Ep. 84 – Sarah Moore – Understanding Highly Sensitive Kids
- Characteristics of a highly sensitive child
- The difference between a highly sensitive child and an overly sensitive child
- How to respond when family or friends judge our highly sensitive child
‘High Sensitivity’ is a temperament trait, meaning it’s biologically based rather than learned or taught.
A highly sensitive child is a child who is very affected and often reactive to environmental influences – sounds, smells, temperatures, and even the attitudes and moods of those around them.
In this episode of family360, author and parenting specialist Sarah Moore shares the unique emotional language of a highly sensitive child and what they need from their parents in order to feel seen, loved, and validated.
Sarah MooreSarah Moore is the director of Dandelion Seeds Positive Parenting, where she offers coaching and counsel around child development, trauma recovery, and interpersonal neurobiology.
She is also the author of her newly released book, Peaceful Discipline, and most importantly a Mom.
Ep. 84 – Sarah Moore – Understanding Highly Sensitive Kids
Rachel Cram – Good morning, Sarah. Thank you so much for being with me today. I really appreciate this.
Sarah Moore – It’s a joy, Rachel. Thank you for having me.
RC – Oh, I’ve looked forward to this. Knowing that 20% of kids have a highly sensitive temperament, and that often parents interpret that temperament as something else, something undesirable! We want this podcast to be about understanding one another more fully. So I’m really eager to dive into this with you.
SM – As am I. Thank you for shining light on it.
RC – Well before we jump in, I want to allow listeners a chance to get to know you beyond your parenting professional platforms, and so, Sarah, I’d love to ask you a little bit about your own childhood, if you’re okay with that.
SM – I am.
RC – Okay. Here’s the question. Aristotle stated, “Show me a child at seven and I will show you the adult.”
And so I’m wondering, Sarah, is there a story or experience from your childhood that you see as formative into the adult that you are today?
SM – Oh, I feel this one deeply, partially because I too am a highly sensitive person. And I remember a time when I was seven and I was at school and the school was doing this really big event that everybody was so excited about. And my apologies for those of us who now know more about what it takes to have a healthy planet. This happened back in about 1980 before we knew what we were doing. So what the school did is they handed out a helium balloon to every single child in the school, and we all went outside and then when the appointed time came, somebody came over a loudspeaker and said, “It’s time to release your balloon.”
And little seven-year-old me said, “Why in the world would I want to do it?” I’m in love with my balloon. And I remember watching the sea of balloons float up into the sky and be carried away. And it was truly a lovely sight. But there was one little red balloon that did not join them and it was my red balloon, and I started crying and didn’t want to relinquish it.
And eventually somebody persuaded me to let the balloon go. But I cared so much about it that to this day, more than 40 years later, there’s still a part of me that left my heart in that balloon that floated off into the sky.
RC – Ok, I feel like we should be queuing the music to 99 Red Balloons here. You know that song?
SM – Yes
SM – That’s a very telling story, and I think back at that time we didn’t hear words like she’s a sensitive child. You might have heard words like stubborn or difficult or whiny. And the word sensitive now is such a useful temperament to understand in caring for kids and people who would react like that. That would want to keep the balloon, of course.
Sarah, I’m wondering, can you start by giving characteristics of a highly sensitive child or person? What might a parent or a teacher be seeing in a child that could indicate that a child is highly sensitive?
SM – Yeah, so all children are sensitive, but not all children are highly sensitive. There is a difference. So there are many people who wrongly believe, “Oh my goodness, my four year old cries sometimes. That must mean they’re highly sensitive.”
Well, no, it means you have a four year old.
But the truth is 15 to 20% of the population is highly sensitive. It is often misconstrued as other things but there is an emotional basis for it where the highs will feel higher, but the lows will also feel lower. You will have a child who seems to have these really big feelings, but it’s not all negative. It can also be elation, joy, happiness. But it’s a child who feels those feelings typically for a little bit longer than other children might. And also on a more intense level.
Highly sensitive children are also hyper aware of their surroundings. They will pick up the mood of the room. They will be the ones who are the first to notice when some child a block away is crying and want to know what is that child crying about? Can we fix it? Can we help? What can we do? It’s the children who are deeply caring, and emotions are essentially their language of life.
RC – Ummm. “Emotions are essentially their language of life.” Oh, I want to pick up on that.
What does that language sound like Sarah? Can you walk us through an everyday family occurrence? Something like bedtime – when we’re putting our highly sensitive child to bed. What would their emotional language sound like?
