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Learning to Support Our Highly Sensitive Child

4 months ago we were recommended a book called The Highly Sensitive Child.

4 months ago the light bulb came on for us. So many things made sense. Even looking back to when our daughter was a baby… it all made sense. Every little thing about her personality, all of her amazing qualities- everything finally made sense.

4 months ago we felt like we’d tried it all. Everyone in the house was yelling and our daughter was throwing massive fits. I’m not exaggerating when I say she had 2 hour long fits, multiple times a day.

4 months ago we’d hit a wall and we were exhausted and tired and fed up. We wanted to support our daughter better, but we were drowning and not making any progress. We were all at our wits end.

4 months ago we sought out help. We knew that we needed an expert to step in. We knew that we needed to address the massive cloud of grief in our house, and the life changes that had rocked our daughter’s world. I mean let’s be honest here- her sister died, we moved, her baby brother was born, and she started a new school. Life had been flipped upside down, rolled around, and shaken to say the least.

4 months ago my husband did a search and found a therapy group in the area that specialized in highly sensitive children.

4 months ago I went in for a consultation.

4 months ago I left the therapy office and called my husband with a renewed sense of HOPE.

4 months ago I said to him, “She gets her. She gets our daughter. She knows things that she shouldn’t know unless she’d met her. She knows exactly what we are talking about. She is going to help us.”

The therapist hadn’t met our daughter yet. She hadn’t spoken to her, seen her, or even heard stories. Nothing. But she understood everything. As I talked, she predicted things about our daughter that were SPOT on. She knew everything, because she knew our daughter fit the profile of a highly sensitive child. And she confidently looked at me and told me she could teach us things to help support our daughter better.

We cried when we heard that news. I cried. I was ecstatic. I felt hopeful and renewed. I told my husband. He cried. We just knew it was the right path and that this is exactly what we needed.

And so, 4 months ago we started play therapy at this practice.

4 months ago I had hope, but I also wasn’t convinced that play therapy alone was going to do the trick. Gosh was I wrong.

Fast forward 4 months…

Our daughter has been through play therapy. We now do the play therapy sessions at home, after having received support in the therapy office over the last 3 months. We had video conferences with her therapist to get one on one support. We also did a parent workshop with the owner of the therapy practice. We’ve done a LOT in 3 months time.

Today, I am amazed. Our daughter NEVER has fits. NEVER. She has normal 4 year old anger bursts. That’s what I’ll call it, because it doesn’t resemble the past “fits” at all.

She went from screaming for hours, multiple times a day (in waves), to having the occasional 5-10 minute mini tantrum. And honestly, I can’t even call it that, but I think most parents do. I think this is what most parents call tantrums. This is a cake walk now for us. It’s NORMAL 4 year old bursts of frustration and anger.

And really it’s not normal- she does better than the average 4 year old, I think. We’ve worked with her on discussing feelings, sensations in her body, and just the big picture of emotions.

As a result, she tells us her feelings. She tells us she’s angry. She might then yell or stomp or hit something as she tries to manage her emotions (and even that is only sometimes). She tells us the sensations in her body that she’s feeling as she’s sad, nervous, angry, etc. She expresses her emotions so well now. And then it’s over, and we talk.

Little mini bursts is all we have now. Our house is calm and relaxed. We enjoy each other’s company.

So, how did we fix our daughter, you ask? We didn’t. There was nothing to fix.

Our daughter is a highly sensitive child. This means that she’s got some pretty fantastic qualities. It also means that she needs her parents to understand how her mind works, and support her accordingly.

We didn’t just fix our daughter with a 3 month bootcamp, wash our hands of it and call it done. No. There wasn’t anything to fix.

What we did was adjust our parenting. We learned how to better support her. We learned how her mind works. We adjusted our responses to her. If anything got “fixed”, it was us.

And that support doesn’t just stop either. This isn’t a quick fix. This is a change in our house for an entire lifetime. A lifetime of supporting our daughter how she needs us to. We are so glad to do it. I mean just look at the results! It’s letting our amazing daughter shine.

These things we’ve learned, we’ll continue them forever. Our daughter will always be a highly sensitive child, and we want to celebrate that. It’s such a gift that she has. That same gift can also be incredibly challenging at times, which is why we needed to learn how to better support her. And when we do, magic happens. She shines.

Ok, so now you’re wondering what on earth we did that helped so much.

Over the last 3 months, we took 3 avenues to support our highly sensitive child:

  1. Play therapy
  2. Video conferences with one on one support
  3. Parent workshop on how to best support a highly sensitive child

Let’s dive into each of these and I’ll explain what all we learned…

Play therapy and the one on one support were by far the most beneficial to us in this process.

