often adds to the overwhelm, but empathy usually reduces it. Getting her into forward motion (Let’s find another shirt) isn’t likely to happen until she’s calmed down a bit anyway, and empathy is a very effective way to speed that process up.
Walking on eggshells trying to avoid an emotional meltdown is not particularly helpful to children who cry at the drop of a hat, especially if they sense that your strategy is to stop the crying before it starts:
One, she may wonder what is so scary about her emotions, and may start to become worried or fearful about having big feelings.
Two, she may wonder who’s really in charge here and where she can find the safe container she needs to release all this big stuff without freaking anyone out.
Three, she may start repressing those big feelings because they seem unwelcome or unsafe. And of course, the repression leads to an eventual explosion, which scares her and everyone else all the more when it finally comes, and the cycle begins again.
Four, the built up backlog of unexpressed emotions may start to leak out sideways, and make her sort of generally unpleasant to be around. (Not being included by her peers can be one of the consequences of this …)
It’s tough to be a child. Therapist Alison Ehara-Brown says “young children face challenges and disappointments all day long.” Emotional responses to the day’s events are one thing but parents should be alert for signs of bigger things going on in their children’s lives:
Crying over lots of little things may well be a sign of some larger problem. Many adults, both parents and teachers, have forgotten how hard some of the day-to-day struggles in school can be. We forget what a big adjustment it is, and how much a child can miss Mommy or Daddy. Or a child may be dealing with a difficult situation at home or at recess…
As children get older and enter school, they face pressure to stop crying at a time when they still need a lot of opportunities to get their feelings out. These opportunities diminish quite quickly for children. Often boys who feel pressure to not cry anymore will find a way to get hurt physically so they can cry. Children will make their best effort to find an acceptable way to let you know that things are hard.
So Alonge (who I think writes very well on this subject) says to let kids cry if they must:
Don’t try to avoid upsetting her. Let her experience the natural flow of emotions – intensity builds, peaks, is released through a good cry, and then dissipates.
When we see crying as a problem rather than a solution, and try to smooth things over so crying doesn’t happen, kids miss out on the relief of the fresh, clean, connected feeling that comes after the storm.
Be empathetic and don’t try to force them to bottle up their true feelings. Be a “compassionate witness” and don’t let them cry by themselves:
[C]rying alone is not nearly as productive as crying in the presence of someone who loves us. The most helpful support you can give her is to stay close and calm while she sobs and rails and does whatever else she needs to do to purge the emotional static from her nervous system.
Being highly sensitive isn’t a phase some kids go through; it’s who they are. Teaching them to use that energy to help themselves — and make the world a better place in the process — is the real challenge parents should embrace. After all, Alonge reminds us:
Sensitive kids can learn to manage their temperament and function quite well in our society. School can be tough for them, but when given the freedom, they often design their personal environments to foster great productivity. Intuition, creativity, and compassion are a just a few of the many gifts that often come wrapped in a package of sensitivity.
Perhaps the best-known book on this subject is “The Highly Sensitive Child” by Elaine N. Aron, Ph.D., which you can find here.
***Do you have a non-urgent, clinical or otherwise (but nothing personal!) question for your Pediatric Alliance doctor or provider? Send an email with your questions to firstname.lastname@example.org and we’ll do our best to answer them and post them on The PediaBlog. You don’t have to include your child’s name, but an idea of their age is helpful. Also, please include the name of the division you go to and your doctor’s or provider’s name.
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