SM – So reality is just about every kid on the planet struggles with going to bed. But here’s a subtle difference that the parent or caregiver might see. Rather than a less sensitive child who doesn’t want to go to bed, because they were having fun playing, the highly sensitive child might resist bedtime because, “Oh, I don’t want to leave you. You’re so much fun to hang out with. Can we please have one more story because I love your cuddles. I want to hold you longer. Can I have some more hugs?”
There’s a difference between not wanting to go to bed and not wanting to separate from the people they love most dearly.
RC – Would a highly sensitive child be able to articulate that to a parent? Now obviously not when they’re really young, and I’m thinking that highly sensitive starts right from birth. Is that true?
SM – Yes. Dr. Ross Green has a beautiful quote where he says, “Temperament is 100% nature and 100% nurture.” In fact, there have been studies of babies who will literally within hours of being born, start to cry if another baby is crying and this child often goes on to become a highly sensitive person because they were simply more in tune with others emotions from the very beginning. Some of this is the way we’re born.
That being said, there is definitely a component of nurture, too. If we create space for our children’s feelings in a supportive way, we actually encourage them to be more resilient. Whereas if we dismiss our children’s feelings and push them away, the child may actually end up being overly sensitive because they don’t know when we’re going to show up for them and when we’re not.
So this is a common misconception. A lot of people think, “Oh, if I’m too responsive to my child, they’ll end up too sensitive.”
That’s false. That actually supports the child’s emotional maturity and emotional growth. It’s the parents who don’t show up for their children, who are more likely to, quote unquote, create an overly sensitive child.
RC – Well, what is the difference between a highly sensitive child and an overly sensitive child?
SM – Great question. An overly sensitive child is one who doesn’t know when their attachment needs are going to be met. Therefore, they will be more reactive to all the things. Everything is going to be a bigger struggle for them. They might act out more. They might be more combative because they don’t know when their special big person is really going to show up for them. So they are going to act out every time, thinking, “The bigger, louder, more attention I can draw on myself, the more likely I am to be seen.”
And that becomes a vicious cycle because we don’t want our children to have to seek so desperately for our attention.
Whereas a highly sensitive child, it’s just the way they are. And If we can be responsive to their needs and if we can say, “Yeah, I will validate your feelings. Your feelings make sense to me, even if they are stronger perhaps, than what some other children are feeling. I get you and you’re safe with me.”
That child grows up with sensitivity being a strength rather than a liability.
RC – Can any child become an overly sensitive child, whether they’re highly sensitive or not?
SM – Yes, Absolutely. Because oversensitivity isn’t temperament per se, it’s more of a behavioral outcome of having their needs neglected.
RC – Oh, Sarah, I’m loving this. This is so helpful. Can we go back to the bedtime scenario and talk about how a parent supports a child with a highly sensitive temperament – a child who wants their parent to stay close? How do we learn their language of emotions, especially if that’s not our first language? How do we figure out what our child is trying to say to us?
SM – I love that question. So best thing we can do is model the vocabulary, model the language that we want our children to use someday. And so we know our kids pretty well. And we can probably make what I call an empathy guess, which basically means I will say something to the child, like, “I’m wondering if you are sad because it’s bedtime or I’m wondering if you’re sad because you want more snuggles.”
And that way you give the child options and the child will probably from a very young age, be able to say what it is that’s going on for them, even if it’s in very simple terms. And that for us is information. If the child says, “I want more snuggles, I don’t want you to go.”
“Okay, more snuggles it is.” Let me lean in and provide those to you so you feel more emotionally safe.
That’s a child who will feel more grounded and more secure in our love than if the adult says, “Well, it’s bedtime, I’m closing the door,” and then the child is left to, you know, miss us and not have the emotional support they need to really grow in their emotional intelligence and emotional maturity over time.
Musical Interlude #1
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RC – At what point do you say to your highly sensitive child, “No, Mommy does need to leave the room now. Daddy does need to go to bed or Daddy does need to tuck you in.”
Is there a point when a child is going to say, “I’m satiated enough and you can leave me?”
SM – Yes. You know, I’m not an economics person, but let’s talk economics for a second. We know that there is a theory of scarcity. The more we are afraid that something’s not going to be available to us, the more we are desperate to get it. If you think back to the pandemic a lot of us are having trouble getting toilet paper, right. So what did we do? We went out and we bought all the toilet paper that we could get our hands on.
It’s the same for our children when it comes to those bedtime hugs. If our children say, “I need another hug.”
