Tuesday, August 6, 2013

Parenting a Highly Sensitive Child

Parenting a highly sensitive child can be a challenge:
  • Trying to figure out how much activity is enough and how much is too much;
  • Ensuring the child gets enough sleep, but not too much sleep; 
  • Gradually moving bedtime earlier in order to accommodate sleep needs and then having to help the falling asleep process because said child is a night owl; 
  • Providing food (not too much, not too little) at regular intervals and ensuring that it's eaten slowly enough to give a stomach time to process and still fast enough to get on with life post-meal;
  • Balancing event participation with allowing a child to bow out in favour of a quiet hour at home;
  • Anticipating things that will cause anxiety and learning ways in which to help the child manage those anxieties; 
  • Allowing enough time to really listen and help the child express fears and worries without offering solutions; 
  • Thereafter being creative enough to help generate solutions to the problems;
  • Being ok with the fact that child is just a little different than, perhaps, the norm, and not pushing for conformity or inclusion.  Acceptance is key here. 
  • Maintaining a tight and non-judgmental attachment with the child so that the child feels safe enough to continue to express anxieties (rather than allowing worries to consume their insides);
  • Worrying far more about relationship than about behaviours and manifestations of anxieties/sensitivities;  
  • Being adaptable enough as a parent to give up on using things like consequences as a discipline technique because not only do they not work, but they unintentionally promote shame and internalization in highly sensitive children.
  • Etc etc.  
Everything about parenting a highly sensitive child is about maintaining some form of balance; it requires pretty much constant parental involvement and juggling, as well as intense listening and observational skills.  I'm sure others can relate.

I think of Matthew as a finely tuned instrument.  Whether tightening the strings too much, or leaving them slack...well, let's just say that neither option is a good one.

He's actually changed quite a lot already over the years.  Until he was about five years old, he couldn't handle bright sunshine, noises that were too loud, touch that was somehow 'off' for him, clothing labels that chaffed, sock seams on his toes.  Even his insides were highly sensitive - if he ate a bit too much, or a bit too quickly, or not enough, or not an adequate balance of food, he'd throw up.  He threw up quite a lot before the age of five while we figured things out.  It happened again as recently as last week, when he ate a bit too much at one dinner time and threw up during the night...sigh.  Sometimes, particularly in the early days, I felt like rolling my eyes (but didn't!) over the things that he was sensitive to...surely that didn't cause discomfort, I'd think over some new thing that he found intolerable.

Thankfully, in those early years, as we tried hard to accommodate his needs (buying sunglasses, tinting car windows, buying giant size ear protectors, ensuring he had quiet time to balance out social times, cutting off labels, managing his food carefully, etc etc), the needs themselves lessened.  Life for him was just a little easier for a couple of years.

Then, Seth and Lizzie came into our home and family and Matthew's entire being was thrown into chaos.  For two years...and counting.

Suddenly he had to share his bedroom (his quiet haven), had no more quiet (have you heard the volume of Lizzie's voice?), our routine became more structured, and on and on.  He lost the one-on-one attention and focus from me that he'd enjoyed for over seven years.  There was no gradual acceptance of an infant sibling that at least looked cute while invading space.  No, his new siblings were older, traumatized, opinionated, loud, and manifested huge needs themselves as they struggled mightily to make their adjustment to a new family and home.  We all struggled.  It was a monumental shock to Matthew's entire system and for a very long time it felt like we'd lost Matthew's presence, so huge was the impact on him.  In some ways we were expecting the impossible of him.

For almost the first two years after Seth and Lizzie arrived home in Canada, much of Geoff's and my parenting skills acquisitions revolved around securing their attachment and helping them work their way through trauma, etc etc.  That's not to say that Matthew was ignored in the process - anything but.  I feel that I know Matthew extremely well and we have gone to huge efforts to help him through the adjustments he's had to make.  I think we've done, are doing, everything we can to help him adjust.

Recently, though, over the past four or five months, as Seth and Lizzie have clearly been doing well, we've begun again to zero in on Matthew as far as our acquiring new parenting skills go.  Our regular sessions with a Neufeld consultant have been huge for us with all three kids, most recently with Matthew.

