Disclaimer: I am not a doctor, if you are worried about your child’s behavior or development, please talk to your pediatrician! The following is a review of information regarding a personality trait. These are 9 strategies to help your sensitive toddler that I have developed from personal experience.
What it Means to Have Highly Sensitive Child
Does your child seem to take things harder than his peers? Maybe your child has trouble with social outings or little tasks cause intense reactions. Have people made hurtful comments about how your child isn’t “normal?” You aren’t alone if you’ve ever struggled to understand your child.
Our first baby, Athena, gave us a rude awakening as to what parenthood really meant.
I remember watching her in her car seat as we took her home thinking she was the calmest child I’d ever seen. She had barely cried in the hospital and even though it took her a while to figure out how to latch, she had figured it out. Genius.
I can’t remember if it was that night or the night after, but that was when it started. Our sleepy baby recovered from the hard work of labor and really began to express herself, and express herself she did. Athena had “colic.”
I would stay up all night with that my precious baby while she cried. I remember doing lunges down the hallway to try and stay awake while she cried and cried in my arms. I cried. I sang. I shooshed. Sometimes it took three hours for her to sleep, sometimes nine. This lasted for ten painful weeks.
Even when the colic abated, Athena was still quick to cry. If we left the house and changed routine we would be punished by long bouts of crying in the car. We tried to go to a wedding once. I spent the entire 4hour reception in our rental trying to get our 6-month-old Athena to calm down. She still didn’t calm down until we’d gotten back to the hotel–a safe, quiet environment with her favorite little sound machine and her blanket.
I called these grunting tantrums. She would get so upset that she ripped at her clothes until they were removed, no longer cried, just laid there, grunted, and flailed. When this happened it felt as though the more I tried to reach out to her or comfort her, the worse it got.
As she got older it didn’t seem to get better. Now we were confined to the house (pre-COVID) because I was worried about losing entire days to the grunting. It wasn’t just the being in public, it felt as though every action was a struggle. Putting on diapers caused a tantrum. Putting on clothes caused a tantrum. Things that made her happy even caused tantrums.
My husband felt alienated from his child who seemed to take his naturally hard tone as constant criticism and burst into tears whenever he spoke directly to her. Our marriage was strained by what I considered his indifference to our child’s and my suffering.
I was terrified she was autistic and I wouldn’t be able to help her as much as she deserved. Before this point, I had convinced myself that there was no way she could have autism because she made eye contact. She just also happened to look everywhere else constantly too, almost as if she was always scanning the environment and our faces for signs of something that would upset her.
When family members would comment that something was wrong with her I’d get defensive and say that she was absolutely perfect, she was just different. I still feel that way. There is nothing wrong with a child who is considered different by most people’s standards. I just wanted to know what it was so that I could find the tools to help her. I didn’t want her to experience such emotional pain every day!
I finally had to admit that she wasn’t acting like other toddlers we knew. I regret not admitting this sooner. If I had been honest about recognizing something was different, I could gotten help sooner.
I began to do research. I left my job to become a stay at home mom and make sure I could give her all the attention she needed. I did google searches and read books. I talked with my pediatrician. And this is what I found out:
Athena may be what is called a “highly-sensitive” child.
I had no idea this even existed.
What is a Highly Sensitive Child?
Highly Sensitive is used to describe a psychological theory that highly sensitive children are affected by stimulus much more strongly than their peers due to having a highly reactive nervous system. The theory was first developed and researched by Dr. Elaine N. Aron based on adults who had difficult childhoods because of their inability to connect with caregivers or peers due to their emotional behavior. She has since conducted further research to apply to children.
High Sensitivity is a different classification than autism. It is not a disorder but is considered a trait. From what I understand of the current research, autistic children can be considered highly sensitive but not all highly sensitive children are autistic. Although, researchers are exploring the possibility that this is on the autism spectrum.
Some of the signs of a highly sensitive child may be a few or all of these…not all of these are only high sensitivity traits:
- Easily overstimulated by activities or environments
- Sensitive to clothing (fabrics, tags, tightness, etc.)