Play Therapy

The main goal of play therapy is to better the child parent relationship. It is to help the child feel more confident. These play session models are based on a therapy term called CPRT (Child Parent Relationship Therapy).

The Process of Play Therapy

Our daughter did play therapy with the therapist. I was not in the room. They built the foundation of the space and time.

I was then invited in to observe. I was a quiet observer. I was given skills to watch for and I observed the therapist closely.

After a few weeks of this, I joined in play therapy. I practiced the skills I’d learned.

I then took over play therapy at home. We now do one 30 minute session each week and will continue this indefinitely.

What Play Therapy Sessions Look Like

Once a week for 30 minutes, we do play therapy sessions.

Our daughter plays. She does whatever she wants, and leads the play. I support her and use several skills to do so.

We have special toys that are ONLY for this time. I keep them in a bin and we get them out once a week. We do the play therapy in a part of the house that we don’t normally play in (my office). It is separated to put emphasis on the fact that this time is different and special.

Supporting Skills

These are the skills that I use during the play therapy, or as we call it “special play time.”

learning how to support our highly sensitive child

Skill #1 (Narrate):

I narrate everything. I am like a sports announcer just saying everything that’s going on. I describe what our daughter is doing.

“You’re deciding what to play with today.”

“You’re looking around at all the toys.”

“You’re jumping up and down!”

“You’re building with those.”

I don’t get to decide what anything is. That’s up to our daughter. So, I don’t say “You’re building with blocks.” She can decide what it is, and maybe in her mind she’s decided they are bricks, or magic stones. I have no idea. So, the idea is to keep it neutral and refrain from deciding things. Once she’s mentioned what she’s calling something, then I’m free to use the name in my descriptions.

If she does nothing and just sits there during special play, I narrate that as well. “You don’t feel like playing today.”

If she’s excited, I emulate that in my description.

If she’s sad or angry, I keep my tone neutral and quiet.

Narrating is something we ONLY do in special play time, and never outside of it.

Skill #2 (Identify Emotions):

While I’m narrating, my job is to also notice and express emotions. I notice if she’s experiencing an emotion, and if she has characters in her pretend play experience emotions.

My job is again to keep it neutral and just narrate.

“That block won’t stay on the tower you built. That’s so frustrating.”

“You’re angry that your tower fell over.”

“You’re sad today and don’t feel like playing.”

“Olaf is frustrated that he can’t get to the top of the tower and keeps falling down.”

“Olaf is so happy to have a friend to play with!”

It’s ok to get the emotion incorrect. Our daughter just corrects me if I’m wrong about anything. She tells me she’s not angry, she’s just frustrated. Or she just says no. That’s ok. The idea is that we’re talking about emotions (both the good emotions and the bad) and making it a normal part of our conversation.

We’re essentially neutralizing it and making it every day talk. This is something that we do during special play, and ALSO outside of it.

Skill #3 (Build her up):

Part of the reason we do special play is to build her confidence.

When I’m narrating, I take note of things she does and accomplishes. I only mention things that she actually does.

So, when I say something like, “You know what to do,” I only do that after she demonstrates that she knows, or tells me that she knows something, and not before. I’m not convincing her that she knows something and can do it, I’m simply stating that I notice when she does.

There is a very big difference in these two approaches. One lowers confidence, since she’d catch onto the fact that I’m trying to convince her, and one builds confidence, since she’d be given the chance to complete the task and she’ll simply know that I noticed.

“You’re working really hard to get that tower to stay standing.” (as she’s trying hard)

“The tower fell, but you are trying again.” (as she’s building it again, not before)

“You noticed that Olaf was in a different place today for special play time.” (as she finds it in a new place)

“You know how to do that.” (as she does it)

“You know what to do.” (as she does it)

This is a skill that we use in and out of special play.

Skill #4 (Join in the play if asked):

Here is the hard skill, for me anyways. I don’t get to play unless asked to play. And, when asked to play, I don’t get to just play! I have to narrate and do all the things above, and I also have to follow her lead. I don’t get to decide, for example, what a character says in play, or what I do in play, our daughter does.

This is tough, and it’s hard for our daughter as well.

At first, she kept asking me why I wasn’t playing. I explained to her with these words:

“In special play, I am here to support you. You can decide if I play or not. If you’d like me to play, you may invite me to do so.”

So, she’s accustomed to asking me to play now and inviting me.

