March 6, 2023

Ep. 84a – Sarah Moore – Supporting Sensitive Kids (without walking on eggshells)

Highly sensitive kids feel the intensity of their emotions. Their highs tend to be higher and their lows tend to be lower.

This week, our guest Sarah Moore answers a question from a listener who asks, “How do you support a highly sensitive child when you feel like you have to walk on eggshells?”

Join us for her compassionate and insightful response.

Episode Guest

Sarah Moore

Sarah 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.

Additional Resources:


Ep. 84a – Sarah Moore – Supporting Sensitive Kids (without walking on eggshells)

Rachel Cram – Sarah, thank you so much for joining me again for our Q-note sessions. I’ve got a good one for you today. A good question.

Sarah Moore – I’m so excited. And you’re a joy. I’m glad to be back.

RC – Oh, thank you. You know, it was really interesting to me. After the release of your episode, the number of comments and questions we had around high sensitivity being a temperament. Actually, it wasn’t really a surprise to me because I don’t think I fully understood that until very recently as well, that high sensitivity is a temperament.

SM – Yes. Just like friendliness or a desire to have a clean space or studiousness. So many of these things are just kind of in our hard wiring, and it is absolutely a temperament.

RC – Yeah, part of our hard wiring. That is the key. It’s not so much nurture as nature, although they both work together.

Okay. Well, I am eager to read you a first question that we’ve chosen for you to address. And I’m just going to jump right in. The person starts off with being so thankful for your episode, so I’ll start with that gratitude.

They write. “Thank you so much for this episode with Sarah Moore. The baseball game story at the end really hit home with me. I can see my middle eight-year-old daughter responding like the child did in that scenario. She’s so easily emotionally hurt or overwhelmed. I feel like the rest of our family lives on guard in how we address her or act around her because we don’t want to set her off. I actually feel like my partner is probably also highly sensitive. He and my daughter really connect, but they also really set each other off. I appreciated the way Sarah described this mom’s response to her child’s emotional release when he struck out. (That was from your episode.) Can Sarah give further suggestions on how to support a highly sensitive child, and adult too, if she feels like she can address both, without feeling like you have to walk on eggshells?”


RC – So, Sarah, I’m guessing a highly sensitive person can probably sense when others are on eggshells around them. And I imagine that for a highly sensitive person that could spiral the sensitivity and the situation into even more dysregulation. So how do you address this?

SM – I love that you called it out like that from the get go. Let’s call a spade a spade. You’re absolutely right. One of the gifts of high sensitivity is incredible perceptive abilities to figure out what is actually going on beneath the surface around me. So if parents and caregivers are spending all of their time walking on eggshells, the child is going to be looking around, or I’ll bring in the adult too, the other adult who’s highly sensitive, is going to be looking around saying, “I see eggs everywhere. Why is no one talking about the eggs?”

So absolutely, in order to feel emotionally safe and emotionally validated, we need to be authentic with our children. Now, here’s the spin that I want to invite parents, caregivers, partners, whatever your role may be in relation to this highly sensitive person, I want us to do a spin where we realize authenticity is really different from being too direct or what they perceive as being harsh.

So let me think of an example to share with you. Let’s say, in fact, you know what? I’m going to make this one really personal. My daughter is tired today. And as people might remember, she is highly sensitive. So earlier today, we were walking through the house and I said something to her that to me felt peaceful. It was something along the lines of, “Let’s get into the other room. I don’t want to miss this thing that we’re going to do.”

And she looked at me and said, “Please don’t yell at me.”

And I thought, “Oh, this is interesting, because I didn’t feel at all like I was yelling. I know I didn’t raise my voice.” And I felt peaceful towards her.

However, her perception was that because I gave her a command, rather than engaging her playfully or saying, “Are you ready to go?” Or something that might have landed in her nervous system a little bit more gently, she perceived it as yelling.

So this is something that we need to be aware of. Our tone and the words that we use make a huge difference for highly sensitive kids. Now for some people they might say, “Oh no, those are even bigger eggshells that I need to worry about as I’m trying to interact with this person in my life.”

Actually, the opposite is true. When our child or our partner is able to tell us, “Hey, that didn’t land right with me,” that’s an invitation to us to figure out, how can I still get the same message across in a way that is going to feel peaceful to them?

So I might still say, “It’s time to go. I need us to hurry because we’re running a little bit late or any of these other things that parents are so good at saying. But we need to make sure that we are using playful, gentle language, where we can really get to the heart of how our message is being perceived by the person who is receiving it.

So that was a lot of words to say, rather than giving directives, rather than being blunt, rather than simply telling the child or the sensitive adult, “This is the thing you need to do,” instead in that real life situation. I might have said something like, “Okay bunny rabbit, let’s hop to the door.”

Or, “Hey, are you ready to go? I’m wondering what you need so that we can be sure to make it on time.”

Both of those still would have gotten my point across without being as directive oriented. I don’t think directive oriented is a word. As umm

RC – Blunt maybe? Or forthright or?

SM – Thank you. Yes.

RC – Well, you know, when you’re searching for that word, I think it’s actually a really good metaphor for how you feel in the moments though, when you’re searching for “How am I going to address what I need to say right now or what I want to say right now?”

Because as you’re describing that, I feel like, oh, this takes a deep breath on the part of the person who’s addressing the highly sensitive person to, I guess, put yourself in their shoes and think, “How are they going to receive this well?”

Because I know for myself, when I have addressed some of the highly sensitive people in my life and they have reacted to that. Said, “You’re yelling,” or have taken offense.