Do we want to say, “Sorry. Grocery stores sold out of hugs tonight. So you’re going to have to really scream for them next week and see if you can get your place in line.”
Or can we provide them with the emotional security of saying, “Yes, you can have another hug, you can have as many hugs as you want.”
With my own child, I will say that I have never personally put a limit on hugs. And that way she doesn’t have to fear that she’s not going to get enough.
Children have this innate desire to be independent and to do things on their own. And when we give them the emotional freedom to rest in our love and our security, they will seek out that independence naturally without worrying that we have run out of toilet paper or hugs or whatever the case may be.
RC – But what if you have more than one child? So you’ve got one in one bedroom wanting you to stay with them and give more hugs. And another one downstairs in the living room really wanting you to come and read with them. And another one in their bedroom, wanting you to come and help them finish their homework. How do you respond? I’m putting myself in the mind of a young parent. And this is where it gets complicated.
SM – It does for sure. And this is a great opportunity for us to say, this is complicated. What can I do to make it easier? Is there anything in the scenario that you just described that I could do to make this land peacefully in the nervous system of all 55 of my children, no matter how ever many I have? Right.
So maybe a possibility is, ‘Okay, I’ve got two kids in separate bedrooms who – it’s bedtime for them right now and the older kid downstairs on the couch. What if I am open to the idea of maybe bedtime is a collaborative deal where we all fall asleep together in the same room. And if the older one is not ready to go to sleep yet. All right, this is your special quiet time where you get to bring your book upstairs and your little flashlight and you can be in the room with us. That way I can kind of do the rounds and give the hugs and do what I call group co-regulation. That way, nobody feels deprived of our love. And yes, we might have an empty bedroom for a while, but if everybody is sleeping and if everybody’s getting their needs met, that’s okay. I call that a win.’
RC – So we can change our systems.
SM – Yes, exactly.
RC – We can step outside of our bedrooms, the ways we’ve seen bedroom and bedtime routines handled.
SM – Yes, exactly. We often believe that just because we have three bedrooms, we have to be using all three bedrooms. Not true. It’s amazing how one can turn into a toy room for a while and things even out in the end.
RC – I’d love to continue with the theory of scarcity for a little longer Sarah. Say we can’t this bedroom system sorted out, or whatever it is, and a child doesn’t get their hug quota met, for whatever reason. What happens to their physical affection bank account?
SM – Yeah. So for a child who doesn’t get their affection quota met when they’re younger, it’s not like the affection quota or the hug quota magically disappears. If it’s a deficit, it will continue to be a deficit until it is no longer. The thing is, the child may learn at some point, “I still have this need, but I can’t get it from my parents.”
So maybe I’m a teenager and I get a boyfriend or girlfriend and all right, they’re perfectly willing to give me physical affection. Statistically, children who have lacked safe intimacy physically with their parents are more likely to seek out unsafe intimacy with others prematurely because that basic need for affection hasn’t been filled.
Even if they manage not to do those things when they’re a teenager, again, the need hasn’t gone away. They will simply keep striving to find it until that need is met. If they happen to meet that need with an emotionally healthy person down the road, fantastic. But more often than not, the child learns, ‘All right. So my wiring here is that when you love somebody, you don’t show up for them. You don’t give them the hugs. You don’t give them the positive reinforcement that they’re seeking.’
So that child might be with somebody who’s a very healthy person for them, who wants their affection. And it’s a good, healthy relationship, except for that child who’s now an adult who will say, “The script that I learned from childhood is even though you love me, even though you’re a healthy person, I need to withhold my love from you.”
And that only contributes to a perpetual cycle of emotional dysfunction and a lack of healthy intimacy that every single one of us wants at every single age.
RC – So we’ve been talking about physical affection here and attachment. Where else would this occur? Like, we’re talking about hugs. Is every highly sensitive child needing affection? What else could they be needing?
SM – Yeah. Validation. Emotional validation is another huge one. So I talk in my book Peaceful Discipline about ‘attention seeking behavior’ as we come to known it colloquially. But really, it’s ‘connection seeking behavior’. So for the child who is acting out to the point of ‘I will do anything to get noticed here,’ the adult who does not respond tells the child through their behavior, “You are not worthy of being seen or validated.”
Well, the child learns what we call a limiting belief about themself. The child internalizes the message. “I am not worthy of being seen. If my trusted adult isn’t seeing me even when I act out. I am not worthy of being seen.”
