Our daughter is a highly sensitive child.
When you have a highly sensitive child, parenting strategies for the typical child just don’t work in the same way.
We’ve had a hard time figuring out what to do for our daughter at times, when the typical parenting strategies fail us.
We were feeling like we had tried everything. I outlined a bunch of the parenting strategies we’d tried and had either failed or stopped working for us in this post.
As a result, we decided to get some help. My husband found a play therapist close to us that actually specializes in highly sensitive children.
We’ve been going to weekly play therapy sessions now for over a month, and we’ve actually made a lot of progress already!
If you are just hearing this term for the first time, I encourage you to read my post about what a highly sensitive child is. It is far more than the social view of “sensitivity”.
Read my post about what a highly sensitive child is, at this link.
And if you think your child might be highly sensitive, you’ll want to check out the test that the author of the book put together as a good starting point.
Find the test here, and then grab the book here if your child seems to be a good fit.
After 5 weeks of play therapy, and a couple of parent sessions, we have seen progress with our daughter’s behavior, and we’ve learned so much about how to support her better.
We have so much learning still to do, and we will be doing an 8 week parent workshop to help us in our journey. This starts in a few days.
I’ll be back with more information, but today I wanted to outline what we’ve learned so far.
I’ll start by saying, that these parenting strategies are not new to us. We’ve been doing these strategies for as long as I remember. But… we were doing them in ways that weren’t helpful and supportive to our daughter.
We had to start by resetting our expectations, unlearning how we’d used these strategies in the past, and FULLY accepting that our daughter is highly sensitive.
How To Start Supporting Your Highly Sensitive Child
Reset and Reevaluate Your Expectations
I am a big believer in what parenting books would call “first time obedience”.
I hate counting to 3. If I count to 3, that means that our daughter isn’t being expected to listen on the first request. She’s being expected to listen the third time I ask.
I am SOOOO against that. I think children should and can learn to listen the first time.
Now, I know there is a learning curve. Kids are kids. Kids take time to learn that listening the first time is what is expected.
Consistency is key, right? That’s what I’ve read and that’s what we’ve implemented. Which meant consequences if our child didn’t listen the first time.
It sounds harsh. But let me say, that we always tried to use natural or logical consequences, and we also give a heads up.
We would tell our daughter that we were about to ask her to do X, and explain what the expectation was.
We never required this “first time obedience” if we hadn’t taken the time to teach it.
So, we taught it.
We’d give her a heads up that in 5 minutes we’d be telling her it was time to leave the playground.
We’d tell her that she had time for one last thing.
We’d remind her that after 5 minutes, or after this last thing, we’d be telling her it was time to leave, and that we expected her to say “Okay, Mama“.
We did this with everything. We taught it to her well, and it worked great- when she was little.
But, now that she’s 4.5, things seemed to be no longer working.
We may have just figured out that she’s considered to be a highly sensitive child, but she’s always been this way. It’s not new. It’s a part of who she is.
For some reason, the emotional responses from her now, were heightened.
Maybe it’s to be expected as highly sensitive children have more responsibility as they get older and are expected to do more.
Maybe it’s simply because her world got turned upside down- three times. Once when her little sister died, and again when we moved, and then again when her little brother was born.
Her world was flipped and turned and shaken to say the least, over the course of the last two years.
Whatever the cause, things stopped working and lots of fits started happening.
The last 5 weeks of therapy have been hard. We’ve had to do a reset.
And, while I hate to say this, type this, and even allow this- “first time obedience” is something we can’t require at the moment.
It’s a hard thing to swallow. It’s a foundational element of our parenting style.
But we’ve had to eliminate this idea and expectation from our interactions with our daughter.
That also sounds ridiculous, I’d imagine. It sounds ridiculous to me!
The reality, is that our expectation that our daughter listen and behave well has not changed. Our final expectations are the same. And believe me, we have high expectations.
But the road to getting there- it’s changed a lot.
We can’t take the shortest path from A to B.
We are on a winding pathway right now.
If we see that our daughter is going to struggle with a choice, go into an emotional spiral, or have a hard time with something, we are providing support first and foremost.
It makes the path longer. It makes things feel like they take an eternity.
It basically takes all of my mental and emotional energy at the moment.
But guess what? It’s working.
5 weeks ago she was having fit after fit after fit. Sometimes the fits would last an hour or longer. There hasn’t been a single fit like that since we started therapy.
