Because most philosophies that frown on reproduction don't survive.

Monday, March 18, 2019

The Sensitive Child

Oh friends, help me out here. 

I have a child who is opposite of me, one whose needs I don't meet well. This child is sensitive -- not to sensory stimulus, but tender and needy. When this child isn't put to bed on time, evenings turn into the weeping hour, with moans of "I'm stupid!" or "Nobody likes me!" Now, nothing pulls my chain like this kind of fuss for attention, and I, being tired too, get over-reasonable, which I know tends to exacerbate this child -- and I just can't stop myself. 

If I ask the child what they want for breakfast, and display the least frustration because of indecision or flopping, the child will declare "I won't have breakfast! I'm not going to eat," in a way that reads as sulking, even though I'm sure that the base need is just for lots of love and patience. But I find that I run low on love and patience with sulking behaviors. As I say, the child and I have opposite personalities, and we probably trigger each other. 

Were you a tender, clingy child? Do you remember what made you feel insecure, or what parental actions made you feel secure and nurtured? Are you a parent to this kind of child? What do you do to help this kind of personality develop to its fullest and feel happy and at ease? What kind of affirmation do you give?

I am not a hands-off parent. I am happy to snuggle with my clingy child, but in the evenings there are other tasks that demand my attention, and other children to get ready for bed. And I know that it's good for my clinger to have to adjust to other personalities -- which is why it's good that we have so many personalities in the house. 

And now the child who refused breakfast just came and whispered in my ear that they put toast in the toaster, and could I make the tea? So I'm off to feed the child the best I know how, but I'd sure appreciate some advice if anyone's got anything for me.


Sherwood said...

This is such a toughie. Every kid is different (yep, I hear your hollow laughter and that ghostly "Ya think???") but for a data point, I did have one like that, and a bunch of them when I was a teacher. The only success I had was to de-escalate by helping the child see that there is a thing at issue, and not them.

Example, the 13 year old, "I hate oatmeal! I loathe scrambled eggs! No, I'm sick of cereal--I may as well go throw myself on the freeway because everyone hates me and I hate everybody I am scum scum scum!"

Me: "Hey, let's take a breath, and look at the whole breakfast thing. Remember why we have to get at least a bite into us? That awful feeling at the end of second period math when you think your stomach will suck your eyeballs down in because it's so empty?"

13 year old, Don't make me laugh. It's not funny.

Me. I apologize--you're totally right. Well, let's look at our options. You could do what your dad does, and eat cold leftovers. [Me holding my nose.] I can't stand the sight of cold spaghetti, but hey, if it looks good to you? No, well, I could make a piece of toast and cut it into tiny bites . . . or triangles . . . maybe a bite of banana?

Generally by then I'd get at least a couple bites of something past that downturned mouth, and then blood sugar rising would take care of the rest. Unless there was really some other issue and the kid chose breakfast as the easier target.

At school, I made sure the issue, and not the kid, was the focus. Rinse and repeat, we know the rules, we'll fix this together. Once the issue was resolved, then, if the kid wanted to vent about feelings, it was venting time.

Melanie Bettinelli said...

I agree with what Sherwood is saying. Focusing on solving the problem is key for me. But for one of my sensitive kids I can't even figure out what the problem is until they've disengaged and deescalated somewhat. This child is very fond of hugs and physical affection... EXCEPT when in full meltdown mode. Then my very being offends, my voice, my presence, my touch. This is hard to deal with when said child is having a meltdown in a room which I cannot leave. In the past I've resorted to dragging said child physically to a more isolated space because I've found that deescalation does not happen when other people are around. Some of this has started to resolve over time. Gradually chipping away at the reasons for frustration... like hunger... have helped. And so has maturity. Now we get much less throwing of pencils and much quicker resolution of strong feelings. When meltdowns used to happen that was pretty much the end of schoolwork for the next few hours, likely for the day. These days we often reach resolution within 15-20 minutes and school resumes. (Except with math, usually.) I try to be heavy handed with praise once things are resolved. I praise whatever I can find, even if I'm reaching a bit: I'm proud of you for solving that problem. I think that was resolved faster than last time. You're getting better! This is getting easier for you. I try to point out days when meltdowns don't happen and notice vocally and with full praise when the child is able to maintain any degree of self control. (Starting with 'you didn't throw your books today' and 'you only growled, you didn't scream'). Of course lots of hugs and physical affection when said child is in a good mood. And I try to make time for chid doing fun things with me: going on an errand, helping to bake a treat, painting a picture together, singing a song, dancing a silly dance.