And that can cycle all the way through to adulthood, where you have an adult who still feels like they don’t matter. They feel like nobody listens to them. They feel like they are not worth being heard. And some adults will overcompensate and be really loud and be really in people’s faces and do everything they can to get all the attention that they didn’t get when they were children. But you also have the adults who shrink back from society, back from relationships, and have low self-esteem because they internalized the message when they were little that they weren’t worthy of being heard in the first place.
So it’s very, very important to reframe our children’s bids for attention as bids for validation, bids for connection. Every child has a deep, innate longing to be told, “You make sense. I understand you. Everything you feel makes perfect sense to me. And you get to have all of your feelings. They’re safe with me.”
What a different message that child grows up with. And the confidence and the self-esteem they will take forward into adolescence and adulthood when they feel like. “Not only do I matter now, but I’ve always mattered. My voice is worth being heard. I am worth being seen. I get to love myself because my adults showed me that I was worthy of love in the first place.”
RC – You used the phrase ‘a child gives a bid for attention.’ What would be an example of a bid that we might miss in the day? What would some of those bids come in the shape of? What would they look like?
SM – All right, I’m going to make this very real and very personal because I want people to know that I go through this, too, in my own parenting. It might be, I am on my phone. I am busy paying a bill, ordering groceries, scrolling Facebook, whatever it is I might be doing, and my child might be saying, “Hey, can you watch me do a cartwheel?”
The thing is, I’ve watched her do a billion cartwheels. I know the kid can cartwheel. I’m not at all saying that adults don’t have a right to do the things that we need to do. Of course we need to pay our bills. And sometimes we just want to check out and scroll Facebook for a few minutes. That is okay. I’m not demonizing those things. But there comes a point when it’s really important for me to say, “I’m at a stopping point with what I’m doing. I can put this down and be all in with my child and say, “I see you. Show me that cartwheel. Wow, you got your legs even straighter that time. Wow. You did it faster that time.”
Help the child feel that when we are with them, we are all in. That we are present. That we are not distracted by all of the things. Because even if a child is asking us to do or to watch the thing for the millionth time, they’re asking because it still matters to them, even if perhaps it has fallen off our radar a little bit. So our job is to just be a little bit more present whenever we can and help our children feel seen in this way.
RC – Ok, so asking us to watch them, play with them, do something with them, those are bids for our attention. What are other examples of bids?
SM – Yeah. It can also take the form of the child who is starting to melt down or have a tantrum. I personally reframe these words as having an emotional release and I really like framing it that way because as a parent it reminds me that it’s healthier when we release our emotions, even if they happen to come in forms that are tricky for us to navigate sometimes. But when our child has these big feelings coming out, or perhaps the opposite is happening, perhaps they’re withdrawing, perhaps they’re shutting down. All of these things are essentially the child’s way of saying, number one, do you see me? And number two, will you show up for me even if I’m struggling or pulling back?
And when we can be brave enough to show up for them, even when it’s hard or triggering for us and say, “I might not have received the support when I was little, but I’m going to find the internal wherewithal to show up for you,” do my belly breathing, do whatever I need to do to create emotional safety for you. I see you. I love you unconditionally. And this is part of what unconditional love actually looks like. It’s when we’re willing to show up, even when it’s hard for us. And that can really help our sensitive child feel that they matter no matter what it is they’re feeling.
RC – And that’s hard because in those times, those emotional release moments, especially if we’re highly sensitive ourselves, if there is a lot of noise going on in their emotional release, that makes it even harder because we’re responding to that.
SM – It does. Yeah. And I will tell you, when my child is expressing big feelings, oh, yeah, every part of my nervous system is like, “Woo, get out of here. This isn’t safe.”
But what I have started to say out loud to her when she’s having big feelings is, “All of your feelings are safe here.” What I like about this is, it’s a reminder to me that I need to make all of her feelings safe and that means I need to be present. I need to be still. I need to show up peacefully. And it’s also helpful for her because she hears that all of her feelings are safe. No feeling is, quote unquote, bad. All feelings are just information. So when I can remember, “All right, my child is expressing some big feelings. What is it that I need to understand?”
When I reframe it that way, my curiosity increases and my fear and my desire to back-off decreases because now I’m a detective. I want to figure out what’s going on so that I can support my child. That is different from ‘I want to make it stop or I want to fix her feelings.’
I don’t want to do those things because I know that if I make her stuff her feelings down, they don’t ever go away. Instead, you just have a child with repressed emotions, and that’s not healthy for anybody. But if I can say, “All of your feelings are safe here,” it’s a reminder to both of us to get curious about what’s going on and to create the safety that she’s actually seeking in that moment.
