Updated: Aug 5
Have you ever looked at your child and wondered, “What am I doing wrong? Why are they breaking down over everything, tantruming all the time and not listening? Maybe everyone is right. I should be more strict with them and show them who’s boss.” Does that sound at all like you?
If it does, I’ve got some good news for you! You are not doing anything wrong! And the answer to your child’s misbehavior does not lie in stricter rules and severe punishments! The answer is actually quite the opposite.
But before we get to the answer, let’s explore why your child might be behaving differently from other kids around.
What is the underlying reason for your child’s behavior?
Let me first preface this by saying that what I’m about to tell you does not replace medical advice. If you or your child’s doctor have any suspicions of developmental or learning disorders, I urge you to go to a specialist to get your child tested and get them the help they need in order for them to thrive.
But what if a learning or developmental disorder is ruled out but your child still behaves way more intensely than their peers and does not respond to anything you do?
The answer may be that you have a Highly Sensitive or Spirited Child.
The term Highly Sensitive Child was coined by Dr. Elaine Aron to describe roughly 20% of the population that has the Sensory-Processing Sensitivity trait, while the term Spirited was coined by Mary Sheedy Kurcinka. Both terms describe the same trait of high sensitivity. This trait is a blessing and a curse.
On the positive side, the Highly Sensitive or Spirited person experiences everything at a higher level - they get significantly more information from the environment through smell, sight, taste, sound, and emotional state of everyone around. On the negative side, by experiencing everything at a higher level, they get overstimulated and overwhelmed much easier than the average person. So cue in the neverending (and very long) meltdowns that only ratchet up in intensity if you let them play out.
Keep in mind that high sensitivity or spirit is not a disorder. Rather it’s different brain wiring that involves a different dopamine response, more active mirror neurons, and a more vivid response in your ventromedial prefrontal cortex
As Dr. Elaine Aron puts it, “HSPs are just more”. As I put it when it relates to my son and me “We’re just extra”.
How do You Know if Your Child is Highly Sensitive or Spirited?
To determine whether your child may be highly sensitive or spirited, they need to score high in the following categories: intensity, persistence, sensitivity, perceptiveness, energy; and low in these categories: adaptability, regularity, first reaction.
So if your child is intense, persistent, sensitive to smells, sounds, lights, people’s moods, has boundless energy, but is slow to adapt to new situations, has an irregular schedule, and their first reaction to new things is usually “No” - then chances are pretty high that you have a Highly Sensitive or Spirited Child.
Notice that slow adaptability to new situations is not the same as shyness. Shyness stems from anxiety and low self-esteem, while the slow adaptability of a highly sensitive or spirited child arises from the child observing their environment before joining in. They are obtaining all the possible information before joining in.
How do you parent a Highly Sensitive or Spirited Child?
High sensitivity or spirit poses a challenge when it comes to parenting strategies. The more traditional route of punishments doesn’t curb the behavior and full on permissiveness doesn’t lead to better behavior either. So what do you do?
Prevent Sensory Overload
First, understand that most spirited kids don’t have tantrums, they have full on meltdowns. The difference between a tantrum and a meltdown is that a tantrum has a purpose, while a meltdown is sensory overload. So one of the best parenting strategies with a spirited child is to prevent the sensory overload.
If the sensory overload is coming from too much noise, bright lights, or too many people, your best solution is to take your child into a less stimulating environment and allow them to calm down. Be present with them and offer them the space to find calm and stillness. And if you know you are going to be in a situation that may create a sensory overload, plan ahead. Maybe shorten the time at the place, use ear plugs, sunglasses, or take a comfort object with you.
With tantrums things become a little tricky. The best strategy is still prevention. If you know that your child wants to put shoes on themselves, allow the time for them to do it. Ask them which plate or cup they want to use before giving it to them. Highly sensitive or spirited children have a difficult time processing not being in control of their environment. Know that and plan around it. It may be that you have to give in to them on things that are not of the utmost importance, like which shirt or shoes they wear. But do stand firm on things that are important like manners, using words to express frustration, not causing harm to anyone, etc.
While your Highly Sensitive or Spirited child may be raging, you need to keep your cool. I know that it’s hard. I, personally, have a difficult time with it. But it’s important in order to help your child regulate themselves and stop the meltdown.
What you need to keep in mind is that their “defiance” or tantrum is not personal. They aren’t doing the behavior because they want to get under your skin. They are losing it because they can’t regulate their emotions and their system went into a sensory overload. Next you need to keep yourself from getting emotionally dysregulated along with your child. So take a breath, step away, remind yourself that your child isn’t doing this on purpose, and continue breathing. Then be there for them and help them calm down. Whether it’s through a tight hug, some calm words, a song, whatever helps. Just keep breathing and keeping calm and you will be able to bring your child back.
Prepare your child for transitions and new situations
As I mentioned before, most Highly Sensitive or Spirited children are slow to adapt. This happens when they enter new situations and also during numerous daily transitions. In order to make all these transitions easier, you need to prepare your child for them. So when it comes to daily transitions like stopping play to go eat dinner, getting in and out of the car, visiting multiple stores, or bedtime - know your child’s limits. Give them 5 minute warnings when it’s time to change activities, limit the amount of stops on your errand runs, streamline and simplify your bedtime routine. The less transitions, the less chances for sensory overload.
When entering new situations, give your child time to scan and assess their environment before jumping in. Ward off nosy people who can’t wait to say hi to them, don’t require your child to immediately jump into activities, require them to say hi, but allow them not to have any further conversation until they are ready. Expect that starting a new school, having a new teacher, meeting a new babysitter will all require time and patience. Make sure that whoever you’re working with understands your child’s need to take their time. If you push them in too early, you may sabotage the whole situation.
Learn to collaborate with your child
While you should start collaborating with your child from an early age, it will become more important as they get older. When you collaborate with your child, they feel calmer, more involved in the process, and in control of their environment. And in turn they will behave in a much more pleasant manner.
Even when collaborating with your child, you are still in charge. So when you give them choices, make sure you are OK with them making the choices you offer. This leaves both you and your child feeling in control of the situation. It also teaches your child a valuable skill of negotiation and compromise. And while all kids benefit from this practice, your Highly Sensitive or Spirited child will benefit even more from it.
Don’t forget to take care of yourself
Since parenting a Highly Sensitive or Spirited child can take a lot out of you both physically and emotionally, you need to take care of yourself. Find help, so that you’re not the only one dealing with your child. Make sure your partner is able to step in if you’re feeling too overwhelmed. Allow yourself to walk away if you can’t handle any more of your child’s intensity. This break will be good for both you and your child. Call up a friend if you need a break, take a walk by yourself, have a cup of tea, take a bath, do a 5 minute meditation. Do whatever you need to do to find your calm. Because if you’re calm, you have a better chance of helping your highly sensitive or spirited child stay calm.
Parenting a Highly Sensitive or Spirited child can be a tough gig, but it also comes with much joy and wonder.
Super cute family pics by : Cory Ryan Photography
Contributor: Maria Yakimchuk