Dorian Speed said...

I really thought I left a comment here yesterday! WAAAH WHY DOES GOOGLE HATE MEEEEE

Anyway: for my Sensitive Child, I try to remember that this characteristic can also manifest as tremendous compassion towards others, and to channel it in that regard. I also try to proactively provide the child with my attention and concern in an attempt to ward off the histrionics. Sleep deprivation is a major issue and I can't say I have had much success either modeling appropriate habits or enforcing them with my family. Which means my already limited patience with Sensitivity is stretched even more thin.

Michelle Kafel said...

The 4 year old we have here, while it's probably just developmentally appropriate, exhibits some similar behavior. I don't think I've gotten the hang of how to care for them the best way yet, but I read this article the other day and it gave me some insight that I might try to incorporate into the daily routine. Maybe there are snippets there for your situation as well. And maybe some of the siblings, the older
older ones perhaps, may have some insight or ability to help contribute to the solution?

LA said...

Howdy! I have a few thoughts on this, I was a sensitive child and G&T and while I think some aspects of my nature were parented well, others could have used some work, as I look back on it.

First I think it's awesome that you've recognized that the kid is simply opposite you, not that there's anything wrong with either of you but that you are simply disposed differently with different needs. I don't know that I ever felt that my mom knew we were different but rather I absorbed the idea from her that I was complicated and broken, somehow, because I needed certain things that she did not.

I have trouble deciding where to go eat or what to eat, to the point that sometimes I do not eat at all or eat very late at night because I become paralyzed by the volume of options, or the idea of cooking sends me into a strange unexplainable spiral of sadness. I often defer the choice of "what are we going to eat today" to my boyfriend or friend or family member. I find that if I am given clear choices: "You can have toast or you can have cereal, pick one" it becomes easier for me to make a decision. This stems from an anxiety over decision-making that I have simply learned how to live around, but a child has not yet learned this coping mechanism. So, if your child seems to have an anxiety around breakfast choices, it may help if you are firm and clear about what those choices are, and then honor that choice and get the kid excited and happy about having made it.

This is also a tool I use with my actors in the rehearsal room. I give them choices within the scope of what I am comfortable with them choosing, usually no more than 2-3.

What may seem like sulking may actually be anxiety-wallowing, which is a totally different mood. I'm not sulking because I'm angry at you, but rather because I'm furious at myself for not being able to do a simple thing like figure out what I want to eat today. I know in my head I've inconvenienced everyone and I hate and shame myself for being so irritating, and I get very quiet and moody.

If the child is engaging in negative self-talk aloud, it is definitely happening silently as well. I wrote obsessively in my diaries and journals about how much I hated myself and other people, but it did help to vent those things on paper rather than to my parents or friends. Maybe it's time for the child to start writing in a diary as well.

It may seem annoying to you, I totally get that, but the negative self-talk is an anxiety spiral and it can be stopped by regular reassurance that you love the child, and be specific about why. Articulate what it is that you think is wonderful about him or her every day at the same time. That way when the child is spiraling they can hear the ritual reassurance and perform it for themselves. It helps to know that your affection is unwavering and constant, even if you have the occasional clashes.

I hope this is useful!

Laura P

Kate said...

I was this kid and I still have a hard time being patient with my 7yo daughter when she acts this way. Sigh.

Honestly, in the moment, all that seems to help at all is presenting the options very clearly and calmly--including the natural consequence of her not making a decision--and then stepping back and giving her a lot of space. Sometimes I have to enforce the "taking space" part and send her to her room, though I try to make it clear this isn't punitive.

What helped my oldest, who was pretty anxious when he was younger, was to rehearse self-calming techniques and scenarios a bunch when he wasn't already upset until he was able to remember and use them in the moment. So I'm trying that with my daughter, along with talking to her (usually while snuggling at bedtime) about overwhelm and decision anxiety, and the different things that make it easier or harder to keep our calm (like being well rested, eating good food, taking quiet time vs. too much screen time, not exercising our bodies and/or brains, trying to control other people instead of controlling ourselves, etc.)

the other Sherry said...

Found this on a page I frequent (Autism Discussion Page on Facebook):

Reactive vs. Receptive State of Mind

Daniel Siegel, in his book “The Whole Brain Child”, talks about when the children are on guard, defensive, or angry, they are in a reactive state of mind. They interpret everything negatively and are not receptive to the positive. In the heat of the moment, it is not time to rationalize with the child, scold or counsel them. They are too reactive (emotional) to look at things rationally. They are operating from their “emotional brain”, not their “thinking, reasoning brain”. Some children are in the “on guard”, reactive state of mind most of the time. Because of either biological makeup or past experiences, they do not feel safe, are on “high alert”, and are always looking for the negative. They walk through life with filtered glasses on, looking for and interpreting things in a negative light. Usually these children have poor self-esteem and tend to “look for” negative intent from others.