RC – There’s an immense amount of summoning of ourselves to respond like this. I feel like there will be a lot of misses. A lot of times we won’t show up like this even though we want to.
SM – You are so right. And my response to that might actually surprise some people, because we do know that we want to be the proverbial calm in our child storm. But if we are not feeling calm, here’s the thing. Our kids are going to pick up on it. And if we say, “It’s okay, it’s okay.”
And our child is looking at us like, you know, and saying, “I can tell it’s not okay for you because I can see you’re freaking out, too.”
That’s only going to add fuel to the fire because now they’re going to feel even less safe emotionally because our words don’t match the emotional vibe, for lack of a better word, that we’re putting out there.
It is okay. In fact, it is healthy to say to our child, “Oh, this is scary right now. These are really big feelings and this is overwhelming. I feel it, too. And I promise you, we’re going to find our way through it.”
That, to me, feels so much more authentic than faking it and pretending to be totally calm and grounded if we’re not. And in doing so, we get to model that vulnerability and the fact that we know that emotions are like waves. They’re going to crash on us and then they’re going to move on and we can live with that.
Musical interlude #2
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RC – As you’re talking about these emotions and behaviors, I’m thinking, our understanding of temperaments and the ways we’re actually wired to be different and distinct from one another, is still very much emerging. We still tend to assume we’re all experiencing emotions and behaviors through the same lens. And we’re not. Knowing now that 20% of children are highly sensitive, how might a parent misinterpret that temperament? What other kind of term might they use to describe their child? Do you have a list in mind from the people that you’ve worked with, of how they’ve misinterpreted the temperament of their child?
SM – I do. And unfortunately, none of these terms are going to be flattering. But sometimes we will hear words like needy, or too sensitive, or too emotional. Sometimes we even hear words like lazy because the child is actually needing connection to get moving. We will hear words like unmotivated. We will hear words like depressed or anxious or whatever. It’s not to say that our child might not be depressed or be anxious or whatever, but if we’re not translating high sensitivity well enough, we might simply throw a diagnosis or an unflattering label on it and assume, “Well, it’s nothing to do with me. It’s their problem and it’s theirs to fix.”
When in reality you might simply have a child who’s saying, “Do you see how I actually feel about the situation? And are you willing to support me through it?”
And the good news here is when we do support our children through whatever it is, and get to the root cause, of whatever it is that’s going on for them, it’s amazing how sensitivity can blossom into what we now call a superpower.
We need sensitive people in the world who are going to say, “I see that the people over there are struggling. How can I help? I see that that person is going through a hard time, they’re needing something.”
We need people who can read the emotions of the room and feel compelled to take action because we modeled how to show up for them first.
RC – Without an understanding of temperaments, and the wide variety of ways we think and behave as human beings, I think we ‘throw a lot of diagnosis or unflattering labels’ onto people. Even people we love – because we’re so stuck in our own perspective and mindset.
I know I’ve been a part of Myers-Briggs and Enneagram conversations, and sometimes I can be a bit resistant to those because I feel sometimes they can put us into boxes. But one of the things that I really value is that it shows you, ‘Wow, here is a temperament that’s so different than my own.’
For example, I remember when I did the Myers-Briggs I’m somebody who loves to come to an end result. I love to arrive at a product. And my husband is somebody who loves to be in process. The product isn’t super interesting to him. And I remember being at that conference where I learned that and thinking, “What? That’s a legitimate thing, that you can actually be somebody who loves to be in process? Like I thought we all had to be people that loved to be at the product.”
And I think that’s similar with this. It is really important that we have people in our world who are highly sensitive. That is a valuable part of who we are as human beings.
SM – Exactly. Yes, I love that. And what a great example.
RC – And yet…sometimes when we’re living alongside our partner, our child, our coworker, and their temperament is really troubling us we want proof that the way they behave is organically wired into their DNA, that it is who they are neurologically designed to be and that their emotions and behaviors aren’t simply a whim of their fancy that makes our life more challenging.
So, with a highly sensitive person, what does neuroscience reveal?
SM – So, MRI studies have been done of highly sensitive people. We haven’t typically done the studies on children because nobody wants to stick their baby in an MRI machine just to see if they are someday going to be highly sensitive any more than they want to see if their baby is going to be friendly someday or any other temperament trait that’s out there.