Every response has been minimized and contained so well.
Over time, we’ll build her confidence, she’ll feel supported, and we’ll have a more direct and quicker path to things.
But right now, things are going to take longer, and simply require more support.
Unlearn and Start Fresh With Previously Tried Strategies
I said it in a recent post- we’ve tried it all and nothing is working.
We felt like we’d researched, we’d read, we’d done all of the things that SHOULD be working. And our toolbox was failing us.
Strategies that once worked, had stopped working.
Strategies that other parents found success with, were making things worse.
The problem, is that we were using these strategies incorrectly. On paper and for the typical child we were doing great.
But we hadn’t adjusted these strategies for OUR child.
Right now, we’re working on 3 main strategies with our daughter. 2 of them are strategies that we’ve always used. (I’ll discuss them all in detail below).
With the guidance of her therapist, however, these strategies look a whole lot different in our implementation of them now versus then.
Fully Accept the Highly Sensitive Trait
“Here we go again.” I’ve thought it. I’ve struggled with resenting some of the behaviors.
I figured we’d gone wrong somewhere.
Then I read the High Sensitive Child book.
Everything finally made sense. Everything finally clicked. There was a reason for our daughter’s behaviors.
She views the world differently.
She’s on sensory overload ALL THE TIME.
When you fully accept this- the WHOLE view of a highly sensitive child… it is only then that you can really start to support your child.
I suddenly felt validated as a parent. It wasn’t me. It wasn’t something that was wrong with our parenting style, or wrong with our daughter, or wrong in any way.
Our daughter just needs different support.
When I could see that clearly, I could fully accept it. And now that we’ve fully accepted that our daughter is highly sensitive, we can fully embrace our part in all of this.
Our part is to provide her with support to help her in this world that is overwhelming.
Our part is to learn how to be a safe zone for her, and to build her confidence and prepare her for the challenges she’ll face in the world around her.
Our job is so critical.
Be Mentally Ready
Our daughter, our highly sensitive child, does not need to change. Not one little bit.
Read that again.
Our child doesn’t need to change anything.
What does need to happen, is we need to learn how to support her better.
As parents, we need to adjust our view of our highly sensitive child, understand her needs, understand what overwhelms her, and understand her feelings.
My body and my mind are tired. This is not an easy thing to do.
I am having to focus so hard on what I say, how I say it, controlling my facial expressions, controlling my emotions, etc.
That is taxing. Focusing in so hard on making big changes to your own behavior takes a toll.
I slip up sometimes. When I slip up, our daughter falls back into her old patterns and poor behavior.
When I focus, and really hone in on my new role, however, the outcome is incredible.
I didn’t realize it was going to be so hard on ME. I didn’t realize the mental shift I was going to have to be making.
So, this is that heads up for parents. Be mentally ready. You have to change. You have to be able to channel positive energy and focus 24-7.
It’s ok to slip up. Gosh, I’m doing it.
But most of the time, I’m figuring it out and making my way through.
And, when I see the success, I get a new burst of energy to keep going.
Eventually, with enough practice, this won’t be so taxing on me. Eventually, this will become natural.
For now, it’s forced. It’s hard. It’s draining.
Highly Sensitive Child Parenting Strategies
There are three pathways that we are essentially undergoing with this journey.
In about 8 weeks, we’ll be through the “therapy” part of this. That’s the plan anyways.
Each of these three pathways is providing a unique goal, and will all come together in the end.
The three pathways of our journey:
#1 Play Therapy and Child Parent Relationship Training (CPRT)
Our daughter is going to play therapy. The goal of these sessions with a highly sensitive child, is to build confidence and raise self esteem.
The therapy starts with just the child and therapist in the room. They build a relationship, and then it slowly transitions from the therapist running it, to the parents running it.
We are in the transition stage. I am observing the play therapy sessions. Before each session I am taught a couple of techniques to watch for.
So far I’ve been taught things like “tracking”, and “identifying emotions”.
My role in these special play times, is to be FULLY engaged, and to follow, not lead.
I am to use “tracking” (which is a fancy therapist technique of basically narrating what’s going on), and to state and identify emotions that I see. These could be emotions that our daughter is having during play time, or emotions that she is using in pretend play.
Eventually, once I’ve been show everything, I’ll participate in the play therapy sessions.
Then I’ll take over.
And then, we’ll implement these special play times at home for 30 minutes, once a week.
