My firstborn is a highly sensitive child. I didn’t realize this fact until he was three, and I didn’t fully understand it until he was four and a half when I read Ted Zeff’s book, The Strong, Sensitive Boy.
Without the knowledge and understanding of my son’s sensitivity, I disciplined him in ways that damaged his self-esteem and our bond.
This is, in fact, the very reason I began to research parenting philosophies and landed, eventually, on positive parenting. It was because I could see pain and sadness in his eyes during time-out that I eventually rejected traditional discipline tactics and chose gentle discipline instead.
In her book, The Highly Sensitive Child, Elaine Aron, Ph.D. says, “HSCs need to be corrected and disciplined, but unless you know how to do it properly, your child is likely to take your correction as global messages about his worth.” Sensitive children tend to be very self-critical, so parental criticism is an especially hard blow, though truthfully criticism isn’t good for any child and is one of four behaviors parents should avoid
Aron says, “HSCs process their mistakes so thoroughly, they punish themselves” and this is what I noticed when my son, then three years old, was corrected with a typical reprimand such as “don’t do that, I said no” and a traditional time-out. Because sitting there hurt him too much emotionally, he often tried to get up and reconnect, which I viewed as defiance and put him back in the chair. When he did sit still, he cried huge tears and the expression on his face was heartbreaking. Thankfully after a short time of this, I listened to my intuition and found better solutions for my sensitive child.
Discipline to Avoid
1. Avoid shaming.
Sensitive children are particularly sensitive to shaming. “You naughty child” or “why can’t you get it right” may seem like mild correction, but to sensitive children, these words can be devastating.
2. Avoid teasing.
Some families use teasing as lighthearted fun, but the sarcastic messages which are almost always imbedded in the teasing will not be lost on a sensitive child. “Uh-oh, Emma is baking cookies. Hold your ears! The smoke detector will be going off any minute!”
For every child, and especially HSCs.
4. Avoid isolating or withdrawing warmth and love.
Time-out is a popular discipline tactic where a child is sent to a chair or specific spot away from everyone else until he is “ready to behave.” We now know that time-out is not the most effective way
to teach any child, but again, HSCs are particularly sensitive to the harm it does.
5. Avoid being permissive.
Don’t avoid correcting your sensitive child out of fear of hurting her feelings. Loving correction that is not harsh or shaming will not damage her but will help her to reach her fullest potential.
Discipline to Favor
1. Change your tone of voice for correction.
For sensitive children, a correction given in a serious tone of voice is often enough to deter the behavior. Because they want to please their caregivers, knowing they stepped out of line is distressing and will cause them to correct their behavior.
2. Connect before your correct
A good rule of thumb for all children but is especially important for the sensitive child because if they perceive a threat, they will shut down quickly. Reassure her that you are on her side and will help her solve the problem.
Because it is best to avoid isolating sensitive children to a time-out chair, time-in is a good alternative whereby you take the child to a calming area, help him to calm down if needed (calm brains absorb lessons) and then discuss why the behavior was unacceptable and what he can do instead.
4. Use consequences sparingly, and make sure they are related to the offense.
Again, reminders and a change of tone is often enough to correct a sensitive child. In the case that they repeatedly break a rule when you’ve given them clear limits and instructions, a mild logical consequence may be useful, but watch for a shame reaction and adjust accordingly. More importantly, of course, is to find out why she is repeatedly breaking the rule.
5. Restore connection, security, and self-esteem after disciplining a sensitive child.
Positive affirmations, encouraging words, and play time or focused attention will help your HSC to know he is still loved and delighted in.
You may have noticed that these tips are not much different from how I recommend disciplining every child, and that is because, while some children are more emotionally and physically sensitive than others, all children have sensitive hearts that deserve to be treated gently.
Interestingly, I have since had a non-HSC child and have found that, while traditional discipline may “work” for him and not my HSC, gentle, positive discipline actually works well for both of them. I believe all children respond well to reasonable limits enforced with loving guidance.
**This article was originally published at Creative Child Magazine.
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