If you’re a parent to a highly sensitive child, you’ve likely struggled with figuring out how to discipline appropriately.
Discipline strategies that work for most children don’t usually work with highly sensitive children. It can be incredibly frustrating for both the parent and the child… trust me! I have been there.
It is crucial that you view discipline with a highly sensitive child (HSC) differently than you would with a non HSC. As soon as I accepted this, it made my life much easier.
I can’t simply put my HSC, Theo, into timeout for not listening to me. He becomes so distressed when I put him in his room. He screams my name, bangs at the door, and sobs hysterically.
I know timeout isn’t exactly supposed to be fun, but it shouldn’t cause so much stress.
So, if common discipline strategies don’t work, what can you do? Here is what I have learned about disciplining a highly sensitive child.
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Table of Contents
- 1) Accept That You Have a Highly Sensitive Child
- 2) Establish Boundaries
- 3) Have Adequate Downtime
- 4) Build Your Highly Sensitive Child’s Self Esteem
- 5) Avoid Harsh Consequences
- 6) Use Natural Consequences
- 7) Rename Consequences as Privileges
- 8) Prevent, Prevent, Prevent
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1) Accept That You Have a Highly Sensitive Child
As I mentioned above, acceptance is key. Once you acknowledge that you have to approach things differently, your life will be a whole lot easier!
I know it feels odd to announce to the world “I have a highly sensitive child!,” but you don’t have to do that… unless you have a parenting blog, that is 😉
Sometimes having an HSC can be frustrating. Things are far from easy. But I know that Theo’s sensitive qualities are some of his best qualities. They set him apart and I know he will accomplish great things. I know he can be an exceptional child… it is just my job to help him manage his emotions and help him get there.
I highly recommend you read the book “The Highly Sensitive Child.” You can purchase the book here.
2) Establish Boundaries
Sometimes it’s hard to set boundaries because you know it’s going to cause a big uproar. I am frequently tempted to let things go to avoid a big scene.
Having no discipline is just as bad as having the wrong kind of discipline.
Children, need structure and boundaries… especially highly sensitive children. Not only do they need to understand what is acceptable behavior, but having boundaries will make them feel safe and secure.
Boundaries are good for children but they are essential in making a highly sensitive child feel grounded.
Helpful Books on Highly Sensitive People
3) Have Adequate Downtime
Theo has his two stuffed animals that are his comfort items. When we get home from preschool, he immediately runs to get them.
Even though preschool is only 3 hours long, it is a lot for him. Managing the social aspect, having loud noises and children everywhere… it’s hard! When he gets home he desperately needs to chill.
As the weather turned warm, we started going to the park after picking Theo up. The first time we went, he cried that he wanted to go home and snuggle with his animals.
I was torn because I had promised his 3-year-old sisters that we could go to the park! As a compromise, I told him we could stop by the house and I could run in and grab his animals to cuddle with in the car on the way.
He was perfectly fine with this, and I was very proud of him for making the compromise!
Theo usually needs a chance to regroup before dinner, after playing with his sisters all afternoon. He sometimes declares that he is too tired to eat dinner and wants to go to bed.
If I notice the kids are being really silly and loud, I will make sure that they get a break before dinner: usually quiet reading time or a television show.
4) Build Your Highly Sensitive Child’s Self Esteem
According to the book, HSC’s are harsh self critics, and I have seen this to be true. They dwell on mistakes and can’t let them go. Because of this, it is essential to build up their confidence and make sure they know they are loved.
Theo recently told me that a friend at school “knows better than him.” When I asked him what made him think that, his response was: “Well, I didn’t know that frogs don’t hunt and John told me that they don’t. I just didn’t know that and he did, so he knows better than me.”
He told my husband the same thing and repeated the story several times throughout the week.
I acknowledged his feelings that it didn’t feel good to have someone correct him, but also explained that just because someone knows something you don’t doesn’t mean that they ‘know better’ about everything!
The biggest point that I made though, was that even if someone does know better than Theo, that does not take away from Theo’s qualities at all.
I reinforced his good qualities: he is such a loving brother and big help around the house. He’s a wonderful reader and great teacher to his sisters.
I could tell that this incident, although it felt silly to me, really was bothering him… so I used it as an opportunity to build him up.