- Startle or scare easily
- Particularly difficult to get to sleep
- Don’t like being in loud places or with loud individuals
- Very cautious of play equipment that is elevated from the ground
- Very aware and reactive to pain
- Highly empathetic of others’ emotions
- Great imagination and creativity
Highly Sensitive children can vary widely in their sensitivities and reactions to stimuli. Highly sensitive children feel emotions more strongly than other children. Experiencing new things as they grow may overwhelm them easily.
Some children express outwardly with crying and screaming while some in the same situation may simply shut down and withdraw into themselves.
Athena will express both of these. When we used to go to singing library time or playdates at the park Athena would stand there watching the other children while holding my hand or having me hold her. She wouldn’t engage and would get very anxious if I tried to take her to the other children. Later this would be followed up with a grunting tantrum that would last hours.
All Highly Sensitive Children are Unique
The degree of sensitive children’s reactions can depend on the parental response to the child as well as their level of sensitivity. Dr. Aron theorizes that a parent who is not sensitive themselves or is not sympathetic of the child’s sensitivity can make reactions worse.
Dr. Aron also states in her book that the environment in which the child is in can greatly affect how he expresses his sensitivity. If they are in a safe environment when lots of stimuli are present, like a playdate for instance, then they may not react as harshly as if the playdate were in a new environment.
Highly Sensitive children’s tendency to be more empathetic makes them at higher vulnerability for internalizing bad experiences and becoming more shy, fearful, or depressed than other children.
Highly sensitive children may struggle in 6 common areas in their everyday interactions:
1. Subtlety Awareness
The highly sensitive child may notice very small details in situations that other children may have overlooked. Or, on the other hand, a highly sensitive child’s tendency to internally reflect upon things may cause her to overlook small social and situational cues.
2. Easily Overstimulated and Overaroused
Too many stimuli can cause intense reactions in the highly sensitive child. Overarousal describes when the child may anticipate something to a degree it causes anxiety.
3. Deep Inner Reactions
The child may internally process stimuli at a greater degree than others would. This is what can allow a highly sensitive child to feel all emotions more intensely than other children.
4.Awareness of Others’ Feelings
A highly sensitive child is often highly empathetic and nurturing of relationships. The child may understand how others are feeling even before they recognize it themselves. However, a highly sensitive child may also completely ignore another’s feelings when she herself has become overwhelmed.
5. Cautious of New Situations
Sensitive children are much more likely to thoroughly assess their situation before taking the plunge. This is why it may take a few visits before your toddler is ready to get up on the play equipment. Maybe then he’ll want you to hold his hand when he gets up there, and then maybe a few more times later he’ll be ready to try it for by himself.
This also means great things! That caution translates to being more aware of situations throughout their lives, meaning they are less likely to stray far from you at playgrounds, go up too high when climbing, engage in dangerous behavior in general, and be more conscientious of the friends they make.
6. Being different attracts attention from peers
Other children may pick up on the fact that your child processes things differently and may treat them differently then they would other children. This is an important thing to recognize so parents can teach their children how to handle social situations and understand why children may exclude them or treat them differently.
The Good Things About Being Highly Sensitive
Being Highly Sensitive isn’t all bad. In fact, Dr. Aron basically states that the Highly Sensitive Children of this world will save it. Not really but she does point out that having children who are sensitive to others and can determine problems much faster than other children are very valuable for the human race.
Dr. Aron’s research also indicates that these children (and adults) experience greater forms of happiness and contentment. Woo, that’s great!
Highly sensitive children are empathetic and kind and often highly creative. Their ability to notice things to a greater detail can provide for great detail-oriented tasks and jobs later in life. They are often seekers of social justice from an early age.
My daughter is definitely a seeker of social justice. Everything she gets her little sister must also receive. She is a wonderful advocate for her little sister and is always trying to include her.
Being Highly Sensitive does not mean that these children aren’t normal, it simply means they respond to things differently than other children.
