You had a wonderful summer, and the stress from surviving the previous school year has finally dissipated. Now it is September and you are nervous that your son, Michael, will begin to withdraw or become emotional again. You hope he doesn’t miss too many days of school this year, but you know Michael simply doesn’t seem to handle the social pressures of school well.
Transitions can be tough for any child. Moving from unstructured, fun family time over the summer to a new school year can bring about symptoms of stress and discomfort for many children. For the highly sensitive child a new school year may mean fear of social activities or otherwise overwhelming situations that cause distress. Even the anticipation of going back into this environment may bring out the, “Mommy, I don’t want to go to school” comment.
What can you do as a loving parent to prepare your child early on in the school year? A 3-prong approach is often helpful:
1. Understand your sensitive child
Sensitivity, according to Elaine Aron, Ph.D., author of The Highly Sensitive Child, is an inborn trait that represents a highly-attuned nervous system. Sensitive children are easily overwhelmed by too much stimulation, loud noises, changes in the environment and by the emotional states of others. Some sensitive children may be very difficult to raise due to their emotional intensity and demanding behavior, and some sensitive children may be easy to raise due to their tendency to turn inward and cause little distress for others.
Sensitive children need a lot of understanding. They sense and feel things differently than non-sensitive children. Children with high levels of sensitivity are often highly empathic, creative, intuitive and gifted. They need a strengths-based parenting strategy that promotes these traits in order to help them develop a positive view of themselves. Phrases such as “You’re too sensitive” or “Why are you so emotionally intense?” can be devastating to a sensitive child’s self-esteem and overall sense of self.
So when Michael tells you he doesn’t want to go to school, engage in a conversation about what he is thinking and feeling. Over time, sensitive children will be able to develop more insight into their physical ailments and be able to say, “Uh-oh! My stomach hurts, so that must be because I’m worried about starting baseball again!” Praising your sensitive child for developing his gift of intuition will help him learn how best to handle his emotions and behaviors. Your calm, warm and patient demeanor also teaches your sensitive child to trust that others will meet his needs, even if it takes a little bit of extra time.
2. Help your child understand his sensitivity
Without understanding, warmth and compassion from parents, sensitive children begin to believe that something is wrong with them. Many sensitive children are bright enough to make several attempts at changing their behavior only to become increasingly distressed, anxious and depressed as they get older. Teaching your child that sensitivity is a biological trait that comes with certain gifts can be an empowering experience. Providing high levels of structured warmth in which you push age-appropriate tasks in an encouraging manner will promote a positive sense of self for your sensitive child.
Sensitive boys often have a harder time acclimating to our culture. Their gifts of intuition and caring are often not valued, and it can be difficult for the sensitive male to find his place in the world. Acknowledging your son’s challenges as well as highlighting his unique gifts will help him develop the strength to stand up for himself, honor his gifts and become successful in his community.
3. Work with your child’s school
Our culture values people with extraverted traits. Period. This often means that highly sensitive children are labeled with various mental health diagnoses, put into social skills groups and made to feel that something is very wrong with them. While some highly sensitive children may also have a diagnosable mental health or sensory-based difficulty, many highly sensitive children do not. Teachers need help understanding your sensitive child and may need education on sensitivity as a trait that is different from shyness and/or an anxiety disorder. Sensitive children need kindness and patience. Working with your child’s teacher at the beginning of the year to come up with a plan to help make your child more comfortable with the transition can set the positive tone your sensitive child needs to thrive during the school year.
Raising a highly sensitive child can be a challenging task, but it can also be an experience in learning to better understand the subtle differences human beings share that make our society a complex world. Your highly sensitive child may teach you to slow down, be compassionate and value other people’s internal experiences—skills that go a long way in promoting a healthy, happy family environment.
Aron, E. (2001). The highly sensitive child: Helping our children thrive when the world overwhelms them. New York: Three Rivers
Jennifer B. Rhodes, PsyD is a licensed psychologist in private practice in Menlo Park and San Francisco, California. She specializes in Child Forensic Psychology, Infant and Preschool Mental Health, and parenting. She may be reached at email@example.com or at 415.509.5616.