What to do.

1. Know your child’s state of mind. Know what state of mind (brain) your child is operating from. What is he like when “receptive” and what is he like when “reactive.” When he is in a defensive, reactive state, then it is not the time to “command and demand”. It is only going to push his panic button. It is not the time to tell him what and why because he is not receptive to listening. Listen to his perspective, and validate his feelings, before trying to negotiate. Try not to verbally reason with him, or convince him that he is wrong, or should do things differently. Wait to the child is calm and in a receptive state to collaborate.

2. A good portion of angry outbursts from children are when adults ignore this principle and try to demand and direct, scold, or counsel the child when he is emotionally in turmoil. Like Dr. Ross Greene, author of “The Explosive Child”, states “Most problems don’t come from a rigid and inflexible child alone; but when a rigid/inflexible child meets a rigid/inflexible adult.” (Paraphrase) We must be the flexible one to bring the child to a flexible (receptive) state.

3. It is important to help the child feel safe, accepted, and competent throughout the day, so his nervous system is less defensive and more receptive. Help the child obtain a receptive state of mind and keep him there. All the strategies in our tool box on this page are focused on moving the child from the defensive/reactive mode, to a safe and receptive state. Understand and respect the child’s comfort zones and help him feel competent stretching these comfort zones.

the other Sherry said...

4. In the heat of the moment, when emotions are flying, respond to the “feelings” first, then the behavior. When the child is upset, do not try and scold, counsel, demand, or teach when emotional. Like we have discussed before, acknowledge and validate the feelings behind the behavior first, before dealing with the behavior. You don’t have to agree with the behavior, just validate the feelings behind the behavior. Once the emotion subsides, then collaborate. Of course, if the behavior is dangerous you must block and interrupt the behavior, but then focus on tackling the feelings, before discussing how to deal with the behavior. The child is not in a receptive state for cognitively reasoning what he should have done, or how bad he is.

5. First steps of intervention should be protect first (interrupt and protect) then help the child feel safe. Once you acknowledge and validate his feelings, then reassure him that he is safe. Only after calm and receptive, then bring in the thinking part of his brain!

6. How do we move the child from reactive to receptive? First attune yourself to where the child is at in the moment. He is acting from his emotional brain, so we need to attune to this state in whatever helps to sooth him. It may be deep pressure touch, soft signing, rocking together, giving him a favorite stuff animal, or simply leaving him alone until the emotions subside. Attune yourself with where he is at, and only move on once the emotions subside, and he feels safe and accepted. When he starts to come down, and appears more receptive, then you can discuss the episode. For some children this may be 30 minutes later, and for some hours later. Never scold him for being upset. You can discuss his behavior, but always validate how he feels. “I can understand how Johnny taking your toy would make you mad; but you cannot hit him when mad. Let’s look what else you can do to get your toy back.”

Remember, when you forget and immediately go into you “parenting” (directive) mode, when you see the child dig in his heels you are probably ignoring the emotional brain and trying to deal with his thinking brain. Back up and start where he is at.

the other Sherry said...

Another, completely different, thing to try and possibly add to your arsenal:

Fat bombs. One-bite, tasty, nutrient-dense. There are tons of recipes out there; look for some with ingredients/flavors that appeal to this child. I keep them in the freezer. A quick, easy help for those moments when decision-making ability is completely shut down by the need to get some nutrition. A current favorite around here is a buckeye:

the other Sherry said...

Another possible help:

Feeling Good Together, by Dr. David Burns.

Jenny said...

I suffer food paralysis and I second having a quick pop of calories available to enable thinking about food. I keep a can of honey-roasted peanuts in the house just for this reason. Sweet, salty, bit of protein, bit of fat, can actually think again.

MrsDarwin said...

Thanks, all. You've given me a lot to think about. I've already started working on presenting options, and that does seem to help. I wish it wasn't so wearying, being the adult all the time!

Julia said...

I'm posting a link to something I wrote recently. Different situation, but the same prayer works (mostly) for dealing with my fussy-sensitive-dramatic teen.

mrsdarwin said...

Thank you, Julia. That very much reflects how I have to deal with these situations in which I'm out of my depth: one line at a time.