But we do know that the brain has measurable and detectable areas that light up in the MRI machine when exposed to different images. So with adults, they have put adults into the MRI machine and shown pictures of happy places, violent scenes of whatever it is. And when they view the brains of highly sensitive people, parts of the brain light up more than when those same images are shown to people who are not classified as highly sensitive. So it is truly measurable. It is nothing that we have done as a parent. We have not made our child highly sensitive any more than we have made them have blond hair or light skin or dark skin.
RC – And it’s also not that our child is choosing to have that temperament. They’re not choosing to be emotional or dysregulated. This is part of how they’re wired.
SM – Exactly.
RC – Ok. Sarah, I’m thinking this might be important to know. ‘Are there particular challenges for highly sensitive parents, as they parent their highly sensitive kids? Are there any cautions?
SM – Yes. Let’s go there. All right. So being a highly sensitive parent, you probably already know that you have a special superpower of taking on other people’s emotions. You are like a sponge. And therefore, it can be really common that if your child is feeling happy, you feel happy too. If your child is sad, you feel extra sad not only because of your own sadness, but you’re also taking on their sadness.
So one of the things that I coach highly sensitive parents to model for their children is saying things like… And usually I recommend starting it externally, not within the relationship, but perhaps you’re at a playground and you see another child crying or something like that. I will say to my child, “I’m observing that that child is really sad, and although I can have empathy for them, I also have to remember that their sadness is not mine to fix.”
This is a really healthy tool to model for the child. But in doing so, we’re also reinforcing that message in our own brain so that when it’s your own child that’s sad, for example, we have heard ourselves say out loud, “I can feel your sadness. Have empathy, but your feelings get to be yours. And I have my own feelings.”
It’s kind of like we can dance together and have a beautiful complimentary dance with all the beautiful movements. But I don’t have to own your steps. And you don’t have to own my steps.
RC – Oh, my goodness. You have just dropped a nugget of wisdom into me. I was recently saying to my husband that when our big extended family gets together, I leave feeling so exhausted because I pick up the feelings of everybody in the room. ‘Is that person getting talked to enough? Are the kids too noisy over here? Is this person feeling left out?’
And I don’t have to do all that, and I know that. But I forget that I don’t have to carry the feelings of everybody else, because when I do, I’m not fun anymore. Nobody enjoys me and I don’t have a good time because I’m worrying about everybody else too much. I’m taking on everybody else’s feelings. I need that. Thank you.
SM – Oh, you’re so welcome. You know, it’s so funny. Even just yesterday, I was interviewed for a news program and they had me watching the news segment that aired right before I went live on the news. And the segment right before mine was a really horrible, highly disturbing segment. And then they panned over to me and I’m like, “I’m not ready for this because I just took that on emotionally.”
And it was the most awkward transition for highly sensitive me to be like, smile and say uplifting things. It’s like, “No, I want to cry about that story over there.”
So it really is a practice for sure.
RC – Oh, fabulous. Okay, here’s a different slant of that then. What are challenges, cautions, for non highly sensitive parents who are parenting highly sensitive kids?
SM – It can be really easy to dismiss the child’s feelings if we don’t share the child’s feelings. It can be really easy to get caught up in, “I don’t know what the big deal is. I don’t know why they’re acting that way. I don’t know why this bothers them so much. Can’t they just get over it?”
When reality is, no, they can’t just get over it. So what we can do if we are a non highly sensitive parent, is understand that our child’s reality is our child’s reality. We actually don’t have to understand it. Instead, we can simply accept that’s what’s going on for them. It would be like if I saw somebody out my window right now, fall off his bike, it doesn’t mean that I have to feel whatever pain that person might have incurred by falling off the bike. Oh, I can imagine how that might be uncomfortable without having to feel it for myself. And I can still show up. I can still say, “Is there something you need? Can I help you pick up your bike?”
There are still ways that I can show up for that person. Just because I didn’t fall off my bike doesn’t mean it doesn’t happen for them.
Musical interlude #3
Thanks for listening to family360 and our conversation with Sarah Moore. There is more to come.
Our next 3 releases will be Q&A episodes based on this keynote conversation with Sarah, we call them Q-notes and we’d love to hear from you! If you have a question for Sarah, please send it to firstname.lastname@example.org. Over the next 3 weeks, Sarah will be eager and ready to offer her practiced and wise perspectives back to you. And then our next guest is Dr. Christine Koh. Christine is the co-author of Minimalist Parenting and co-host of the award-winning podcast, Edit Your Life Show. She is a brain scientist, with a mission for helping families find their footing and flourish with less under ever-growing pressures to have more. Join us!
