Education Cheat Sheet: Guiding an Emotional or Sensitive Child
Not every conversation needs to end in tears. Here are some ways you can coach your child, and yourself, through those emotional storms.
Do either of these sound familiar?
Your smart, funny, and personable child has gone from delightful to defiant in a few moments, turning what was supposed to be a fun day or even a regular day of school into a series of exhausting skirmishes.
Or this: On the way to a friend’s birthday party, your child begins crying, wanting to go home. When asked why, vague symptoms are cited–which inexplicably disappear within minutes of returning. This has happened more than a few times.
It can be tricky to help a child who seems exceptionally sensitive or emotional. Emotions are powerful, harkening back to the earliest humans who relied on them to warn of danger and to fuel a “fight or flight” response.
Highly sensitive or emotional children need to have their feelings acknowledged as real and painful, while you coach them to find better ways of expressing and resolving these emotions. The goal is to teach the child how to pause between feeling and action, enabling a better choice. Challenging work–especially because each child is unique. This self-regulation is especially difficult for some, requiring patient cultivation.
As parents, our own temperament adds another layer of complexity. Is our child’s volatility inexplicable and alien? Or is it all too familiar? Either way can stir up our own emotions. Like putting the oxygen mask on ourselves before putting it on our child (remember flying in an airplane pre-COVID-19?), we need to start with ourselves. How can we demonstrate healthy emotional self-regulation?
Recognizing and acknowledging feelings is a first step. You can begin by talking through your own reactions to a situation that did not involve your child: “I felt embarrassed that I missed my appointment and the person who called me seemed mad at me—and that made me feel uncomfortable and want to blame somebody else.” Ask your child to help you figure out how you could have handled things better. Look in videos and books for other examples to discuss.
Don’t just focus on your own decisions. Begin a conversation about how actions can lead to mistaken perceptions and unintended consequences, like hurting someone’s feelings by angry words. Draw attention to how empowering it is to choose a thoughtful response.
When your child has a rough spot, help him or her through describing rather than reacting. Realize that it takes time for the thinking part of the brain to reactivate after a rush of emotion. When your child uses good strategies for calming, call attention to the moment and how empowering it feels to control our responses.
For yourself, take peaceful moments to appreciate, reflect, and consider the flip side. With most things, the difficulties are usually balanced by gifts. For example, your sensitive child can be observant, intelligent, and empathetic. Seeing and valuing this can help you accept that she or he may also be too quick to perceive slights or imagine the worst. Adjusting your own expectations, while encouraging and teaching your child, is a winning combination for the entire family.
Create a Feeling List or Chart to Build Awareness and Develop a Robust Emotion Vocabulary.
Play “What’s My Emotion?” charades; start with acting out basic emotions then try more nuanced ones like “confused” or “crestfallen.”
Use Tactile and Visual Aids to Illustrate and Support Self-Calming Strategies.
Get a ball or squishable toy. Squeeze then release it to demonstrate the rhythm of peaceful breathing. Let your child do the same.
Play Some Games!
In addition to “Name That Emotion” charades, there are a variety of appealing games on Amazon for different age ranges that are explicitly designed to teach emotion recognition and management (for example, “Feelings and Dealings”). You and your child can make up or adapt your own games, too: Feeling BINGO anyone? Games like “Red Light, Green Light” practice willed control. “Bubble Pop and Stop” is similar: Blow bubbles for your child to pop before they hit the ground, but when you say, “Stop!” your child needs to freeze. Call attention to your child’s breathing as it slows, and experience the gentle coolness of the popping bubbles.
It requires some research to find books well-matched to your family’s needs, but here are two good ones with which to start.
- Permission to Feel: Unlocking the Power of Emotions to Help Our Kids, Ourselves, and Our Society Thrive by Marc Brackett. Brackett provides skills and tools, and a framework for managing emotions.
- Anger Management Workbook for Kids by Samantha Snowden. Meant for elementary children, the workbook is filled with understandable lessons (such as recognizing the difference between requesting and demanding) and lots of activities including open-ended questioning, drawing and practicing strategies.
If your child’s emotional intensity is affecting relationships or ability to enjoy everyday activities, it may be time to consult with a professional counselor or therapist. That person will be able to best support your family and match your needs with appropriate strategies.
Jyo Bridgewater is the principal at Holy Nativity School, where she also teaches classes in English Language Acquisition. An Episcopal school, HNS personalizes learning within an inclusive environment. Follow HNS on Facebook and Instagram @holynativityschool and on Twitter @holynativity.