Turning our microscope onto how we parent Matthew is starting to pay off.  He's turned a bunch of corners in the past few months.  Between changing quite radically how we do school, working (even) harder on helping him manage his anxieties, understanding his triggers, learning to slow down even more and just be with him, figuring out ways in which to provide him with a little more space and quiet, learning different ways to help him manage and express his frustrations (eg. encouraging him to wale on a log or heavy cardboard box with a soft baseball bat), discovering things that he can do independently of his siblings, spending more time 'match-making' him with his siblings, continuing to find ways to spend time with him on a one-to-one basis, etc etc etc, we've seen some significant changes.  He's happier, a bit more relaxed, not as prone to take his frustrations out on his siblings, is less anxious, and he's shown signs of mixed feelings coming back (which were in place before S&L came home but which got lost in the transition).  I'm most excited about seeing the mixed feelings coming back, because that's what allows a child to say in his mind something like:  "I'm so mad at xyz right now, but I'm not going to hit/yell/push because I don't want to hurt xyz."  It means that I can relax just a wee bit.

I'm learning more and more about how to manage Matthew's evolving needs around schedule/food/sleep/space/etc in ways that maximize his abilities to cope.  In planning for fall's activities, for example, he and I have had long conversations about my/our decision not to let him participate in everything that he would like to.  So, while I have registered Seth for indoor soccer (something Matthew is also interested in doing), I have told Matthew that he will not be participating.  The only required events, from Geoff's and my perspective, are piano and swimming lessons.   He may also participate in a few other activities (gym class, maybe art class, etc), but his schedule is going to be lighter than it was this past year.  Surprisingly, though initially resistant and unhappy about these decisions, Matthew eventually sighed audibly and said that this was ok with him because he was tired of feeling tired from too many activities.  Huh.  We've talked through how it's going to feel to take Seth to activities while Matthew (and Lizzie and I) sit on the sidelines and we've processed together how we'll handle remaining activities that suddenly get to be too much.

Another small example of finding balance happened during the kids' attendance at Basketball camp two weeks ago (remember my 'mom's break' posts??).  Matthew wasn't enjoying it as much as during the previous two summers, and when I took them for their fourth morning, Matthew pulled me aside during the warm-up period before the morning started and told me that he simply didn't think he could be there.  I wasn't surprised...I'd seen his anxiety building over the previous few days.  My only regret is in not dealing with it overtly sooner - I was so eager to have my five mommy mornings to myself that I allowed myself to basically ignore what I was seeing in him.

But that morning at the start of camp, I could see that he was fighting despair quite earnestly, though obviously not wanting to break down in the nearby presence of his coaches and other kids.  I pulled him out of the gym to talk for about five minutes and in the end, even though I'm wanting to teach the kids the importance of sticking with our commitments, this was a moment that clearly required me to balance that value with what was in Matthew's best interests.  I took him home with me.

The moment we walked in the door, Matthew sighed loudly and said "ahhh, it's so quiet here...this is exactly what I needed."  We spent most of that morning cuddled up in bed, talking and reading and just resting together.  He kept telling me how much he loved me and thanked me repeatedly for taking him home with me.  He was visibly relieved.  He decided at the end of the morning with no pressure or questions from me that, even though it wasn't his favourite activity, he'd like to go back to basketball camp the next day, to finish up the week...he was able able to build up some genuine resilience because he'd been allowed opportunity and time to deal with his sadness and the anxiety that was plaguing him.

This is just one of many examples that happened during that week.  I wish I could adequately explain what just one day looks like at times.

And sometimes life gets a little crazy and those are hard weeks with/for Matthew.  The excitement of my brother's recent wedding, a bunch of family birthdays that have all wanted celebrating, the impact on my patience level as I've executed the past couple of hectic weeks...all of these things took a toll on Matthew and we saw behaviours returning that had been diminishing.  Mixed feelings all but disappeared again, tempers flared easily, listening to one's parents seemed an impossible task, and things were generally harder to manage on a moment-by-moment basis.  This week won't help restore balance as Matthew participates in a tennis camp with his cousin this week (already the anxieties were up significantly last night and this morning as we got ready for the first morning of camp), and as we have that same cousin stay with us for a few days at the end of camp.

