‘Don’t be so sensitive’ may be the worst thing you can say to a sensitive child, says parenting expert, Dr Justin Coulson.
If you have been a parent for more than a few minutes, you might have noticed something about children and sensitivity – most children are inherently sensitive. They feel secure when they receive our warmth and compassion. But their sensitivities are heightened when our responses are sharp, cold or harsh. Some people argue that we need to toughen our children up so they can survive in a dog-eat-dog world.
I disagree. I want my children to be sensitive. I want them to be able to identify their feelings, to know what they are and why they are having them. I want them to trust their feelings. They need to be sensitive in order to do these things. Those feelings let them know what’s OK and what’s not. In addition, I want them to be sensitive to others. I want them to be empathic, and to know how to respond to other people’s emotions. I want their sensitivity to be a blessing, rather than a burden.
The best way I can help my children to be sensitive is to honour their feelings, and turn towards them with empathy and kindness. When I do this, I believe I fulfil what L. R. Knost, author of Two Thousand Kisses a Day, hoped for when she said: “It’s not our job to toughen our children up to face a cruel and heartless world. It’s our job to raise children who will make the world a little less cruel and heartless.”
Why are kids so sensitive?
Part of our children’s sensitivity is a response to their development. That is – it’s biological. Researchers point out that emotional regulation is a skill that we all struggle with, even as adults. But when our children are young, they find it particularly hard to not be sensitive. They feel something, it wells up inside them and they let it out. Emotions are big and hard to understand, let alone control.
Starting at age two, children are able to talk about their feelings and they begin to engage in strategies to control and regulate them. They start to use language to express feelings, but it is hard for them.
Usually around age seven or eight, children are beginning to effectively regulate their emotions. But it is not uncommon to see parents rousing on their kids for being so sensitive and emotional well before they are eight years old – particularly their sons.
In addition to biology, there is also an environmental influence to our children’s sensitivity. We have a habit of doing what Dr John Gottman describes as ‘turning away’, or ‘turning against’ our children.
In other words, we are insensitive!
When we respond with insensitivity to our children’s challenges, we show dismissal (you’ll get over it), or disapproval (you silly girl). Neither response is helpful but both are common. In fact, both responses make our children feel unworthy. They exacerbate our children’s sensitivity.
As our children get older and can regulate their emotions with some effectiveness, they may not respond to our statements with open sensitivity and tears. But this doesn’t mean they’re no longer sensitive. Instead, they hide it from us to avoid further recriminations, pushing it underground. But it will manifest in other ways in both the short term and long term. Relationships are ruptured and trust is eroded.
Responding with sensitivity
Instead of disapproving and dismissing our children’s sensitivities and turning against or away from them, Gottman recommends we turn towards our chlidren’s sensitivity. Accept it. When we have promoted the sensitivity by our own insensitivity, we should apologise for hurting our child’s feelings and promise to be more sensitive in the future. By showing empathy, we teach our children that they matter and that their feelings are a normal part of being human. We show that we care.
Our children’s sensitivity can feel like a rod for our backs. But when we tell them to stop being so sensitive, we diminish them and our relationship with them. When we show love, empathy and kindness, we raise children who know they matter and who can be a blessing to others.
This article was written for Kidspot by Justin Coulson, Ph. D. Justin is a relationships and parenting expert, author and father of five children. Find him on Facebook, Twitter, and at happyfamilies.com.au.