And now, back to the conclusion of our conversation with Sarah as she talks about modeling language to help our highly sensitive child articulate their emotions.
RC – With care and respect for a highly sensitive temperament, is there a way we can help our child so that their emotions don’t continually build into an explosive emotional release? Is there a way to help our child articulate what they are feeling instead?
SM – The answer is a resounding yes. Oftentimes, little kids have these big feelings, but they have no roadmap, so their big feelings can overwhelm them. So we can model things like, “Hmm, I’m feeling tired, so I’m going to go sit down and rest for a few minutes. I’m feeling angry, so I’m going to take some belly breaths or go outside in nature for a few minutes.”
We talk about what we’re feeling, how we notice it in our bodies. We might even say something like, “I’m noticing my heart’s beating really fast with this angry feeling that’s coming up. This is normal, and here is what I’m going to do to help regulate myself again.”
That way we help build emotional literacy for our highly sensitive children so that someday when they are sad or mad or happy or whatever feeling they’re having, they say, “I saw this in action once before. So I now have an idea what to do with it.”
And over time, they get better about articulating their feelings because we’ve modeled how to do that.
Sometimes a lot of parents simply need to start with really basic things, like, “I’m feeling thirsty, so I’m going to go get a glass of water.”
If the emotional stuff feels too big and heavy, start with thirst. Start with hunger. Start with, “I have to go to the bathroom. So here’s what I’m going to go do.” We can keep it so basic for our own emotional safety too, while we’re treading into the bigger topics.
RC – And I think if we start that right from when our kids are little, that can feel really natural. If when they’re 15, we start going, “I need to go to the washroom.”
They might be like, “Okay.”
SM – Didn’t need to know that, Mom. Right.
RC – But if we can start that right from when they’re young, I think that’s just a great way to be as a family – free to express what we’re feeling.
SM – Exactly. And we normalize that it’s all so common and it’s nothing to shy away from. There’s no bad feeling out there. Every feeling we have is just information. The question is, what do we want to do with it?
RC – And we’re willing to share it. That’s just starting that vulnerability. Being willing to share what’s going on inside of our bodies.
SM – Exactly.
RC – Ok, this is another question about helping our child express what they’re sensing. In my experience, sensitive kids often pick up feelings about themselves when they’re out in the world. So say you have a child who’s coming home frequently feeling that other people are making fun of them, or that friends are rejecting them, or that people are hurting their feelings. How does a parent verbally respond to that in a way that is helpful to that child? Does that make sense?
SM – It does make sense. Yes. And I was that child. I had a hard time socially for a good long time in school. So I resonate deeply with this one. So, couple of things. The biggest mistake parents often make is to dismiss what the child is saying by trying to talk them out of it. So the child might come to us and say, “Nobody likes me. Everybody is making fun of me.”
And the big person will say, “Oh, that’s not true, sweetheart. You’re so likable. You’re wonderful. Don’t listen to them. Don’t worry about it. You’re wonderful.”
And we think, “Okay, I built them up.”
But what actually happens is that the child says “They didn’t hear me at all. This is a very real feeling for me.”
So what we want to do instead is practice active and reflective listening. You would say to your child, “I hear you saying that at school today, it felt like everybody was making fun of you. It felt like nobody liked you. Tell me more about that.”
And we help the child process. We validate their feelings. We can ask them questions like, “What did the kid say specifically?”
“Oh, well, they said that I had bad hair,” you know, whatever it was.
“Well, tell me more about that. How do you feel about your hair? What do you like about it? What don’t you like about it? Is there anything that you want to change? Or is it just their words that are hurting?”
And here you have a child who can come to the realization and can come to the empowerment themselves of, “I get to have my own opinions about myself and whether I like me or whether I feel I need to change. Not exclusively based on what other people are saying about me.”
So when we validate the child’s feelings, we are not saying that we agree with what the mean kids at school said, but instead we’re saying, “You make sense to me. Those words would hurt. Gosh, I bet that felt awful when they said that.”
And then the child feels seen. They feel like, “Oh, my special big person gets me. They see how hard it is for me and we’re on the same team together.”
We love our kids. We want them to feel supported in every way. But sometimes the best way to support isn’t to fix. It’s actually to listen.
RC – Okay Sarah, I think we have time for one last question before we have to close. And I’m wondering, how do we helpfully respond when family or friends are impatient or judgmental with our highly sensitive child? Can I give you an example and see how you’d speak into it?