The good news is that I'm not as worried any more - a little stressed and tired, yes, but not as worried.  I will make a distinct effort in the coming weeks to reduce activity for a while, resume more balance in all areas of life, and we'll all get through it.  I am getting better and better at focusing on keeping our relationship strong rather than worrying about behaviours that get out of line.

Matthew's always going to be sensitive, but my hope is that by meeting his needs now and by helping him learn to manage himself over time, that the needs themselves will lesson, as they did when he was about five.

Raising a highly sensitive child is a challenge, without a doubt, but it's just who Matthew is and I love with everything in me who he is.  All of our kids are unique and he is no exception; God created this kid with some very unique qualities - qualities that won't always be easy for him in life, but qualities that make him quite something!


  1. Hi Ruth!

    I love how you have such a good grasp on your each of your children's unique personalities and have developed an approach for each of them.

    My son is also sensitive like Matthew but is on the other end of the spectrum when it comes to the sensory side of things. He is a sensory "seeker" and loves constant activity and movement. He is very loud (has had no volume control from day 1!) and always seems so confident and outgoing. Yet he melts into a puddle of emotion when things go differently than how he expects. It is such a challenge! I would love to hear your thoughts on this!

    PS - my son is also in tennis camp this week. I am wondering if it is the same one as Matthew.

  2. Thanks Tracy...much appreciated. I really appreciate your compliment about my grasp on my kids' uniqueness because that's one of my major goals as a parent..it's really important to me. It's rather exhausting at times, but I think the benefit for our kids is so awesome. For example, I don't always provide 'fairness' in a way that others/my kids might perceive as fairness...what I try to provide is a meeting of genuine needs of the kid I'm working with. I mess this up at times, for sure, but that's the goal. Just today, for example, I said to Seth and Lizzie that they were going to be responsible for tidying up the family room and sun room and they wondered why Matthew wasn't included in that. Most might provide a job for all three to work on (and sometimes I do); in the moment I simply explained that this is what I had decided (I don't think kids always need a big explanation) but what I later explained (after the clean-up had happened) was that when the kids come home from an exhausting day of something (like Matthew's tennis camp today) I want to guard them from having 'too much;' I couldn't see asking Matthew to do a chore just after coming home, especially given that we're heading out this evening so he'll experience further stimulation, etc. Other days, I'll ask Matthew to do a chore and the other kids aren't asked to do one. Anyway, that's just the tip of the iceberg on that topic!

    Yes, our sons are in the same tennis camp this week...I wish I'd read your comment earlier b/c I hadn't seen it when I saw your hubbie at the play structure when we were picking up the boys. He was wearing sunglasses and I was looking at him in the sun and I didn't immediately recognize him when he said hi and said that his better half (ie. you) had wondered if our boys were in tennis camp together. So I asked his name and then I connected him with you! But in the meantime, he also added the bit about Kindermusik (which I totally know) and probably thought I was a psycho woman for not knowing right away who he was. Anyway, I'll tell him tomorrow when I see him that I'm sure I came across like an idiot...and an unshowered, messy-haired idiot at that!!

    (to be continued)

  3. (continued from earlier comment)

    Re: the sensitivity factor. I see similar sensory seeking qualities in my Seth...he is very, very tactile - has to touch everything (drives me a little batty, to be honest), stomps around the house (I think to better feel the sensation), talks loudly with no understanding that it's often just too loud for those around, plays at a very physical level, has a hard time lap-sitting without elbow digging and squirming, etc etc. I wouldn't say Seth is outgoing, as you noted Elliot to be, but he does appear to be quite confident by most people as he tears around playing. And yes, he's often a puddle of emotion, too, when things don't work out the way he hopes/expects. I see this as huge opportunities to allow him to grieve what's not working. I often chose not to fix things for him because I think all kids need to experience the futility of not being able to change things that just aren't working and, in particular, our kids with trauma and loss in their backgrounds. THe brain is a funny thing - as I understand what I've read and am studying, when kids grieve what doesn't work (for example, not getting a cookie before dinner and being unable to affect a change in their parents' minds...something even very simple) and they feel real sadness about it, the brain actually process the other, bigger griefs in their lives that are so much harder to deal with. So when feeling the sadness about the cookie, or about a friend not wanting to play with them, etc etc, when they really FEEL the sadness (and often cry), their brain is actually ALSO able to grieve bits of their hard past. The brain simply needs to experience futility and it will work out the bigger issues at the same time. It's fascinating. I love that Seth (and your Elliot) are able to cry when things don't work the way they want/hope/expect, because their sadness/tears allow them to grieve their bigger losses at the same time. That's also why, when we as adults have had a really bad week and then see a sappy Hallmark commercial on tv, we might cry or feel big sadness (or at least I might!) - not because the commercial by itself is 'worthy' of our tears, but because we have other, bigger things to cry about...and feeling the futility of those things helps our brain to truly adapt - because if we can survive that which we're grieving, we know we'll survive other things, too.