How to Build Your Child’s Self-Esteem
- Spend time with them ( the biggest compliment is knowing somebody wants to be with you)
- Compliment them
- Don’t let annoyance show
- Remain calm
5) Avoid Harsh Consequences
Highly sensitive children don’t need harsh consequence.
Note: I did not say that don’t need any consequence!
But remember: they are harsh self-critics. They are likely to be disappointed in themselves for making a mistake. There is no need to rub it in.
Timeouts don’t work for Theo. He cannot stand being put in his room when he’s in trouble. I’ve even tried doing a timeout in the same room as me, and simply calling it a timeout sets him off.
Sometimes, he just needs to a break though, so we call it that. If he’s not playing nicely with his sisters, he takes a break and has to stay with a parent.
Any sort of physical punishment, such as a spanking, as this will really affect your HSC in a negative way.
6) Use Natural Consequences
Natural consequences are the best because they teach cause and affect.
You weren’t playing with your trains nicely? Well they will have to go away until you can play nicely.
Didn’t listen to parents? Lose the privilege to have dessert after dinner, stop at the park after running errands, or something else that fits.
As I’m writing this, my 3-year-old twins got out of bed 30 minutes before they are allowed to. I went upstairs and told them that if I don’t get my work done because they are out of bed, we will be delayed in going to their Nana’s house so that I can finish my work.
My girls aren’t highly sensitive (or at least not to the degree that Theo is), but I thought it was such a fantastic example of a natural consequence, so I had to include it! Bonus: they are back in bed until their clock turns green!
7) Rename Consequences as Privileges
This is something we have just started and it is working very well.
One of our biggest tools with Theo is removing privileges as a consequence.
Now, instead of losing a privilege if he doesn’t obey, he simply doesn’t earn the privilege.
Instead of losing dessert, he doesn’t earn it.
Instead of losing TV, he doesn’t earn it.
Instead of losing the park play date, he doesn’t earn it.
This puts the focus on
This reduces shame and also builds their self-esteem- two things that are critical for HSC’s.
8) Prevent, Prevent, Prevent
Sometimes, we aren’t able to prevent and there’s a huge meltdown. However, there are times when prevention is possible, or you can at least minimize it.
If you sense that your child is tired or overwhelmed, try to give them some down
- uncomfortable: too hot, too cold,
- off of routine
Don’t push your luck and ask them to do something that they don’t like. This isn’t always possible, and I’m not suggesting that they never have to do something that they find unpleasant… only when they’re overstimulated or overtired.
For example, just today, Theo had P.E. at school. On the way home, a neighbor child was outside playing, so we stopped to play. By the time we got home, he was exhausted and whiny.
I ran inside to make lunch as quickly as possible. My husband suggest heating up leftover pasta. The kids had eaten the pasta the night before and tolerated, but weren’t overly thrilled about it.
I knew that Theo would get very upset if I tried to give it to him for lunch, so I didn’t even try. I know that it’s important to keep my boundaries, and that includes not being disrespectful and throwing a fit because he doesn’t like what I made for lunch.
I simply made him a PB&J that I knew he would like.
A Note on Meals and HSC
The book does suggest something that I don’t agree with. It states to let your child decide what to eat.
I have 3 children and I’m not giving them the freedom to choose their meals. I personally believe that that’s too much responsibility for a child. It’s my job as their mother to choose well balanced meals for them.
However, I don’t force them to eat anything, and I always include something that they like with our meal.
Theo doesn’t like chicken or potatoes. If we have a meal with chicken and potatoes, I make sure we have a vegetable he
He isn’t forced to eat all of his food, but he is required to try one bite of everything,and finish his vegetables (as long as it’s not something like brussel’s sprouts that I know he doesn’t like).
Key Takeaway for Highly Sensitive Children
- Accept that your child is highly sensitive and processes things differently
- Establish clear boundaries and enforce them gently, yet firmly
- Have adequate downtime for your child to recharge and rest
- Build their self-esteem
- Avoid harsh consequences and aim for natural ones
- Focus on the positive behavior and earn privileges rather than lose them
- Look for signs to prevent a meltdown due to overstimulation.
Raising a Highly Sensitive Child is Joyful
Sometimes it’s stressful. Sometimes it’s hard work. But it’s also so joyful.
Your highly sensitive child will love fiercely and live joyously. It is a true gift to parent them.
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