This is the final installment of Dr. Deborah MacNamara’s three-part series on the sensitive (‘orchid’) child. The first installment painted a picture of the sensitive (‘orchid’) child. The second installment focused on common challenges of raising sensitive kids.
How can we give sensitive kids the best environment to grow in?
While all children need developmentally friendly environments to grow in, it is a critical factor in determining whether a sensitive child will thrive or wither. The following strategies will help create healthy contexts and relationships benefiting all children but in particular sensitive ones.
1. Protect them from experiences that are too much.
When environments, relationships, or experiences are too much for a sensitive child, their caretakers need to read the situation and protect them accordingly. For example, a parent may sign a young child up for a music class, only to find they run for the door each time the noise starts. The child may find visual or auditory stimuli overwhelming and as a result, need to spend shorter times in these environments, if at all. It is important that an adult read what a child is capable of, even in small doses, but not shelter them altogether. Pushing them beyond their limits typically leads to the child shutting down or exploding with upset. At the same time, a parent may need to take a sensitive child through a situation that feels uncomfortable for them. For example, one mother said:
My seven-year-old daughter had pyjama day at school and she put them on, only to get to the car and tell me she didn’t feel comfortable and wanted to change. I believed she would be fine once she got to school and that it was important for her to see she could do this, so I decided to help her feel uncomfortable and help her through it. I told her we were going to try wearing our pyjamas and if it didn’t work I would bring her clothes to school. She huddled against me the whole time until her teacher appeared in a pink fuzzy bathrobe and yelled, “Pyjama day!” As she looked at her classmates dressed similarly with their stuffed animals, she relaxed and went into the classroom. This may seem trivial to other parents but for me it was such a great success.
There are times to protect a sensitive child and times when they need support to face things that feel too big or uncomfortable. Knowing what to do can be difficult and requires a parent to make a judgment call through reading the child’s needs, making sense of what is stirring them up, and taking a strong lead through it.
2. Lead the child into vulnerable territory.
Sensitive children are known for their avoidance of content that is upsetting or alarming. They may shy away from sad stories in books and get scared watching children’s TV shows. Parents need to walk gently in these directions when needed, not pushing but inviting them to express what is going on emotionally. Sensitive kids often deflect attention away from their feelings because of the vulnerability experienced. It may be better to draw attention to emotional issues one step removed as in picture books or in stories about other people. Being able to play when they are stirred up will help their emotions be expressed in their art, movement, buildings, or figures. Acknowledging their big feelings, helping them express and name them will help guide them in understanding their internal world better. Reading the child’s cues and trying to draw out their upset before they erupt is a better strategy than waiting for things to go over the top. For example, one father said:
I noticed my nine-year-old son was really chewing and biting his nails as he watched Gilligan’s Island – the comedy TV show about all the people trapped on the island. I asked him what was wrong as he seemed to be kind of nervous biting his fingers. He said, “Dad, do these people ever get off the island?” He is always thinking about stuff like this, always anticipating what will happen.
Leading a sensitive child in matters of the heart is one of the most challenging tasks of all, but is absolutely critical for their overall emotional health and maturity.
3. Bridge all separation and problem behaviour.
When you need to have a discussion with a sensitive child about their behaviour, it is best to do it outside of the incident, in the context of a warm relationship, and to touch the issue gently. When things happen to upset them, they may need a cooling off period to reduce the intensity of their experience. When you convey what didn’t work, make sure to communicate the relationship is still okay. Make it easy for them to hear your words of guidance and keep your relationship strong. In the heat of their big reactions you can simply tell them, “This behaviour isn’t okay but I will talk to you later about it and we will find a way through.” They may tell you, “I don’t want to talk about it,” to which you can respond that you will make it easy, quick, and as pain-free as possible, but sometimes things need to be said and dealt with.
4. Help them find their tears when needed.
To cultivate resiliency, a sensitive child will need to have their tears about the things they cannot change and do not go their way. Sensitive children often have big expectations and plans that are not realized. They may want good experiences to continue indefinitely, to be perfect and avoid failure, or to change someone’s mind when they don’t agree. The things they can’t change will frustrate them and sometimes lead to big eruptions, especially in the early years. When the intensity of these emotions is drained through their eruptions, melting their frustration into tears is the way through. In these soft, vulnerable tears are the seeds of resiliency in realizing they can survive when life doesn’t go their way. In order to help them find their tears they will need strong, caring adults who are not afraid of their big feelings and reactions. If their tears disappear, a host of behaviour and learning challenges can appear. Restoring emotional vulnerability is the best avenue for bringing a sensitive child to rest again.
While every child is born with differences in their inherent makeup, the reassuring answer is adults in their life are key in creating the conditions for growth. The needs of sensitive children shed light on the importance of adult relationships and our emotional vulnerability as human beings. If we can make sense of sensitive kids, we can help them flourish and express the wonderful potentials that exist inside of them. As caretakers of our children we have the power within us to alter the trajectory of their development.