Highly Sensitive Children: Developing the Skills of Emotional Regulation
Do you have a kiddo who seems to get upset at any little thing, any given moment? What was an easy-going, happy child in the car seat quickly becomes a crying, screaming, kicking child in the store…or what was a sociable, excited child at the playground all of a sudden becomes a shy, sad child clinging to your leg. Yes, children are all emotional and sensitive, but if you feel your child is extra emotional at times, you may have a highly sensitive child.
At their core, highly sensitive children are our world’s big feelers – a trait that has both its pits and its peaks. At their best, these kiddos are empathetic, compassionate, confident, and adaptable. They will be the teachers, healers, change-makers, and team leaders of their generation, using their empathetic skills to support themselves and others to do their best.
Highly sensitive children are often described by parents as having trouble with communicating big feelings, not knowing how to be consoled, and compared to a light switch – one minute things are fine and dandy, the next we are having a meltdown. At times it can feel like walking on eggshells trying to keep your sensitive kiddo at ease before the next big emotional challenge arises.
At their core, highly sensitive children are our world’s big feelers – a trait that has both its pits and its peaks. At their best, these kiddos are empathetic, compassionate, confident, and adaptable. They will be the teachers, healers, change-makers, and team leaders of their generation, using their empathetic skills to support themselves and others to do their best. But when their emotions begin to override their whole nervous system, highly sensitive children can develop behaviors that feel and appear stressed, defiant, anxious, aggressive, avoidant, controlling, and explosive.
The first priority is helping these kiddos develop emotional regulation skills through increasing their brain and nervous system’s tolerance to their big feelings.
So how do we assure that our highly sensitive children utilize their emotional sensitivity as a strength, rather than a challenge? The first priority is helping these kiddos develop emotional regulation skills through increasing their brain and nervous system’s tolerance to their big feelings. Children are emotional creatures, living mostly from their right brain (the seat of emotions, expression, creativity, imagination, and nonverbal behavior), as their left brain (logic, language, self-control, organization, understanding cause and effect, etc.) is not yet online, and won’t begin to dominate or equal their right brain abilities until at least age 10. Highly sensitive children not only live mainly from their right brain, but have a stronger tendency to “flood”, which is when an overwhelming emotional experience sends their nervous system into a threat response and they begin working from their emotional or paleomammalian brain. This is where our fight, flight, and freeze response lies, and we no longer have access to any part of our executive functioning.
You may have experienced this with your child many a time. They begin a tantrum and your words or solutions to the thing that caused their tantrum only seems to make things worse or goes completely unnoticed. What is happening in these moments is that your child is experiencing some emotion that is new, unknown, different, or causing discomfort – and the brain likes things that are predictable, comfortable, and known, so their brains treat that certain emotion as a threat. During a tantrum or meltdown, the part of their brain that can process logic and language is not online, and that is why your words or solutions may go to the wayside when trying to help your child calm down. The part of your child’s brain that is activated during a tantrum or meltdown is the emotional brain – and that is the part we can connect and communicate with to help them regulate and get their more mature brain online. But before we can connect with this part of the brain, our children have to become more conscious and aware of their emotional experience.
When we talk about increasing your child’s tolerance to their emotions, we are helping them build more awareness around that emotion so the brain no longer sees it as a threat, but instead recognizes it as a familiar friend...
To build your child's emotional regulation skills, we first have to increase their tolerance to their emotions. When we talk about increasing your child’s tolerance to their emotions, we are helping them build more awareness around that emotion so the brain no longer sees it as a threat, but instead recognizes it as a familiar friend and can handle it in a more calm, regulated fashion. In the playroom, building awareness around kiddo’s challenging emotions is the main therapeutic process. We do this by the therapist observing what we see happening, using feeling words, and naming body sensations. This helps children to build awareness – using their plethora of mirror neurons – around how an emotion feels, how to name it, what it may look like, and how to regulate through it. Remember, the more we know something, the less threatening it is. So the more your child experiences sadness, anger, or fear in a conscious, connected, and regulated way, the more their brains will understand these challenging emotions, and then the less likely it is for their brains to flood and send their nervous system into tantrum or meltdown mode.
For highly sensitive children, building awareness is the most important part of helping them to develop emotional regulation skills and emotional intelligence. Because they feel things so deeply, getting to know the intricacies of their emotional experience is essential to helping them navigate the world with confidence, resilience, and empathy for both themselves and others. If you have a highly sensitive child and are in the Boulder/Denver area, click here to learn more about play therapy sessions and to schedule a free 30-minute consultation.
Jamie Quail, MA, LPCC is a Child & Family Therapist and Owner of Wise Nest Counseling, LLC offering play therapy and parent coaching sessions in Boulder, CO.