Then, she has to actually tell me what to do, otherwise I don’t get to do anything. It’s not like once she asks, I can just play and start doing my thing. Nope. She gets to decide and direct. It’s helping to empower her.

So, if she says play with this princess, I can say, “Ok, what should I have her do?”

If she says, “You decide,” I say something along the lines of… “Remember in special play, you get to decide.”

It’s so hard to get used to. But, we have the hang of it now. It can be hard for both of us, and this is something our daughter doesn’t really like about special play. At times she’s stopped playing because of it. I just remind her that we support her in different ways during special play.

This skill is something we ONLY do during special play.

Skill #5 (Set limits in supportive ways):

For the most part, anything is fair game in special play. It’s designed to be that way.

But, there are times when we may have to set limits.

If she is at risk of hurting herself, or others, or if she’s doing something that we really don’t allow, we set limits.

Limits should only be set when absolutely needed, however. So, if she decides to jump and run and be loud- that’s ok. We don’t normally act that way inside, but during special play, it’s ok because it’s not hurting anything.

If she decides to take marker and draw on the couch, that’s not ok.

If she decides to hit or throw something, that’s not ok.

If those things were to happen, here is how we learned to set a limit.

“The couch is not for drawing on. You may choose to draw on the paper instead.”

“Toys are not for throwing. You may choose to squeeze this stress-ball if you’re angry.”

Basically, you set a limit, and give an acceptable way of dealing with something instead. The idea is to stay neutral and calm, while still empowering your child to make a good choice.

We’ve never had to set a limit in special play, however.

My Observations of Special Play

I will never forget…

The first day I was asked to observe our daughter in special play with the therapist, I was blown away.

Our daughter grabbed some butterfly wings. She attempted to put them on. It didn’t work.

At home, she would have done one of the following:

  1. Thrown a fit immediately.
  2. Asked for help but then thrown a fit if I encouraged her to try at all.
  3. Possibly even thrown a fit if she asked for help and I immediately helped.

But at therapy, she just kept trying until she got it right. She put those butterfly wings on all by herself without any negative emotions. The therapist narrated what was happening, and validated her emotions during her narration. Our daughter was confident and empowered, and she just put them on and moved on with her time.

“WTF did I just witness!?” That’s all I could think. I was astonished. Amazed. Blown AWAY.

Play therapy has empowered our daughter and given her so much confidence. It was incredible.

I see that now in her daily life. If she starts struggling and getting frustrated with something, we encourage her by using the same language that we use in special play. She doesn’t give it a second thought, and it’s been incredible.

“You are trying really hard to do X, but it still isn’t working. That’s frustrating. You’re working so hard, though.”

And guess what? Most of the time she just tries again, and pretty much always succeeds with whatever problem she was trying to solve. And, if she really can’t do something, she just calmly tell us that she needs some help and that it’s making her angry.

The Take Away from Special Play

This has been BY FAR the most helpful thing we’ve done for our daughter. It is helping her confidence, and it is building our relationships with her.

We will continue to use this as a foundation in our daughter’s life. We do 1 session a week for 30 minutes.

For specific ideas on what toys to use during special play, please read this post on HSC parenting strategies.

learning how to support our highly sensitive child

One on One Support

The one on one support that we received, and can continue to receive, is also incredibly helpful. During this time, we have video conferences with our child’s therapist. Our daughter is not present for these, so we can talk about some specific issues we may be having, and inquire as to how best to handle these situations.

These video conferences were helping us to understand the skills above, and how to implement many of these outside of special play.

We learned 5 skills above, and only some of them are to be used outside of special play.

5 Skills of special play time, and which skills to ALWAYS incorporate:

  1. Narrate – This skill is ONLY to be used during special play.
  2. Identify emotions– This skill is to be used IN and OUT of special play, for all emotions (positive and negative).
  3. Build her up– This skill is to be used IN and OUT of special play.
  4. Join in play and follow child’s lead- This skill is ONLY to be used during special play. The rest of the times we just play in our usual ways.
  5. Set limits with a choice– This skill is to be used IN and OUT of special play.

The one on one support helped tremendously in changing our language at home. We’ve learned so much about how we really need to build our daughter up.

Highly sensitive children have what’s called a shame cycle. Basically, they feel horrible when they do something wrong, and then it’s hard to get them out of the cycle of feeling bad and acting out. They feel undeserving of positive praise, and feel like a bad person.

We’ve learned that building her up, is important. Instead of saying “Good job!”, we now say “You are proud of yourself. You worked really hard on this picture.”

And our daughter has learned to tell us that she doesn’t like when we get excited and say things like “Good job!”

