Engineer Gail Tan, 34, was at work when she received a phone call from her distraught helper. She was told that her 4-year-old-son, Ian, was crying uncontrollably, hiding in the wardrobe and refusing to come out.
Tan recalls, “Ian had come home from nursery and was very excited to feed his pet rabbit. But the rabbit was not hungry and refused to eat the carrot Ian was holding. When Ian persisted, the rabbit hoped to the corner. Ian was hurt and felt rejected. He reacted because he did not understand why the rabbit ignored him.”
Ian was still inconsolable when mummy returned home. It took her almost two hours before she could convince him to emerge from the wardrobe.
Tan explains, “To others, Ian may seem to be bad-tempered or is throwing a tantrum, but that is not true. Ian is a highly sensitive child, so we have learnt to be more patient and understanding about his moods and reactions. We are teaching him how to cope with his emotions.”
“Highly sensitive children have traits of being very sensitive to their senses like sights and sounds, are easily overstimulated and react very quickly to these stimulations.”
A sweet child, Ian’s teachers describe him as well-mannered, polite and hardworking. Tan notes, “Because of his sensitive nature, Ian is also more compassionate and empathic towards others. We have learnt to embrace his sensitivity and celebrate the benefits of having a highly sensitive child.”
Is my child highly sensitive?
If your child is easily affected by his surroundings, cries more easily than usual and is extra sensitive to the moods and emotions of other people, then you may be raising a highly sensitive child.
“Highly sensitive children have traits of being very sensitive to their senses like sights and sounds, are easily overstimulated and react very quickly to these stimulations. It is likely a personality construct and does not constitute an actual clinical diagnosis,” explains psychiatrist Dr Lim Boon Leng of Dr BL Lim Centre for Psychological Wellness.
He adds that sensitivity and irritability when their senses are overwhelmed are obvious even when the child is only few months old.
“As children grow older, they are likely to learn to deal with it and become more desensitised. Most of the time, the child may have heightened sensitivity but not to the extent of causing difficulties in life. If so, acceptance and helping the child gradually cope with difficult sensorium* is the best way forward. If the sensitivity is severe, it is best to seek help with mental health professionals.”
* The parts of the brain or the mind concerned with the reception and interpretation of sensory stimuli.
How can I help my child?
A highly sensitive child requires lots of patience, care and attention. Here are some ways in which we can help them:
1. Accept and embrace
The first step is to embrace and celebrate your child’s difference. Show them that you love and support them. Highly sensitive children are unable to control what they feel; instead of trying to change them, accept them. Focus on their strengths – highly sensitive children tend to be more creative, compassionate, empathic, perceptive and caring.
2. Understand the triggers
Does your child find certain noises too grating? Does certain clothing material feel itchy and prickly on their skin? Large crowds, meeting strangers, trying out different foods, doing something new ― these are examples of what may trigger your child as it forces them out of their comfort zone. Observe and find out what makes your child react strongly. By avoiding these triggers, you can help prevent your child from becoming overwhelmed by his senses and emotions.
Teach your child to take deep breaths when they start to feel upset or anxious, to count to 10 when they feel like crying or screaming.
3. Teach your child how to calm down
Telling junior to "stop crying" or “keep quiet” will not work. The emotional outburst may be as inevitable as a train wreck, but we can try to calm them down, so that their reactions will be less severe and shorter in length.
Teach your child to take deep breaths when they start to feel upset or anxious, to count to 10 when they feel like crying or screaming and teach them phrases like “This feeling will go away soon”, “I’m okay” or “I can handle this” to assure themselves that everything is okay or going to be okay.
Work with your child to find out what calms him or her down ― soothing music, reading books, quiet activity like colouring or origami ― and this can be their go-to when your child starts to feel overwhelmed.
4. Talk to them
Some children may not know what the problem is or how to express verbally what they are feeling, so they get frustrated and revert to the only way they know how ― crying. Teach your child words that describe how they feel. Feeling words include “happy”, “sad”, “angry”, “scared”, “mad”, “uncomfortable”, “embarrassed”, “shy” and “disappointed”. When they can label their feelings, they will better understand and connect how they feel with why they are feeling that way.
During or after a meltdown, ask your child why they are/were upset and help your child to come up with solutions to tackle the problem. Also, discuss what they can do to make themselves feel better. Listen to your child and praise their child for the efforts they are making.
5. Adopt a different type of discipline
All children, even highly sensitive ones, need to be taught right from wrong, what they can or cannot do and what are the limits and rules they need to follow. However, because of their nature, highly sensitive children will respond to discipline more intensely than typical children.
Harsh discipline like shouting, scolding, spanking or time-outs will not work for them. So, adopt a gentler discipline approach when you talk to your child ― explain their limits and boundaries and the consequences of their actions.
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