The whole idea is to build up our daughter, and to build a more positive relationship between us.
If you research CPRT, you’ll find articles showing a significant decrease in negative behaviors, resulting from increased problem solving skills, and improved relationships between children and parents.
#2 Parenting Strategies We’ve Implemented Immediately
This is what I’ll discuss in detail below. Basically our new parenting strategies that we are using right now to lessen negative behaviors.
After talking with our daughter’s therapist, and after they had a couple of sessions, we have had a few video sessions without our daughter present.
We discuss specific techniques to use for specific issues happening at home.
This support has been incredible.
#3 Workshop on Parenting a Highly Sensitive Child
In a few days, we also start an 8 week session on parenting a highly sensitive child.
We’ll learn more specific techniques to use with our daughter.
I am hoping this will provide us with additional resources, and not things that we’ve already been learning through the one on one sessions we’ve been having with our daughter’s therapist.
Like I mentioned above, we’re already starting to see results.
When I observed my first play therapy session last week, I saw my daughter problem solve all on her own. I saw her confident and engaged.
And, I saw 2 moments that would have for sure been a HUGE fit at home, be a complete non-issue.
Our daughter was doing dress up play in play therapy. She found butterfly wings. They were incredibly hard to put on, and once on they were not staying where she wanted them.
At home, this would have gone two ways:
- She would have attempted to put them on, gotten frustrated, and thrown a fit.
- She would have immediately asked for help and not tried at all. When encouraged to try first, she would have been frustrated, and thrown a fit.
At therapy, she simply figured it out. She didn’t get frustrated. She didn’t ask for help. She didn’t throw a fit.
She tried, and tried again. She made it work.
I was astounded.
At home, we’re also seeing results.
Rewind 5-6 weeks and I felt so discouraged. There were daily fits, and they were long. Sometimes multiple in a day. It was consuming us. And it was so hard.
I was having to put her in her room because she was acting out in physical ways suddenly.
Now, I see our daughter avoid going into a fit many times.
I see her apologize for poor choices.
There have only been 2 times that I’ve had to put her in her room, and it was all very short lived.
So, while it’s been mentally hard on me to focus in so much on my reactions and behaviors, it has all been worth it.
So, here’s what we’ve been doing at home…
Parenting Tactics We’re Using at Home
#1 Identifying Feelings
When our daughter has a strong emotional reaction to something, we are identifying the feeling in a nonjudgmental way, and identifying what made her feel that way.
“I see you are feeling frustrated that the blocks aren’t staying together.”
“I see you are sad about not getting to play with Mama right now.”
We identify the feeling and the reason. If we get it wrong, our daughter corrects us.
The idea here is that she is feeling heard. She is feeling seen.
We’ve always been big on showing her empathy, and helping her to identify feelings. As a result, I think she’s got a head start on her ability to identify how she’s feeling.
We just weren’t honed in on the technique of using a statement like the above. We were jumping right into problem solving with her.
The part we were missing was the pause.
Identify the feeling and the WHY. Then pause. Let her respond. Let the conversation stay in the feeling part of things for a bit.
Before, we’d been moving on too quickly to the issue at hand, or the problem solving.
This is working SO well. And it’s opening up conversations that we’ve never had before.
I also love that we were on the right track. We had been doing this the best we knew how. We just needed things tweaked.
I am so glad that we implemented some of the basics of this technique early on.
Our daughter’s first TV show was Daniel Tiger. I had no idea at the time how helpful this show would be.
Daniel Tiger taught our daughter so much about emotions, and how to calm herself down. I’d highly recommend putting this TV show on when your child is around 2 years old, and maybe even a bit earlier. It’s fantastic.
We also made our daughter these printable calm down cards. These cards have 4 basic emotions: happy, calm, sad, and angry.
Printable Parenting Tools In My Shop:
Even for a toddler that is not yet verbalizing emotions, they can look at the faces on the emotion cards and point to how they are feeling.
Our daughter took to these early on and it was a great way to continue the conversation about emotions.
She would then pick a card with a calm down technique on it and we’d work through calming down together.
I think doing things like this really helped to lay the foundation for where we’re at today.
This is an example of having the RIGHT tool in our parenting toolbox, but just not using it in a completely effective way.
We were very focused on emotions, we just needed to couple the emotion identification with a the why, and really stop and hear her.
We bought a book a while back called Parenting with Love and Logic. The basic idea is to give your child choices.
