Often when we hear a child described as sensitive it conjures up an image of a child who cries easily and often, is keenly attuned to the feelings of others and is physically weak and frail. It’s true that kids who present this way are often highly sensitive, but what would you think if I told you that the high-school bully, the bossy seven-year old and the shovel-throwing toddler are also likely to be highly sensitive (or even hypersensitive)? This might challenge what we tend to think of as “sensitive” but this expanded understanding of this label is actually quite warranted and, more importantly, it can help us to better understand what it going on for these kids (the bully, the bossy one and the aggressive one) and therefore help us to become the parent or teacher they need.
What Does It Mean to be Sensitive?
Simply put, the brains of sensitive children (and adults) are receiving more input than the brains of less sensitive folks. There is a “gating system” (the reticular activating system) in the brain that allows for the amount of input that our brains receive. In most of us the gating system only allows in 3-5% of the possible input swirling around us (sights, sounds, vibrations, impressions, smells, pressures etc.) as that’s about the amount we fragile humans can handle. In sensitive children the gating system is more porous allowing for more input to be experienced by the brain. As you might imagine, this can get very overwhelming very quickly. Sensitive people are, therefore, people whose gating system is allowing more in leading to a near constant state of intense input and high arousal in various parts of the brain. There is some research suggesting that a higher percentage of boys than girls have a “leaky gating system.” Current research has shown that autism is characterized by a leaky gating system, as is giftedness.
What Can Go Awry for Sensitive Kids?
As you might imagine, having a brain that is experiencing both added and intensified input can get very overwhelming very quickly. This can quickly lead to higher levels of alarm and frustration manifesting as rigidity, obsessive and compulsive behaviors, aggression, impulse control and “having a short fuse.” Often as an attempt to manage the chaos they are experiencing at all times, sensitive children attempt to “take charge” by becoming Alpha children. Unfortunately, this only intensifies the alarm and frustration they are feeling leading to further issues. Another unfortunate scenario that often develops for sensitive children is that they become defended against vulnerable feelings; the intensity of these feelings is simply “too much” for them so the brain protects itself from the intensity so that basic daily functioning can be preserved. Unfortunately, as current neuroscience is showing us, children *need* their feelings in order to mature; feelings are actually pivotal to brain development, leaving defended sensitive children stuck and immature.
What Do Sensitive Kids Need?:
- An Invitation to Express Their Emotions
Sensitive kids, by definition, are stirred up by intense emotions. They need adults in their life who aren’t afraid of these big, often loud, emotions. They need many and varied invitations for expression; the form expression needs to take will be different for each child but it is up to us to help them find the right form, be it yelling, breaking sticks, tearing fabric, hammering in the garage, hitting a punching bag, throwing a ball, making music, writing in a journal, dancing or kneading pizza dough. Play is the perfect place for emotions to come out; Dr. Gordon Neufeld refers to play as “Nature’s Outhouse” meaning: the place where all the things we sometimes “shun” (think messy, loud or aggressive) can have their place. Sensitive kids also need adults who understand that the intensity in their brains may often lead to chaotic and uncivilized outbursts and that this is okay. The first stop on the long road to being “emotionally civilized” is an invitation for what Dr. Neufeld calls “expression without repercussion.”
- Warm, Strong and Caring Adults
As noted above, many sensitive kids tend towards Alpha as an attempt to manage their internal overwhelm, however what they need is a strong, warm, capable adult who invites their dependence. Kids need to be in the dependent position so that they can find rest, because it is only from a place of rest that growth can happen. If you have an Alpha child, there are many things you can do to restore right relationship, including conveying that the child is never “too much” for you and not letting intense behavior get in the way of your relationship.
- Protection from Too Much Wounding
There is no way to live in the world without getting hurt: not getting invited to the birthday party, losing the soccer game and being teased on the playground are inevitably part of the roster of childhood hurts. While we can’t prevent these hurts from happening, a child’s deep attachment to a caring adult can prevent the wounding from going too deep as the adult’s love serves as a shield for the child’s heart. All children need this shield if they are going to be able to feel their vulnerable feelings (which, as noted above, they need to be able to feel in order to mature) and sensitive children need to their hearts shielded even more. Peer orientation, the phenomenon described by Dr. Neufeld in Hold On to Your Kids, also leaves our kids much more vulnerable to intense wounding, with deep and lasting developmental repercussions. Insuring that our sensitive kids’ (including teens) primary attachments are to caring and responsible adults can make all the difference in their healthy maturation.
If you have a child in your life who seems to feel things more deeply, you may be keenly aware that you have a sensitive one on your hands. However, if you have a child who has problems with aggression, anxiety or Alpha issues, you may also have a sensitive child in your care. Understanding sensitivity and the defendedness and Alpha issues that often accompany it can make all the difference in how you parent your sensitive child. When we see that they are overloaded with intense emotions we can gracefully step into our caretaking role and begin to provide what is needed.
*Would you like to better support your sensitive child or teen? The Alpha Child class is an excellent place to start; it begins next Wednesday 9/25.
**I have an editorial up on the Neufeld Institute website - you can read it here.