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How to parent a child with a sensitive heart

As parents, we strive to raise children that are kind and compassionate. We want our children to help make the world a better place. It is our hope that we are raising good little people who will grow to do good things.

Sometimes these traits come naturally to a child. However, parenting a child with a sensitive heart can come with its own set of challenges.

As a teacher, I have had years of experience with students who were a bit more sensitive than the rest. I treated them with “kid” gloves, so to speak. It was important to nurture their sensitive heart to ensure they could learn to their fullest potential.

As a mom, I realized early on that my daughter is one of these children with a sensitive heart. She is inherently sweet, but she feels things deeply. There is a hyper-awareness of the feelings of others.

This empathy can be great, but also painful at times.

There are a few things you can do to nurture your child’s compassion while protecting their fragile little hearts.

1. Role-play

I am a big fan of the art of role-play. It is a great way to talk through and act out situations that are difficult for your child to understand. This is a great strategy to use if you are trying to teach your child to have a bit more empathy, as well.

For the sensitive child, roleplaying is a wonderful way to demonstrate that everyone is going to be okay. Going to the doctor’s office, for example, is a great situation to role play. It is very helpful for all kids to know what to expect, but for the sensitive child, they may have a hard time seeing other kids that are sick.
My daughter will stop wherever she is if she hears a baby or child crying. She becomes worried or may even begin crying herself. We act out babies crying with her doll. I explain that maybe the baby is hungry or tired. We rock the doll or pretend to give it food to show that the baby will be okay.

It is important for sensitive children to see that people do experience illness, sadness or frustration because these emotions are a part of life. However, it is also important for these children to see that people will be okay and that are ways to heal if they are sick, injured or hurt.

2. Use the power of a hug

Toddlers are notorious for their tantrums and meltdowns. However, I have recognized that my daughter will melt down when she is overstimulated or feeling overwhelmed by her emotions. While I did discover one fantastic magic potion for toddler tantrums, I have another trick that really works! A hug.

That’s right, I said “a hug!” Simply asking your toddler if they want a hug can have a wondrous calming effect. For the sensitive child, if they sense your frustration at their behavior, it will only cause them to shut down further. Instead, offer a hug. The physical contact will provide the comfort your child really needs.

This small act will also show your child that a hug can also be very effective in helping someone else who is hurt or upset. Part of what affects sensitive people so deeply is a feeling of helplessness. However, a hug is very healing. There is even scientific evidence that proves it! Check out this article about the healing power of a hug!

3. Teach your child to problem solve

The emotions of a sensitive child can become like a runaway freight train on track for disaster. Being sensitive and empathetic are positive qualities to possess, but can cause a negative impact if they are not properly managed.

Problem solving: talking about feelings

Even at a young age, it is important to keep the lines of communication open with your child. Toddlers may have difficulty articulating their feelings because they are still developing their vocabulary.

This is where you grab your trusty picture book. Picture books are perfect for encouraging dialogue about how your child feels. The following are a few of my favorites:

The Way I Feel by Janan Cain

I love this book for the illustrations. Even toddlers can relate to the pictures. You could also take photographs or video of your toddler to compare. This book also covers a wide range of emotions which helps your sensitive child understand that all of their feelings are normal.

In My Heart: A Book of Feelings by Jo Witek

This book is ideal for the child who feels emotions deeply. It explains how the heart “feels” as happy and light or heavy and dark. It addresses the feelings sensitive children experience in a very kid-friendly manner.

Don’t Feed the Worry Bug by Andi Green

I actually think this book is equally good for parents as it is for kids! It talks about what worries are and how to keep them from getting out of control. Worrying is definitely something sensitive children struggle with. Beginning the dialogue early about emotions and worries will help you find real solutions right from the start.

Problem solving: finding a positive outlet

Feelings are a natural and normal part of life. It is important that your child feels safe in expressing both their positive and negative emotions. These emotions can seem so overwhelming when children are little, so offering a positive outlet can be very helpful.

Here are some ways your little one can put all of those big emotions into something positive:

  • Pretend play
  • Arts and crafts (drawing and coloring)
  • Playing sports
  • Drama/acting

Problem Solving: helping out

One way I help my sensitive child is to allow her to help me or help others. This can be as simple as asking your little one to bring you a tissue if you have a cold or to help with household chores if you are feeling stressed.

Interacting with a pet is a great way to teach empathy and compassion and I have learned that helping with our family dog is a great way to channel my daughter’s sensitivity. My daughter is in charge of feeding our dog her meals, but also the simple act of petting our dog is very calming when she is feeling worked up.

In the classroom, I often ask my sensitive students to be my “teacher’s helper.” They love putting those feelings to work in a positive way. These are the same students who love to help a struggling peer or sibling, so put them to work! Just be sure to let them know how much you appreciate their compassion and willingness to help.

The Highly-Sensitive Child

I love my daughter’s sweetness and sensitivity, but as a highly empathetic person myself, I know that there can be some struggles as she gets older. Right now, my daughter’s sensitivity means that she is full of hugs and kisses for anyone who needs it. She is careful to give her toys equal attention and is even happy to share her toys with friends. These are wonderful qualities to have, but these feelings can also manifest themselves into stress and anxiety.

For further reading on parenting the sensitive child, check out these articles:

Be patient and gentle with these little sweetie pies. This does not mean to avoid discipline. In fact, sensitive children may have an easier time if they know that there are structure and rules in place.

Also, think positively. Instead of thinking of your child as the occasional drama queen or king, remind yourself that being caring and compassionate are wonderful qualities to have.

Originally posted on HuffPost.

Brittany Ferrell is a wife, mother, teacher, and author. She has chronicled her struggle to become a parent in her published memoir, From Dream to Dream Come True: My Journey to Motherhood, and writes about her fairy tale dream come true of motherhood on her blog, A Mama Tale.

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