We found great success with giving her choices. The idea is that you give two acceptable choices.
“Would you like to brush your teeth by yourself, or would you like Mama to help?”
When she was younger, she’d happily choose. She was getting to make the decision. It gave her ownership and a feeling of power. It worked great.
Then, we started being met with the response of “Neither”. We weren’t sure where to go with that, but clearly these “choices” weren’t working any longer. She’d seen right through it and wasn’t having it.
We then moved to explaining to her what her consequence would be. A simple if then statement.
We tried the straightforward way, and the positive spin on it:
“If you don’t brush your teeth, then you will not get your bedtime book tonight.”
“If you brush your teeth, then you will get your bedtime book tonight.”
Again, this worked for a hot second and then stopped.
Choices weren’t working for us anymore.
Now these two tactics have been combined and, while it’s taking a lot of patience, it is WORKING.
Now, the consequence is put in the form of a choice.
“If you choose to not brush your teeth, you are choosing to not have a bedtime book. If you choose TO brush your teeth, you are choosing to get the bedtime book.”
This angers our daughter, and works all at the same time.
She often yells back at us “I am not choosing that [consequence]!”
She gets very angry that the ownership is put on her like that.
We repeat. She resists. We repeat. But then she stomps off and usually makes a good choice.
So, the interaction is not the most pleasant, but there is no fit.
THERE IS NO FIT. (Well there wasn’t until tonight… All progress has setbacks I suppose).
We can’t require that she make the right choice, right away– the first time we say it.
She has to work through her anger first.
We have to give her the choice, and give it to her probably 10 times.
In there, we have to pause and go back to step one, where we identify her emotions and why.
Guys, it’s a LOOOONG process. It’s not the “first time obedience” that I want to expect out of our daughter.
It’s mentally taxing to stay honed in on these techniques. All I want to do is scream “Brush your F&*#ing teeth!”
But, if I successfully refrain from that, and stay focused, she comes around. She makes the right choice. And that is the ultimate goal.
The goal is to avoid a fit, while also getting the correct choice being made. It’s a good outcome.
It’s not an easy path right now. It’s not happening in 1 minute, or even 5 at times. But it’s happening. And so, we’re persisting and keeping on.
Eventually, the idea is that she’ll get tired of going through this 10 times, as well. She’ll eventually only take 8 times, 5 times, then down to 1. That’s the goal we’re working towards.
We still enforce consequences. There are times she still doesn’t get that bedtime book. She has to see consistency.
We used to implement that consequence right away.
Now, we’re giving her opportunity after opportunity to make that good choice. We’re trying to set her up for success.
We’re repeating and restating, and repeating, and offering it again, and identifying her emotions, and trying again, and restating, and, and, and.
I didn’t say it was easy! And if you’re like me, you’re thinking “F THAT! I expect more.”
Well, adjust your thinking, Mama. Adjust it fast.
I’ve learned that our highly sensitive child needs support first, and lots of opportunities to make the right choice. She has HUGE emotions to work through.
After that, consequences are still needed. Consistency is still needed. And high expectations are still there.
We aren’t losing sight of the expectation or the goal.
When we give that emotional support, and those opportunities to her, she often makes the right choice. Sometimes we all need space to make that choice, though.
#3 Identifying Physical Responses to Emotions
The third thing we are doing is helping her to identify her physical response to emotions.
The idea here, is that she can learn when an emotion is coming, BEFORE it is full force and consuming her.
“My heart beats really fast when I get angry.”
“My stomach hurts when I get nervous.”
“My throat feels tight when I feel sad.”
We state the physical response that is unique for us.
Our daughter often chimes in with her response as well. She agrees and says that it happens to her too, or that some other physical response happens.
And, when we are in step one identifying emotions, we are trying to ask about physical symptoms as well.
If she tell us she’s nervous, we ask if her belly is also hurting.
If she tells us that her belly is hurting, we ask if she is nervous about something. We’re helping her to make the connections as much as we can.
#4 Calm Down Together
The goal is to calm down together. If she is upset and having a hard time, we offer to calm down together.
We offer hugs, to hold her, have her sit on our lap, etc.
Some sort of closeness to show her that we are there for her.
For highly sensitive kids, isolating them in their room or in a time out scenario only makes things worse.
They feel shame for behaving in such a poor manner, and isolation makes that worse. These kids get to a point where they work themselves up so much it’s almost impossible to calm themselves down.