And I feel like “What?! There’s nothing about offense in there.”

In my weaker moments, which are sadly quite frequent, I can feel like, “Forget it then. I’m not even going to talk to you. I’ll just not say anything then.”

And that’s so not helpful. And that kind of is back to walking on eggshells again, which becomes a vicious circle.

SM – It does. And I feel for you and I feel for the other parents and caregivers and partners who are in this situation. And I will be the first one to acknowledge it’s hard and it takes practice. But the good news is, over time and with practice, these gentler, more self-aware ways of communicating can actually become our default. All we really have to do is start by slowing down and asking ourselves, “How do I want this to land for this person?”

Now the good news is, most of the time highly-sensitive kids and adults feel pretty good. Again, when the highs are higher, they’re in a good, empowered place, we don’t have to worry so much about this. It’s only when we can tell they’re struggling or needing more emotional support, these are the times when we intuitively would probably be gentler with them anyway. So these are the times that it’s best that we practice with the gentlest way that we can still get the message across, knowing that we have really a fair amount of latitude all of the rest of the time. This is really something to be mostly aware of when the child or the sensitive adult is struggling and we’re aware that they’re struggling.

One other important thing to keep in mind, too, is that high sensitivity is linked, there is a correlation scientifically, with higher anxiety. So I’m going to pause for a second, just let people think about that. Knowing that there is a greater risk for anxiety, we just want to be aware that when we spend time walking on eggshells and being too careful all the time, they’re nervous system is going to pick up, “This person’s being too careful with me.” Anxiety will increase.

So coming back to what I started with, the more authentic we can be as much of the time as possible, the more the highly sensitive adult or child will say, “I am actually safe here because I can feel this safety coming from this other person.” And from there eggshells magically disappear.

RC – One of the reasons why I picked this question, I think, Sarah, is because I myself wanted to know your answer to it. That terminology of, ‘I feel like I’m walking on eggshells is one I can relate to.’ And I wonder if there’s a rephrase that’s more positive and more helpful to the reality of the situation. If we’re not walking on eggshells what are we doing?

SM – I love that question. And I’m going to keep it centered on the self. Just because the self is the only one we can control in these situations. So for me, I would reframe it as “I can sense this person is feeling unsafe. What can I do to help create emotional safety for them?”

For me, that is not about. “I need to not say anything.”

It’s, no, I still say something. I just need to make sure that when I do say what needs to be said, that I do it in a way that increases their emotional safety so that we can be authentic together instead of my treading so lightly that I don’t get to be myself. And they also feel even less safe because they can sense I’m not being myself.

How does that land with you?

RC – That lands really well. And it triggered another question in my head. And this doesn’t come directly from this parent’s email, but when we had your keynote episode, you were talking about scarcity and emotional bank accounts and you had mentioned that validation is really important. And I’m wondering, do highly sensitive people tend to need more validation than people that are not so highly sensitive?

SM – I think what’s most important, lest anyone think I need to be offering more praise or more rewards or more ‘atta boys’ or ‘atta girls’ or whatever it is. That actually can backfire because we don’t want the highly sensitive person to get so wrapped up in seeking the approval of others that that determines whether their highs get higher or their lowest get lower.

My bigger hope would be that we provide them with so much emotional warmth in whatever their individual love language may be that they feel validated, that they feel special, that they feel like they matter, because from there they are going to be much more intrinsically motivated to decide for themselves whether or not they are good enough or can handle a tough situation or whatever. It’s not just about hearing that they’re doing a good job. They need to really feel that warmth coming from us because again, coming back to emotional safety, everything for them is going to be about, ‘I want to feel loved and accepted for who I am.’

That’s all I need.

Music #2

RC – Sarah, I’m just looking over this question one last time to see if there’s any last little threads we should pick up on before we close off from your really remarkable answer. I’m really appreciating it.

I noticed that she said, “I feel like the rest of our family’s lives are on guard in how we address her or act around her because we don’t want to set her off.”

I think that often other children can be aware of a highly sensitive sibling and start to walk on eggshells as well. Is there anything you’d want to say about that before we close off? Anyways to help our other children not approach their sibling like that.

SM – Number one, compassion and empathy again for the parents and the children who are in the situation, because it’s hard for all ages. I just want to call that out. I think the most beneficial thing that families can do in this situation is to name what they see and validate the whole familial experience. There is nothing wrong with normalizing, these things are hard sometimes.

So perhaps at a time when everybody is regulated, you have a family meeting and say, “I know Child A has some really big feelings sometimes, and I want Child A to know that those feelings make sense and are safe here. And we want you to be able to feel your feelings. Additionally, I know that sometimes big feelings can be overwhelming or scary,” or whatever adjective you want to use that’s appropriate for your family, “and I want to make sure that we come up with a plan that works for everybody so that everybody feels seen. Everybody feels valued. Everybody gets to be who they are, knowing that we can handle the big feelings and we also get to be ourselves, too. So let’s brainstorm together as a family about some of the ways that we can handle it when it comes up.”

And it is amazing and brilliant to see what both children and adults can come up with to help them in the moment so that it doesn’t have to overwhelm anybody, beit the person who’s having and expressing the big feelings or the people who are around that person.

RC – Sarah I can’t think of anything else I can draw from this question. I think you’ve addressed it so well.

SM – Oh, thank you.

RC – And listeners, if more questions come to your mind, don’t hesitate to send them in. I’m loving hearing and learning from what Sarah has to say too, and your questions are so helpful.

SM – Thank you so much.

Episode 70