    Anyway, those are my initial thoughts. It IS such a challenge. When our kids are expressing emotion, it leads to such noisy/tearful/etc homes...and that can be very exhausting despite being cathartic and awesome for our kids' development. I'd be waaaaay more worried if our kids had a hard time crying.

    Further thoughts? Does this resonate?

    Thanks Tracy!!


  4. I LOVE how you worded this!
    I think I need to reword my earlier statement(s) that Cody is just like Seth. In how you just described Matthew, Cody is BOTH Seth AND Matthew. He craves activity and sensory input, but soooo easily gets overwhelmed by too much activity. He usually doesn't realiize it at the time, but we see it afterward, big time. I find he is driven by what he "thinks" other 9 year olds need and do, but then because he is such a sensitive child, he feels that separation and over-stimulation. We have had many conversations this summer about being able to feel what he needs and that may not be the same as he needs. I was thrilled yesterday when he told me that he was having a worry day and therefore he recognized that what he needed was to be together with Mommy. This was HUGE self-awareness for him and paid off, for the most part (until bed time, which is is when worry turns to fear, but last night it stayed at the level that he could talk through most of it).
    I reallly appreciate how you are teaching Matthew to be aware of what his unique needs are and how he can work to balance things, with some assistance as he develops the skills, so that he does not live in a perpetual state of being overwhelmed. This is what I am striving to do with Cody, but often feel that I am falling down on succeding at helping to actually do it for himself. But then there are days like yesterday, when I see the boy who arrived at 6 with next to no emotional vocabulary and awareness self-advocating for his emotional needs and I am reminded that sometimes it is hard to see the baby steps until we are forced to truly open our eyes because someone just took a giant step.

  5. Hey Ellen, and thanks for your kind words...I'm so glad something worked in what I wrote.

    I read your comment and am just so overwhelmed by how complex and unique our children all are - it's astounding. It sounds like things are beginning to really click with Cody - the example from yesterday must have been a huge moment, and good for you for recognizing the giant step forward!

    My suggestion is not to worry about falling down on helping him actually do these things by himself. Here's the thing. Our kids are young, still, and they are MEANT to be dependent on us at this point...that is our role as their parent, to take care of them and to meet their needs as well as we are able. We push our kids to independence and doing things for themselves waaaay too early in life. They need to learn these things from US, over time. I believe that the process of helping them to do these things themselves will manifest when they're adults - right now our job is to enable them to have as many experiences as possible that will build something like muscle memory in their brains (kind of a warped image, but oh well). I used to worry so much about the future, and then just suddenly realized that I have until my kids are 18-20 years old to work with them on this stuff...and maybe beyond. It's so much more helpful for me to stop worrying about 'what if when...' things and focus on how I can help in this moment/hour/day/week/month.

    Thank you so much for sharing what you've shared, Ellen. I think of you often as I meander about our lives, knowing that you also encounter similar issues, and I love hearing from you!



  6. Thanks, Ruth.
    I definitely see it as a long process, just sometimes worry that we are stuck in one spot. With Cody, my worry is giving him enough emotional skills to help him through the teenage years. Those years can be hard enough, but navigating them when you are highly sensitive and have such complex issues, well that's even harder. I'm a worrier by nature, so I need to make sure I stay in the now and not so much in he "what if when"s.
    Now Alexander, that's a whole different set of worries for my little confident clown...