All children worry to a degree. Some worry about what to eat, others question why things happen and if these things can hurt them and still others worry if you will forget to pick up a treat you promised. Occasionally, they may need you to stay with them a little longer in their room or they may want to sleep with you because they had a bad day or a bad dream. However, there are some children that are highly sensitive and experience feelings and worries more so than others. These children cry very easily when another person gets hurt or even just imagining someone is going to get hurt. Children who are emotionally sensitive worry about everything around them. They analyze and reanalyze situations. These children do not easily forget unpleasant experiences, nor do they easily let go of hurt feelings. They do not like changes and get easily confused withdrawing if too many changes occur around them.
Raising an emotionally sensitive child requires patience and compassion. Parents and professionals may feel as if nothing works to improve temperament. Parents or care providers can become emotional support and go to people for emotional needs. It is very easy to fall into the trap of becoming an emotional blanket. Emotionally sheltering children can be good occasionally, but emotionally sensitive children also need to be taught to respect other’s emotional boundaries. These children need to learn, respect and to value their emotions in order to create a sense security. Teaching emotionally sensitive children your emotional boundaries allows them to understand and learn about their own emotions. It teaches them a sense of emotional safety. Emotional safety is our ability to think, identify, manage, and respond to our emotional needs. Children, who are emotionally sensitive, appear to have difficulty feeling emotionally safe. In some ways these children may read too much into situations or misinterpret the emotional safety of a situation. They need to be taught ways to regulate their emotional needs. To “regulate” an emotion does not necessarily mean to make it disappear. Rather, it means to learn skills that will help one safely manage his/ her emotions and responses to these emotions.
A good place to start with a child is to teach him/ her the language and meaning of his/ her feelings. As a speech pathologist, my clients are often emotionally sensitive and have a limited emotional vocabulary. We work on bad feeling words and good feeling words. We work on sharing things that happened to make us have that feeling. With some children, especially very young children with language delays or disorders, I might start with teaching emotional vocabulary and using pictures to help them understand emotions. We also create our bad feeling words. We scale the feelings and work together to find the right level for these feelings. We use a feeling scale as shown below to understand support needed.
For young kids, we draw pictures of familiar people who have had similar feelings and experiences. We use questions to understand how to solve the emotional difficulty. For example,
- “What will mommy think and do about the problem?”
- “Can mommy fix the problem?”
- “What would your friend _____________( friend’s name) think about the problem?”
- “How would your friend solve the problem?”
Occasionally I use their favorite animal character, “What will the bear think of the problem?” We then decide based on the concept of ‘big, medium or small’ who can solve the problem. When it is a small emotional problem the child is encouraged to solve the problem. Big emotional problems are solved by adults and medium emotional problems are solved by both the adult and the child working together.
With older children I use concepts of “Thinking Zones”. With my older kids I have our emotional vocabulary, feeling vocabulary and Opinion versus Facts vocabulary. I direct the child to create thinking questions regarding emotional problems. We then look at Opinion versus Facts regarding the problem. We use these questions to address our emotions:
- What will______,
- What if_______,
- How does_____________
- What would _________
- Why is __________.
As mentioned in my previous newsletter, Frozen as Ice means you cannot think, so wait until you begin to melt.
We should never completely ignore children’s feelings nor force them to share these feelings. Rather, we need create ways to help children that are emotionally sensitive learn to cope and manage their feelings. We need to empower them to own and recognize what and how of their emotions work. Remember the following rules:
- When teaching these kids start with tiny steps.
- Start by teaching the child about your feelings. Label and name your feelings about similar situations.
- Tell the child what you did to help with your feelings in a similar situation.
- Model good feelings by staying calm.
- Practice regularly and create a feeling story book (for younger children).
- For older children encourage the creation of a feeling journal or dairy.
- Teach ways to relax and stay calm. Example, “Let’s take, deep breaths,” or “Lets take a walk and think of happy feelings.”
- Give the child two simple choices. Whatever happens please don’t become impatient or punish the child as their feelings are not intentional.
It can be draining dealing with children who excessively worry and will not attempt new experiences without emotional support. You may feel the need to shelter and protect them. It is okay to seek outside support to learn ways to better support the child. It is also okay to get counseling support for yourself and your child.
Disclaimer: I have over 20 years experience working with children, especially children with social emotional difficulties. I am not writing this article as an expert in the field of child counseling.
Uduak (Udie) Osom holds a Bachelor’s and a Master’s degree in Speech and Language Pathology from San Jose State University. Udie has served students of all ability levels from preschool through grade 12, for over 20 years. She is very passionate about neuro-developmental disabilities and social-cognitive disabilities. She is the owner/director of Innovative Therapy Services, a pediatric speech, language and social skills clinic in Santa Clara, CA. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.