And, she’s more accepting of us giving her positive feedback now in general, as we all respect the boundaries that she’s setting for us with HOW to give it.

We also make sure to talk about things like, “Do you feel like a bad person?”

We address it head on, because we know it’s something she’s feeling. It’s opened up great conversations. And yes, our daughter is 4 having these great conversations.

I would have never thought to ask if she felt this way about herself. Now we just ask. And it’s been eye opening and so helpful. She’s now hearing over and over that she is a “good person.” And that we all make bad choices sometimes, but that it doesn’t make us bad people.

If you can find a therapist that you can have continued one on one support with, I’d highly recommend it. Getting used to the language to use at home is tricky, and having someone to bounce ideas off of, that knows your child, is beyond helpful.

Parent Workshop

Ok so the parent workshop…

Before we began the process of play therapy, I thought that the parent workshop was going to be hands down the #1 thing to help us.

As it turns out, we didn’t gain much from the workshop. We learned that we are doing a lot of great things already. We fine tuned some of these things through some ideas in the workshop, but most of all, we gained a sense of validation. Validation that we are good parents. Validation that we are doing some great things and have been for quite some time. Validation that we aren’t alone.

The workshop that we went through was a live video feed with the main therapist in the practice, and other parents.

One of the most helpful things was to hear that other parents are struggling with similar behaviors at home with their highly sensitive children. It was incredibly helpful to hear that other children have similar behaviors.

Also, by the time the workshop had started, we’d made some amazing headway already with the use of play therapy and our one on one video conferences. So, things had already turned around at home and we were seeing drastic differences.

Skills talked about in the workshop

After having completed the workshop, these are the main areas of focus that stuck out to me:

Remaining calm in your role as a parent

We all know that when we yell at our children, the whole situation escalates. Knowledge of that doesn’t make it easy to never do, however. We all have breaking points where we just can’t take anymore and we lose our cool. The reminder to really hone in on our skills to stay calm was a good one, however.

Validating Emotions

We’ve validated emotions since our daughter was able to talk. It’s something we’ve always done. Through our play therapy and one on one video conferencing, we learned that we were doing it incorrectly, however.

We used to say things like “I understand that you are feeling angry right now,” and then we’d get right into the expectations, solving the problem, etc.

Now we’ve learned to just state the emotion and let it sit. “You are feeling angry about having to leave the park.”

It feels super awkward at first, but it’s incredible the response that you get out of your child when you just leave it at that statement and let them know you SEE them. You really understand and see that they have an emotion right now, without skipping over it to get to the problem solving.

This was something we really focused in on prior to the workshop with our child’s therapist. It was a very helpful language switch for us.

The workshop then talked about this and added one more piece to the puzzle- the idea to talk about the good feelings as well. All feeling talk all the time!

We don’t want to just point out the negative, we want to point out the positive as well.

Schedules and Routines

If you have read any part of this blog, you know that we pride ourselves on schedules and routines! Our babies are put on a schedule the moment they are born LOL! We use eat, wake sleep routines from newborn on up, and the outcome is amazing.

As our daughter got older, we obviously switched how we do schedules, but kept the same basic ideas. She kept a nap until we simply couldn’t fit it in with school this year, and she has rest time and quiet time during the day.

Our daughter’s behavior has always been much better when she knows what to expect throughout the day.

She knows that we have basic schedules and routines throughout the day, and she’s always been able to tell us what’s next on the list.

Right now, her schedule consists of main blocks of time. She gets up at the same time every day. We get ready, she has free play while I get breakfast ready. Then it’s family play time. Then we put her baby brother down for nap, and she does a reading lesson with me, and then we have play time together. Then she has room time (quiet play time by herself). Then it’s time to get her baby brother up, etc. The same things happen each day.

When she was a toddler, she’d have lunch and then tell me it was nap time and head up by herself. The schedules have always been such a positive addition to our daily lives.

Quiet Time

Every time I would notice poor behavior, lots of tantrums, fits, etc. I could always trace it back to the fact that we’d gotten out of doing quiet time. Every single time.

In fact, I bet if you read through all of my behavior regression posts, every single one of them would say that my plan was to implement quiet time again, and make an effort to really get back to it.

Eventually, we just never got away from it. So, now at age 4, she is used to it and does a full hour of time by herself. She now has the freedom to do this independent time outside, in her room, or anywhere she’d like.

I learned in this workshop that I was lacking one thing in my execution, however. I’d never fully explained to our daughter the reason why we do this independent time. We were also given the idea to ask her how she’s feeling before and after this time, to really focus in on her feelings and tie everything together.