I’m not sure if this will always apply to Athena, or if she truly is highly sensitive. Some of the research that is available on the subject seems a little vague. But acknowledging my child as being more sensitive to stimuli has helped us tremendously in our daily lives. We now have more information on how to give her and ourselves better tools to not just survive, but to thrive.
Update: We are having Athena evaluated to figure out more of what is going on and how we can help. We are investigating ADHD and Autism.
How to Help a Highly Sensitive Toddler Thrive
Disclaimer: I am not a doctor, if you are worried about your child’s behavior or development, please talk to your pediatrician!
After months of struggling with a beautiful newborn who I just couldn’t seem to figure out, I finally found my answer, or at least some helpful resources to help me parent a little better.
Do you have a highly sensitive toddler? Below are some strategies to help a sensitive toddler navigate their challenging world.
1. Accept your child’s highly sensitive trait
Dr. Aron, the woman who began research on Highly Sensitive people stresses that accepting your child is key to their development. I imagine this applies to any condition that humans have. If you accept it, you can take it on! If you’re emotionally supportive of your child then they can express their true emotions. Once expressed, you as a parent can begin teaching them how to deal with those emotions. If they learn to suppress those emotions out of fear of being rejected, then they will never learn how to cope with such emotions.
Accepting that your child may not fit in the “normal” can help you as the parent develop the tools you need in order to stop judging your parenting against the parenting of others. Wouldn’t it be nice to stop judging ourselves so harshly! I don’t think there was a single day when Athena was first born that I wasn’t on a parenting blog or website trying to figure out what I was doing wrong. I wasn’t doing anything wrong! I hadn’t yet developed the tools I needed to parent my child in the way that would help her the most.
2. Let your child choose between options when possible.
Whenever you are getting ready or can offer a choice, this will help your child feel more in control of their situation. This may also help you determine what things they feel are overstimulating.
This is an especially helpful tool with clothes. Once I gave Athena a choice to pick her clothes I discovered she liked fluffy dresses and T-shirts. When she got a chance to choose what she wanted to wear we no longer fought every time she needed to get dressed and she didn’t tear at her clothing in public when she began to get overstimulated.
3. Give your child a warning in advance before ending an activity.
You don’t just quit your job, you give 2 weeks notice (at least I hope you do.) I give my girls a warning that an activity is ending in a set amount of time to reduce the shock. I will let Athena and Artemis know that activity is ending in 2 minutes and then I will set a timer. I follow up with what activity we will be doing next so that they know what is coming and can make the transition to the next activity. I keep the amount of time I give them consistent because time is a very enigmatic concept for a toddler and it makes sure they don’t expect. a different amount of time for each activity.
4. Keep a routine so your child knows what to expect and is not caught off guard.
Maintaining a routine allows your child a chance to relax mentally because she knows what happens next. She doesn’t need to guess about what might happen, which may increase her anxiety and increase the chances of a meltdown.
I am not going to lie, I used to have extreme difficulty with setting a routine. I was allowing Athena’s intense moods to dictate our schedule, which not only made her more anxious and reactive, but it worsened my feelings of resentment about not being in control of anything.
Once we established our routine Athena exhibited a remarkable change in behavior. She was much calmer for activities which would have previously caused grunting tantrums. It hasn’t eliminated tantrums, but those she does have aren’t nearly as intense or long lasting. I’d say they’re pretty normal for a two year old 🙂
5. Be realistic about your tolerance levels and develop strategies for when your toddler has a meltdown or other intense emotions.
My husband and I have very different tolerance levels for screaming and crying. Especially when there is no clearly visible cause–at least to us. My husband can last about 2 minutes while I last for days– as long as I have my coffee. We realized early on that I was much more patient and understanding when Athena was having an emotional difficulty and therefore am usually the one to help her through it.
There is nothing wrong with having different tolerance levels. I think it is only wrong when one ignores these and the child ends up hurt.
