“Quit being so sensitive,” “Stop crying,” “Get over it,” “What’s the matter with you?” “Why do you have to be so emotional?”
I used to hear this sort of thing all the time.
As a kid, I cried a lot. I often felt sad. I had trouble expressing my anger appropriately. Being around other people tended to feel overwhelming and uncomfortable. I was very lonely. Unfortunately, the responses I got from those around me were unhelpful and only exacerbated my sense of isolation. As a result, I learned to turn my emotions inward, which resulted in a pattern of self-destructive behavior that came close to claiming my life. It wasn’t until I received some unconditional love and support that I was able to emerge from the downward spiral.
For a long time, I was unable to articulate my needs. I didn’t know how to communicate, so I suffered in silence. Which obviously didn’t help those who loved me know how to help me. But at the time, I believed I was flawed. I thought that all my big feelings made me defective and that I needed to be stronger and less sensitive. I thought I had to toughen up.
For years, I was ashamed of my sensitivity. I tried hard to develop into a person I simply wasn’t able to be. My relationships suffered. I struggled to find purpose and direction. I didn’t know what I wanted to do with my life; I flitted around trying to find happiness and wasted a lot of time and energy searching for my path. Eventually, I learned to stop denying my emotions. I discovered the art of service and learned that the quality I thought was a defect was actually a gift.
Of course, the quest for identity is part of life’s journey, and my story is not unique. My work as a school counselor has helped me realize how many kids there are out there who are just like I was. They experience tremendous anxiety because they have no idea how to sort through their emotions. This can be especially challenging for boys who often receive the message from our culture that expressing (or even experiencing) emotion is a sign of weakness. Although it is natural for kids to go through a process of self-discovery, there are ways to support and empower the sensitive ones.
- Recognize that sensitivity is not a defect. While it is not always easy to feel so intensely, people who do are blessed with a natural capacity for empathy and compassion. They tend to make good friends, caregivers, and healers. They often make a positive impact on the world because they are committed to helping others or society in some way. Sensitivity is a strength, not a weakness!
- Let them feel! They can’t help it. There is no stopping the feelings, and suppressing them can be very unhealthy, both emotionally and physically. We try to shield our kids from pain so when we witness them experiencing overwhelming emotion, our instinct is often to encourage them to calm down or be happy. This only serves to negate their present reality, so give them time and space to experience whatever they’re feeling. Let them know it’s ok and their emotions are never wrong. Validate their struggle, even if you don’t understand it. It’s the behavior they may engage in to cope or express themselves that may be problematic, so address that when necessary without criticizing the child or discouraging the associated feelings.
- Help them learn healthy coping. There are many ways to process feelings. Encourage your child to find ways that work for them. Some examples include, sitting in nature, reading, making art, listening to music, physical activity, talking, journaling, or meditation. This isn’t just about dealing when they’re having a rough moment. Help them develop a regular practice for stress management. This will reduce anxiety and make it easier to engage in self-soothing activities when they are distressed.
- Let them feel, but don’t let them wallow. Don’t completely ignore them when they’re upset. Invite them to interact or offer a fun/engaging activity to participate in when they feel ready (you may have to offer more than once).
- Empower them. If you notice a pattern of victimization or externalized blame, encourage your child to take responsibility for their own experience. Explain that our thoughts impact our emotions so it might be helpful to shift perspective. Encourage them to consider the many possible reasons for the problem. Help them reflect on their own actions to be sure there hasn’t been some kind of misunderstanding, and to identify what is within their control.
- Listen. Don’t interrupt. Don’t offer advice unless they ask for it. Don’t tell stories of your own experiences unless they want to hear them. We often think we’re helping when we do these things, but we’re not.
- Remember that your child is an antenna that picks up all sorts of signals. It may seem like they’re upset for no reason, but there are multiple factors influencing their mood. It might be what they heard on the news, the mood their teacher was in that day, an interaction with a peer at school, an argument between family members, a snippy sales clerk… in other words, sensitive kids pick up on EVERYTHING. They may even know what you’re feeling before you do! And while any of these things alone may not be especially distressing, when the influences pile up it can be extremely overwhelming. Often kids don’t even recognize the impact until they’re in turmoil, which means they often have no idea why they feel the way they do. Be patient and have empathy.
- Freely give and communicate love. Sensitive kids tend to take things personally. They worry a lot. They often worry that they are the cause of other people’s distress. They need lots of reassurance. The need lots of love. Give it to them. Tell them, hug them, simply sit with them. Let them know you love them exactly as they are.
Were you a sensitive child? What would have helped you when you were younger? How did you learn to cope? What advice do you have for sensitive kids or parents of sensitive kids? I’d love to hear from you, so please comment and share your thoughts!
With Love & Compassion,
Adina Arden Cooper
I'm a lover, a guide, a supportive companion. A storyteller, an artist, an ally and an advocate. I help individuals thrive and communities come together through counseling, coaching, and community building. I believe that shared humanity is a powerful strength and that our stories connect us in beautiful and sacred ways. As I stumble, skip, or soar my way through this life, I invite you to join me on the journey. Likewise, I'm honored to travel with you. In witnessing one another, we find meaning.