Empathetic Parenting of Highly Sensitive Children

Keren Kanyago

June 30, 2024

I remember feeling awfully misunderstood as a child. I was constantly asked to toughen up, as I would bawl my eyes out for what others considered very flimsy reasons. In school, all my friends were fairly tough cookies, so I stood out like a sore thumb. Besides crying easily, I would get easily overwhelmed, was averse to change, and had a non-existent tolerance to physical pain. I exuded many strengths as well but what were deemed as my weaknesses made them pale in comparison.

Only as an adult did I piece the puzzle together and realized that I had all along been a highly sensitive child, complete with a highly perceptive nervous system. As such, my mind would gobble up more sensory information than the child next door and process it more intensely. Eons later, I am raising a highly sensitive daughter complete with monstrous feelings. I count myself blessed to be her mom and with God’s help, I am helping her take her sensitivity in her stride.

The emotionally sensitive child

Children are generally emotionally sensitive but as they grow older, they adopt strategies for managing their emotions. If your child is emotionally sensitive, they may still be prone to meltdowns and tantrums as their age mates outgrow the same. Because they feel every emotion more intensely, they are more likely to get overexcited, feel scared, feel very angry, complain more, and feel more overwhelmed. These children also have greater sensitivity to external stimuli like light and sound. They may also be easily bothered by clothes made from rough fabrics or tags on their clothes. If children came with labels, theirs would read “fragile handle with care!” For these children to thrive, they need empathy. Extending empathy to children with big feelings helps them feel safe, fortifies their confidence, and teaches them to be empathetic to others. Here are five ways of going about it.

Accept them

The greatest undoing of parents, guardians and other adults around children with big feelings is trying to change them. I was guilty of this too, urging my daughter to grow a thick skin and desist from crying "too easily." This I highly regret. Trying to change these children damages them as they start thinking that there is something wrong with them. They were born with heightened emotional sensitivity, a facet of their personality. As the adults in their lives, it is not our work to tinker with their God given personality.

Imagine if as an extrovert your family banned you from any form of social interaction. Or as an introvert, you were constantly thrust into the masses while all you wanted was to crawl into your room and read a book. It is equally frustrating for children with big feelings when they are constantly urged to get a grip on their emotions. What they hear is that they are not good enough and this could taper down their self-esteem. As believers, we are to accept each other unconditionally.

“Accept one another, then, just as Christ accepted you, in order to bring praise to God” (Romans 15:7).

Respect and affirm their feelings

Children with big feelings don’t like that they are easily overwhelmed, feel more scared, and whine easily. This is especially true if they often get reprimanded for it. They wish someone could reassure them that it’s okay to feel what they feel. They yearn for someone to respect and validate their feelings. You can do this by acknowledging their feelings at any given time.

You could for instance say to them “I see you are frustrated because you were not chosen to represent your team. It’s okay to feel frustrated.” This affirms their feelings and communicates respect and acceptance. Furthermore, when we react with frustration towards them, invalidating and not respecting their feelings, we are putting the focus on how we feel as opposed to what’s happening in their world. As believers, we ought to prefer others above ourselves and our children are no exception.

“Each of us should please our neighbors for their good, to build them up.” (Romans 15:2).

Fan into flame their abilities

Beneath the fragile feelings of these children lie dumbfounding abilities. Because they are highly perceptive, they tend to be gifted both intellectually and creatively. They are more in tune with their environment and can easily figure out how stuff works. Many of them wind up as innovators, artists, and great thinkers. They also tend to be perfectionists and only deliver polished results on any projects they handle.

What’s more, children with big feelings tend to be very empathetic. Being highly intuitive, they sense when others are in trouble and do not withhold their compassion and empathy. These children also have a razor-sharp sense of justice and will stand up for what is right. These abilities need to be harnessed and fanned into flame for the glory of God.

“For this reason, I remind you to fan into flame the gift of God, which is in you through the laying on of my hands" (2 Timothy 1:6).

Help them to handle big feelings

This is far from easy, but with oodles of patience and practice, your child can learn to take big feelings in their stride. As aforementioned, the first step is to respect and validate their feelings. This stage should never be glossed over because your child needs to know that they are loved and accepted. Here are other steps:

  • Help them name the exact feeling they are experiencing. Are they sad, angry, disappointed, or frustrated? This will help them build their emotional vocabulary and be more in tune with their feelings.
  • Gently explore other ways of reacting. You could suggest that they talk to you when frustrated/overwhelmed or any adult around them. You could also suggest that they talk with their offender and express their misgivings to them.
  • Explore calming strategies. Depending on the age of your child, The Pillars website suggests deep breathing, counting, and mood-boosting activities to help pacify your child. Other calming strategies include blowing bubbles, painting, coloring, singing, etc.

Love them

“Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It does not dishonor others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, It keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres. Love never fails” (1 Corinthians 13:4-8).

If there are children who need the kind of love Paul describes in the above scripture, it is children with big feelings. They thrive in acceptance, reassurance, and lots of love. Like a growing plant bends towards a source of light, these kids gravitate towards those who love them fiercely and unconditionally. When not sure how to love them, extend patience, kindness, honor, understanding, forgiveness, trust, hope, and perseverance to them. Then sit back and watch your child thrive and become all that God ordained them to be.

About the author — Keren Kanyago

Keren Kanyago is a freelance writer and blogger at Parenting Spring. As a wife and mom, she uses her blog to weigh in on pertinent issues around parenting, marriage, and the Christian Faith. She holds a degree in mass communication with a specialty in print media. Follow her on Facebook and Instagram and/or shoot her an email at [email protected]

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