Acknowledge how much you can handle when your child is having a tantrum or is upset. Develop strategies to cope. Your child can sense your emotions and read your tone, which may add to the stressor which caused the meltdown. If you’re getting upset and frustrated, find a place to put your toddler during her meltdown where she can safely express herself and you can find somewhere to breathe and calm down–or whatever you need for you.
6. Gently Introduce New Social Situations When Possible
Go slow. Realize that your child may become highly stimulated by even the good things.
When Athena is meeting a new friend, I try to have the friend come to her space first. Her first playdates were very awkward in that she wouldn’t interact with either the child nor the adult and I would end up holding a very solemn toddler in my arms the entire time. Now I have learned to invite people to our home where Athena is most comfortable and is able to feel like she can show the new friend her space. This puts her at less of a disadvantage as discussed in the previous post of other children picking up on the fact that sensitive children are different. Unfortunately, with COVID-19 playdates haven’t really been possible. I imagine once things are less isolated we will need to re-introduce friends we had previously gotten comfortable with.
7. Allow your child a comfort item.
This has been a very difficult thing for my husband to do. Athena has a blanket that she carries EVERYWHERE with her. It gets filthy! But she still loves it. Once she found her blanket, tantrums seemed to be soothed much easier. She gets upset and no matter what, blankie is there to help. Blankie is never frustrated or angry, she always listens.
My husband finds it embarrassing to have his daughter walking around with a filthy-looking full-sized blanket to every event we go to. It used to be white but it’s constant companionship to my daughter has been hard on it. To me, it’s worth it. If she is even just a little more comfortable and secure in a situation, then it’s worth the inconvenience of hauling it around.
My advice: hide your full-sized fuzzy blankets when your child is between the ages of 6 months and 18 months. Use washcloths as blankets 😉
8. Work Quiet Time Into Your Routine
Whenever your child has a new event coming up whether it be a doctors visit or a playdate (if COVID ever lets up), be realistic about how much time your child can spend without melting down. Watch for warning signs and be ready to make a quick exit. Don’t plan too many things in one day. If you know something usually causes a meltdown, have that be the event for the day and return to your child’s safe environment.
Make your child a haven, one outside the crib. Give them somewhere quiet where they can safely tantrum if needed. Have a basket of quiet toys or books nearby so if they aren’t at meltdown yet, they can simmer down without focusing on what is upsetting them and get further worked up.
We are teaching Athena to go to her little safe spot whenever she starts building up, just to take a moment to herself. Right now it works some of the time. She’ll pull a book off the shelf and sit there for a moment or sometimes she’ll invite us to join her. Either way, if it helps calm her down then it’s working.
9. Be Aware of How Food Affects Your Child
Food is one of the most influential stimuli that the human body has. Many doctors and dietitians have deplored the affect of sugar on children’s bodies. The Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics states that sugar may not necessarily cause hyperactivity with children due to its production of serotonin, or the “happy” chemical, in the body. However, It’s because of this production of serotonin that “coming off” sugar can cause a crash. The sugar responsible for the boost of serotonin creates a temporary dip in levels once it is no longer stimulating production.
Dr. Kathleen Desmaisons is an author of multiple books regarding the impact of sugar on the human body. She discusses how sugar can impact everything from our daily moods to long-term mood disorders such as depression due to how sugar affects the serotonin in the brain. With serotonin being affected unnaturally the body loses its ability to regulate its production naturally.
If your child is sensitive to sugar than this can have a tremendous affect on their behavior not only now, but according to many experts, their behavior throughout their life. You may want to consider limiting sugar and see how it affects your child’s daily moods. If your child currently eats a large amount of sugar they may first experience crankiness (just as any adult would when eliminating sugar) so I would definitely slowly lowering sugar amounts! As they eliminate it from their system and are able to regulate their seratonin levels naturally, you may observe more level mood on a day to day basis.
I hope you found this post helpful! If you’d like more information please consider the resources below. Also, please sign up on our email list for our latest posts. Leave a comment if you have any questions or let me know your thoughts.
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