Praise Behaviors in Constructive Ways

Again, this is something we talked about earlier in this post. We have known for quite some time that our daughter HATES being told “Good job!” or any form of excitement celebrating her. She even hates having happy birthday sung to her.

We’ve always been huge on saying please and thank you to her. “Thank you for putting your toys away.” A simple thank you goes a long way and praises her for a job well done, in a non exciting way.

We’ve also been super conscious of using rewards charts. They just don’t work well with her and lose their value over time. We use them to make a quick change and then phase them out quickly as I discuss here.

Our tactics around praise have worked well, and after reading the book on The Highly Sensitive Child, it was further ingrained to change our language.

We’ve even taught our daughter to speak up when she doesn’t like praise. She tells people ahead of time now, that she doesn’t want the exciting phrases. I love that she can recognize that she doesn’t like this, as verbalize it to others.

We’ve also tried to educate our family on this as well. Instead of saying good job, we say constructive things like, “You are working really hard on your reading lessons.”

The amazing thing, is that, as our relationship grows through play therapy, she’s more and more open to praise. She’s gaining more confidence, and as a result, she doesn’t have as many of those feelings of shame. She doesn’t feel undeserving of the praise.

Prepare Your Child

Before going into a new situation, prepare your child so they know what to expect.

Gosh, we’ve built a foundation on this. We talk about what will happen, what the place will be like, we visit ahead of time if possible, we look at pictures, we talk about when we will leave and what that will look like even down to the response we expect out of our child. We talk about all of it all the time.

We’ve had to. From a very young age, we found this to be incredibly helpful.

We would even go out in public and practice things just to practice. We’d go to target, simply to practice following instruction out in public.

When going to a birthday party we make sure we visit the place ahead of time.

When our daughter’s therapy practice moved down the street, we went to the new building together a week before her first appointment there.

We prepare, prepare, prepare.

It’s now a part of her expectations. She asks to go look at places ahead of time or to see pictures. She asks how loud places will be, or how many people will be there, etc. She knows to prepare herself.

Parent Workshop Take Aways

Honestly, the workshop in and of itself was a bit frustrating to me. It was again one of those moments where I felt like “We’ve done this.” Yes we can always get better at things, but I was hoping for new ideas. That we didn’t get.

So, I really tried to stay positive through it all and just fine tune our practices at home. I became very active in the conversation during the workshops so that I could ask specific questions to get help with our fine tuning. I made myself focus on gaining from the workshop.

Had we done the workshop first, I’d have walked away feeling similar to how I’d felt in this post, when I’d written about how we’d tried everything and were still feeling lost.

I’d even inquired with the therapy group ahead of time to make sure I’d be learning new things in the workshop before purchasing it (yes I’m that mom). I gave them a list of all the things we’d done. It was pretty extensive.

I just didn’t want yet another moment of being told “You are A+ parents,” and, “We have no new suggestions.” We hear that a lot. We’ve reached out a lot- only to be told we do all of the things that would be recommended already.

Luckily, we were in a positive place when we did this workshop and had already made a ton of progress through play therapy. Otherwise I would have felt defeated.

Instead, I felt validated. I felt like we were good parents. I felt like we weren’t alone. I felt like we could do this, because we were doing it. The workshop helped us to realize these things and really feel stable and secure in our direction.

The most valuable thing I heard from the workshop, was an answer to one of my questions. I was feeling lost with expectations versus reality. What could we expect out of our 4 year old (reasonably). What is “normal” for a 4 year old, versus what is “normal” for a 4 year old that is highly sensitive, versus where we were on that scale.

Normal for a 4 year old that is not highly sensitive – a 5 to 10 minute tantrum. Stomping.

And when I heard those words, I realized we’d made it. We’d made it back to what was “normal” or typical 4 year old behavior. We’d successfully been able to support our daughter, help her handle her emotions, and get back to what should be expected from a typical 4 year old.

We’d helped her go from 2 hour long fits, to 5 minute anger bursts. We’d arrived and managed to put ourselves on a successful pathway.

We’d even achieved greater success that typical 4 year old behavior. We have a highly sensitive 4 year old! And that means she is very in tune with her emotions and those around her.

We’ve all worked really hard over the last 4 months, and I’m so glad that we’ve set a foundation for our future that we can build upon.

These language skills and techniques that we’ve learned will help us for a lifetime.

With every journey there are steps forward and steps backward. It’s a winding road and it’s never linear.

In this case, it feels like we’ve taken about 100 steps forward, however, and only about 10 backwards steps in that journey. We are all stronger, and we’ve all learned so much.

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