By Rachel Samson M.Psych
Learn five steps that will help you support your child through their big emotions
One of the most important influences on a child’s development is the quality of their relationship with their parents and other caregivers. That said, some children are more strongly affected by the caregiving environment than others.
You have probably heard of temperament traits such as introversion, extroversion, and contentiousness. Did you know that sensitivity is also a temperament trait? The scientific term for temperamental sensitivity is “sensory processing sensitivity.” Like other temperament traits, there is a continuum with people falling somewhere along the continuum from high sensitivity to low sensitivity. It is estimated that approximately 30% of the population has high sensitivity.
High sensitivity is typically associated with four main characteristics: a greater depth of processing information from the environment, being prone to overstimulation, greater emotional reactivity and higher empathy, and a greater capacity for sensing subtleties in the environment. We can liken highly sensitive people to living smoke detectors who can detect subtle changes in the environment that the majority of people may miss. In children, high sensitivity can present as children displaying intense emotions, being thoughtful and thinking-or worrying-deeply, becoming quickly overwhelmed in busy or loud environments, not liking to be watched while performing a task, finding it hard to fall asleep and wind down after a busy day, being tuned-in to others’ emotion and displaying a high level of empathy for their age, appearing cautious or slow-to-warm-up in new situations, and being strongly affected by both small and big changes.
We can liken highly sensitive people to living smoke detectors who can detect subtle changes in the environment that the majority of people may miss.
Research shows that highly sensitive children are more affected by the parent-child relationship. Highly sensitive kids tend to do exceptionally well in nurturing and supportive environments but are at higher risk for developing a range of physical and mental health conditions in harsh and unsupportive environments compared to children who are less sensitive. In other words, highly sensitive children are more sensitive to their environment for better and for worse.
So how do we provide supportive and nurturing environments for our sensitive kids?
5 STEPS OF EMOTION COACHING FOR HIGHLY SENSITIVE KIDS
All children need emotional support from their caregivers, but the benefits of emotional support can be even greater for highly sensitive kids.
As a clinical psychologist and parent coach, I often teach parents the Gottmans’ 5 steps of Emotion Coaching. Emotion Coaching can be thought of as the emotional guidance and support parents can provide to their sensitive kids to support their optimal emotional development and meet their emotional needs. As an Emotion Coach, you want to not only help your children to navigate the world of emotions and the tricky situations that trigger those emotions, you also want to show up for them in a way that gives them confidence that they can turn to you when they need you.
Once you have become aware of your child’s emotions, you are then in a position to support them.
Be aware of your child’s emotion
To provide your sensitive kids with emotional support, you must be aware of their emotions. To do this, you must first practise slowing down, being fully present, and tuning in to your child’s verbal and non-verbal communication. What is your child’s facial expression telling you? What is their body posture signaling? What are they saying? Once you have become aware of your child’s emotions, you are then in a position to support them.
Recognise the emotion as an opportunity for intimacy and teaching
Once you are aware of what your child is feeling, it can be helpful to recognise this moment as an opportunity for emotional connection and guidance. If you dismiss the emotion or try to shut it down, the opportunity for intimacy and teaching will be lost and your child may learn that they cannot trust you to be there for them when they experience big feelings. They may learn to turn away from you rather than towards you when they are having a hard time. Instead, when you become aware of your child’s emotion, say to yourself “this is an opportunity for me to show up for my child.”