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My child cries at everything, part 2: very sensitive children

Posted Aug 26 2008 4:42pm
Before I say anything else, let me first say I am assuming that you have had her thoroughly checked out by your doctor. Sometimes undiagnosed health issues can impact behavior. If there are sensory integration issues going on, an occupational therapist could teach you both some tricks that help enormously.

You mentioned that you've been reading about Highly Sensitive Children ( ) and wondering if that was just a label parents made up so they could feel like their kids are special.

Most of the folks I know, both children and adults, who fall into the classification of Highly Sensitive don't feel special; they feel annoyed by their sensitivity. And most of the parents of sensitive kids that I know don't feel like their kids are special; they feel exhausted! Especially if they are not 'sensitive' themselves - it's so hard to understand it without feeling it in your own body.

I believe that neurologists have now identified that there is a spectrum of baseline "arousal" of the nervous system, and some of us fall at either extreme. For example, some people will startle and experience an adrenaline rush when a door slams next door, and some people barely react when you jump out and yell at them in the dark.

If a particular nervous system is running in high gear already, it won't take much to put it over the top into overwhelm. Something like the disappointment of her pink shirt not being clean could easily set it off. It may seem like no big deal to those of us with different thresholds of stimulation, but to her, it could be the last straw. Your daughter may be crying to release excess energy.

(You may see the opposite kind of behavior in kids with nervous systems that are running in real low gear - they poke and prod and wiggle and squirm and are all over the place in their search for more stimulation.)

Perhaps you may be able to reduce some of the crying by being empathetic before you are corrective. (saying "Oh, you really wanted to wear your favorite pink shirt and it isn't clean! That IS a bummer!") Correction often adds to the overwhelm, but empathy usually reduces it. Getting her into forward motion (let's find another shirt) isn't likely to happen until she's calmed down a bit anyway, and empathy is a very effective way to speed that process up.

It may help to be extra vigilant about giving her time to decompress, feeding her often to avoid blood sugar fluctuations, and making sure she gets enough sleep. You may need to cut tags out or buy only cotton shirts or seamless socks for a while. She may do better with unscented soap. Little adjustments like these can reduce the load on her nervous system so she can handle the big stuff better, and are so much easier than walking on eggshells all the time. What's that saying ... an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure?

If you try those interventions and she still keeps winding up, she may simply need to cry. Crying is a pretty good way to clear the decks emotionally and physically. You might want to try letting her cry it out a time or two with no attempt to intervene in any way. Just tell her kindly and gently that you'll be in the kitchen doing some dishes, and walk away.

I've seen kids simply wail for 5 minutes, stop, get up, and just move on with their day, even though nothing has changed in the situation. It can be sort of like a big thunderstorm - it just passes and the air is clean again. She may simply show up downstairs in a yellow shirt as if nothing had ever happened. If so, then you know it's okay to stop walking on eggshells all the time, and just let her have her occasional cleansing cry while you do something else.

Sensitive kids can learn to manage their temperament and function quite well in our society. School can be tough for them, but when given the freedom, they often design their personal environments to foster great productivity. Intuition, creativity, and compassion are a just a few of the many gifts that often come wrapped in a package of sensitivity.

I hope this helps.
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