This method is helping her a lot and preventing her from getting “out of control upset”.
#5 Highlighting Differences in Opinion
One of the things we are working on in particular is separating out Mama and daughter.
Our daughter looks to me for everything. She wants approval, reassurance, and seeks confidence from me.
She always wants to know what I would do, or how I would handle something. She even double checks if something is ok when my husband tells her it is.
So, the idea here is to make us individuals in her mind and unique.
We make sure to point out when I have a different opinion of something.
“Mama is full and doesn’t want to eat anymore, but you might not be yet, and that’s ok.”
“I see you don’t like this food, but I really do. We like different foods.”
I just try and point out as many examples as I can throughout the day.
Our Next Steps With Therapy
- In a few days, we start our parent workshop. Hopefully we are just adding a bunch of resources to our lives to help support our daughter.
I plan on writing about how things are going and ways we learn to support our daughter and grow in our role as a parent to a highly sensitive child.
- Over the next few weeks I’ll continue observing play therapy, and watching for specific skills.
- I’ll then be joining in play therapy, and then we’ll transition the special play time to at home.
- Once a week for 30 minutes, we’ll have special play time (mimicking play therapy) at home, and putting into practice everything I learn over the next few weeks of observation.
I’ll also be writing an update once I get through my observations, on what this special play time will look like at home.
- In preparation, the therapist asked us to get some toys on hand for this special play time.
The idea is that these toys are special and only used for this play time.
So, with that in mind, I didn’t want to take anything that we currently have and our daughter currently plays with.
It was recommended to go to the dollar store, garage sales, etc.
My reality, though, with a 6 month old at home, is that I’m not going hunting for toys.
We had a credit on amazon, and we just went with it.
Yesterday all of the items arrived, and it looked like Christmas with the amount of toys I had to open.
We are taking this so seriously, that we just wanted it to be perfect. We want our daughter excited about the play time, and we want to have the right types of toys on hand.
There was a huge list of things given as recommended toys. Our daughter’s therapist gave some specific recommendations off of that list, and, after observing play therapy, I was able to focus in on the best toys for her.
Toys we Purchased for Special Play Time
- Baby doll/ Doctor kit combo
- Cash register
- Cooking set
- Dart guns
- Tutus and Crowns
- Family Characters by Learning Resources 72 piece
- Boys and Girls Figurines
- Animal figurines
- Melissa and Doug Dollhouse (fold up)
- Motion Sand Kit (with bin and molds)
- Scissors (Fiskars)
- Jumbo Unicorn Stress Cushion/pillow
- A large bin with lid for storage
This was a pretty big list. It cost us about $220. Luckily, these are all items that our daughter will get a lot of use out of. And, considering all we got, it wasn’t that much per item.
The Items We Purchased for Play Therapy:
It’s honestly a small investment to make sure we are prioritizing this special play and supporting her the best way we can.
It was not necessary to get all of this new for sure, but it was what made sense for our lives at the moment.
Just upon first glance, there are some AMAZING items in this purchase!
The cash register actually works like a calculator, beeps, and even has a microphone. Pretty neat.
The family characters by learning resources are perfect for pretend play. There are 72 pieces. All different colors, adult male and female, kids, babies, and pets. It’s perfect for play therapy and imagination.
The dollhouse is exactly the kind you need for a small space like this (where everything needs to fit in a bin). It folds up, and even comes with characters and furniture.
The motion sand comes with a bin that closes nicely. The sand can be played with right in the bin. It is not normal sand. It’s super easy clean up and even comes with molds.
The jumbo unicorn stress cushion/pillow feels amazing to squeeze. Much better than a stress ball! And much easier for a child to use since they don’t have much hand strength.
The bin- FIT EVERYTHING PERFECTLY! It also has a nice Velcro lid and stays closed. It’s just the size we needed.
In addition to the scissors, I’ll be adding some paper, and either crayons or markers. Maybe some pom poms, glue, and other small craft items that we have at home.
The dress up play items are really nice as well.
Everything in this purchase was a good find, really. I was very impressed with it all.
For now, these items are sitting in my office, waiting for our home play sessions to begin.
I’ll keep observing and learning, and when the time comes to start special play time at home, I’ll detail out how we’re doing it!
Until then, good luck with your HSC. I hope there is some insight here that might be helpful to you. Hang in there.
This is a long road we’re on to help this behavior get better. Some days it feels like we’ll never get there, and other days it feels like we make tons of progress.