4 Things I've Learned About Raising a Sensitive Child
Updated: Nov 2, 2021
For some naive reason, I thought it would be fairly easy to raise girls since I grew up and was socialized as a girl. What I didn’t realize is that I would be carrying deep-seated baggage that would impact how I parent my kids.
Seriously, why is there no warning about that anywhere? Who’s idea was it to allow people to become parents while still trying to figure out how to adult in real life?
One of the more challenging parts of all of this is parenting a strong willed, sensitive child. Now, I recognize that we do not have a highly sensitive kiddo, but what I mean is that we have a child who feels deeply, worries a lot, is sensitive to perceived criticism, is a perfectionist, and becomes flustered easily.
It’s challenging because so much of my own emotional baggage keeps creeping in and impacting how I show up for my kids. While I am nowhere near being the best parent there is, I’ve learned a few things about parenting a sensitive child.
1. Wash away ideas about changing your child
Accept that your child is sensitive and feels things so deeply, you are often at a loss for words on how to respond. Sometimes my frustration builds and I react in anger rather than understanding and compassion. Other times, my actions suggest I want them to be a totally different person rather than working with who they are.
The term “sensitive” has negative connotations nowadays (although, has it always?), which inhibits our abilities to be compassionate and understanding toward others.
The thing is, it is easier to lash out and whine that my child cannot get it together. And boy have I said things in anger that I fully regret afterward! And when I do so, I am modeling a response I wouldn’t even want my own child to imitate.
Being sensitive doesn’t make anyone bad or more difficult to work with -- it means that we have to be more intentional in how we connect with them.
2. Help them learn how to vocalize what they’re feeling
This is a rough one. Our child has unfortunately learned to shut down when we are having a difficult transition or she feels like she is in trouble, regardless of whether she really is or not. It is both frustrating and heartbreaking, and an immense struggle as we try to teach her how to express her feelings.
I am including this in the list even though we are still in the midst of figuring this out. We work on naming our own emotions, which is easier said than done. I did not grow up with a communicative family so naming my own feelings requires a great deal of self-awareness and heart work.
Despite my own struggles, we continue working with both our kiddos so that they can fully express their emotions and thoughts. We work on sharing with both of them that what they are feeling is valid, that we hear them, and that we are safe adults they can talk to.
3. Learn their love language
Usually when people talk about love languages, it’s centered on romantic relationships. However, our kids have their own love languages and it’s been both fun and interesting to lean into how we can better convey our love for them.
What this allows us to do is to nurture deeper bonds so that both girls know they can trust us and that they can lean on us. We don’t always get it right, but it’s been so important for us that to prioritize the ways our kids prefer to receive love. Even if we’re not always the people they turn to in confidence, we want to do everything we are able to so that they know we will always be there for them.
4. Apologize when you’ve done wrong and explain why
Oh Lord, this is a practice of patience and strength. “Sorry” was not a word I heard often in my childhood so I have limited experience in how to do this well. However, it is one that I knew I needed to prioritize working on.
It’s rare for kids to hear that their trusted adult could have been wrong. Growing up, we painted adults as these all-knowing, infallible people. Adults would use white truths to cover up the hurt and harm they were doing to kids -- it was just the nature of parenting after all, right?
I want our girls to know that no one is perfect and that we can mess up, too. I want the girls to see us hold ourselves accountable and model humility. Learning how to apologize to the young people in our lives shows them that repairing relationships is a priority for us.
As I share our experiences with a sensitive kiddo, I become more acutely aware that I, too, am a sensitive one. These are things I wish I was able to witness as a child. And as I continue to grow as a parent myself, I have an opportunity to free myself from this particular baggage and show up for my sensitive kid in the way that she deserves.