My sister feels big feelings. I didn’t know that at first. At first I thought she was just sad and mad all the time. At first I thought I did something wrong when I was mad. At first I thought she was always doing something wrong. At least that’s how it seemed. My parents loved us all, they’re great parents, they just didn’t know how to help.
Growing Up With A Highly Sensitive Sister
One day, when she yelled “I hate you!” when she was mad, my parents had her write lines. I hated writing lines. It made my hand hurt. It was hard to sit for that long. It took a long time.
I thought my sister needed to learn how to be a good kid, and then she wouldn’t have to write lines, or get grounded. That’s what I thought about myself. That when I was upset, I was a “bad kid.”
Growing up with a Highly Sensitive sister, I learned very early on that negative emotions are uncomfortable, difficult, and needed to be “fixed.” My parents are loving, stable and supportive people whom I have a great relationship with.
I’m not Highly Sensitive. My sister, on the other hand, struggled more so with the traditional parenting style my parents used (read: time outs, writing lines, groundings, etc.) So her meltdowns and anxieties grew.
Becoming A Sensitivity “Interpreter”
Somehow, I became a child mental health therapist (can’t imagine why!) and specialized in working with sensitive teens and children. Even a skeptic would note that fate played a hand in how I developed my specialty over the last decade, and with my extensive training, I then became the HSP-interpreter of the family.
You too may have been raised in a household like mine, where my parents just didn’t know that negative emotions expressed by children through yelling and crying wasn’t “backtalk” or “misbehavior.” They were raised by parents who used belts and spankings, so they educated themselves on what was more helpful and effective than that…and the research at that time supported time outs, etc.
So, when we understand how our parents learned to raise children from their parents, we can (over time) greet them with compassion and understanding that they just didn’t know what we know now about how children express emotions, and how parents need to teach children to express emotions safely.
That’s all great healing work–necessary, of course, and it still leaves you high and dry as to how to raise your own kids if you know that traditional parenting styles don’t work for parenting Highly Sensitive Children (HSC). If you’re reading this post, and an HSP, then it’s possible one or more of your children is an HSC.
The Frustrations Of Parents Of Highly Sensitive Children
If you’ve found yourself trapped between supporting your child in their sensitivities and holding limits to help your child grow in their own discomfort, then it’s likely that parenting has you feeling frequently frustrated and defeated. Especially if despite all of your best efforts, your sensitive kiddo is still expressing daily outbursts or meltdowns.
Trying to manage your own child’s intense emotions while simultaneously supporting your child’s emotional growth and development can feel like you’re in the ocean, stuck in a riptide…
…trying to survive each day while walking on eggshells can leave you without a plan to stretch your child’s limits. And when this happens over time, you feel frustrated…and stuck, and powerless.
Powerlessness leads to anger. That’s when you hold firm with no wiggle room (through demanding, yelling, or refusing to compromise) and your child feels angry and defeated too. The opposite of empowered. All because you’re just trying to survive the week.
Tips For Parents
Taking the time to notice your own emotional response to your child’s intense emotions is the first step in rebuilding your own sense of empowerment in parenting.
Too often HSP parents develop the pattern of keeping a lid on their boiling pot of emotions to support their child. This creates a false sense of security that you’ll be able to help your child move on from their emotions, but what actually happens is that you end up in “fix it mode” too swiftly. Your child feels misunderstood, and digs her heels in even more, and meltdown ensues.
Instead of Monday morning quarterbacking your response to your child after the meltdown, focus on how you interpreted her needs before the big emotional explosion. Take the time to ask yourself these questions:
- What did I believe about my child’s reason for getting upset?
- How did that belief affect me in the moment?
- What makes this an opportunity for growth?
When you’re able to assess yourself by determining your opportunities for personal growth, rather than your opportunities to assess where you screwed up, “did it wrong”, or wonder if you’ll ever stop losing your “ish” you can empower yourself to make lasting change in your role as a parent.
Change occurs when you’re specific with your questions. Otherwise you’re just perpetuating the danger zone your brain thinks you’re in when you or your child is upset.