SM – Wonderful.
RC – Okay. So say you’re at a family reunion and there’s a fun game of baseball planned and your sensitive child goes up to bat and has a meltdown on home plate because or has an emotional, emotional response. What was the phrase you used?
SM – An emotional release.
RC – And has an emotional release. I like that. So much better. And has an emotional release on home plate because they can’t hit the ball. And everyone is really kind and supportive, but you feel the opinions on your child. You feel that there’s judgment, even though no one’s saying anything to you. How do you respond in that moment? What do you do within yourself, with your child and with your family around you?
SM – What a perfect example. So this is an incredible opportunity to model acceptance and validation of the child’s feelings. We are at home plate and all eyes are on us. And let’s pretend that somehow everybody can actually hear the words that are coming out of my mouth too. What I would love to do is to scoop that child up in my arms and acknowledge. “It is so hard to strike out.”
Hard stop. It is hard. So let’s acknowledge that. And then I would go on to say, “And I love that you are able to express freely how hard it is. Wouldn’t it be a gift to the whole world if everybody knew how to release their big feelings and their disappointments and their struggles instead of just bottling them up? I love that you can be so expressive. You are brave and you are strong, and all of your feelings are safe here.”
RC – Wow. And what do you have to do within yourself to be able to come towards home plate like that? I think for myself, I’d be aware, my child’s kind of disrupting the game right now. So what’s the talk in our own heads as we go forward? What are we saying to ourselves to be able to respond like that when we get to home plate?
SM – Yeah. So we have to remember that in every scenario like this, there’s one more person on the baseball field that nobody can see, and that person is our inner child. And more often than not, when we feel those doubts creep up, it’s because our inner child didn’t get the support we needed when we were in some comparable situation when we were little.
So if we feel the resistance, it’s our inner child saying,“Hold on, this wasn’t safe for me when I was little.”
So our best and most important job in that moment is to acknowledge that our feelings make sense too. That our resistance also makes sense. And if I can say in that moment, “I’m going to show up for my inner child in the way that I needed someone to show up for me when I was little,” I not only heal my child in front of me, but my inner child gets to heal along the way because my inner child also needed somebody who would show up for them so bravely and unapologetically. Even when all eyes are watching.
RC – As you do that for your inner child and your highly sensitive child who is showing their emotions on home plate. You’re doing it in front of the people who nurtured your inner child in the first place and who are maybe not getting this. And so how do you reconcile that? Say your mom or your dad then comes over who are part of this family reunion. And they were the ones who said to you, “Toughen up, you’re too much. Don’t be so emotional. You’re wrecking this whole game.”
What if they come over and say to you, “I don’t think she should be acting like that. You’re being too soft.”
How do you respond to that?
SM – This is so common. And I want to let people know this is so common. You are very much not alone. You have to remember that at this point, even though your inner child is still going to want to please your parent because your inner child is still very alive and well inside your body. You have to remember that it is not your job to show up for your parent and re-parent them. Your job in that moment is to remember that you are now an adult and you have the responsibility of showing up for your child in the ways that you know your child needs, but also in doing so, you are showing up for your inner child in a way that that same person wasn’t able to.
And one thing that might surprise people is it’s amazing how often our parents, the in-laws, whoever they may be, they’re taking note and they might say the hurtful things. They might say, “They shouldn’t be getting away with that. I can’t believe you’re letting them cry or scream,” or whatever.
But part of them is also observing, and you are modeling a healthier way of moving forward. And even if they don’t say it out loud yet, they’re still paying attention. And there’s some part of their inner child that always longed to be nurtured in that way, too.
RC – Sarah, this is a great place to end. I thank you so much for the wisdom that you’re bringing into the world and your articulation today with me.
SM – Oh, my pleasure. You’re a gift. Let’s do this again sometime. You’re so much fun.
RC – Well, we will be doing it over the next three weeks because, listeners, Sarah has kindly agreed to answer your questions. So as you listen to this episode, if you have questions, email email@example.com and I will be bringing them to Sarah and she’ll be answering them. Thank you so much for that, Sarah.
SM – My pleasure. Thank you. This is fantastic.
“Hope” is the thing with feathers –
That perches in the soul –
And sings the tune without the words –
(yet) never stops – at all –
And sweetest – in the Gale – is heard –
… sore must be the storm –
That could abash the little Bird
That kept so many warm –
I’ve heard it in the chillest land –
And on the strangest Sea –
Yet – never – in Extremity,
It asked a crumb – of me.