If you have an overly sensitive child, it can often feel as though everything is blown out of proportion. Sensitive kids feel things on a deeper level than other children and are very easily overwhelmed, and while they can be extremely compassionate and soft-spoken, the littlest thing can send them into a downward spiral of screams and tears. If this sounds familiar and you’re trying to figure out how to discipline a sensitive child, we’ve got 9 tips to help!
How to Discipline a Sensitive Child
1) Get to the root of the behavior
One of the best parenting tips I’ve learned over the years is to always look beneath the surface when it comes to figuring out the motivation behind a child’s behavior. I often talk about The Iceberg Model, which suggests that the challenging behaviors we see in our children are only the ‘tip’ of a much bigger iceberg. And since only about 10% of an iceberg is visible to the naked eye, The Iceberg Model theorizes that the drivers behind our child’s behaviors live beneath the surface, and that we must find a way to see and understand these drivers before change can occur.
Of course, this is easier said than done, especially when emotions are high and you aren’t sure why. The answers won’t always be obvious, but taking the time to reflect, think outside the box, and track your child’s behaviors can be helpful. And sometimes a simple, calm conversation with your child can help you understand what’s really going on.
2) Always use positive over negative reinforcement
Reinforcement is a fabulous technique parents can use to encourage the behaviors they want to see in their children, and research tends to suggest that positive reinforcement – the act of rewarding a child when he or she completes a desired behavior as a means of increasing the likelihood he or she will repeat the behavior again – is the most effective. This can come in the form of praise, or you can take it a step further and develop a sticker chart to make things extra motivating for your child. This post contains a list of all kinds of fabulous reward charts you can use to positively reinforce your child’s behaviors. The point is to focus on the good behaviors instead of dwelling on the bad so you are creating a positive environment for your child, and encouraging him or her to make good choices.
3) Use logical consequences
While consequences can be extremely effective in warding off undesirable behaviors, most parents don’t know how to use them effectively. They either don’t implement them soon enough, the consequence doesn’t match up to the behavior, or the parent uses the consequence as a way to shame the child. If you want to know how to discipline a sensitive child, a much better option is to use natural and logical consequences.
Natural consequences are those that occur inevitably as a result of a child’s behaviors or actions (i.e. if a child refuses to eat, he or she will feel hungry), while logical consequences are designed to help children replace poor behaviors with more appropriate ones (i.e. if a child fails a test, he or she is required to spend more time studying). Natural consequences tend to be more effective, but since they don’t always occur as a result of poor behaviors, logical consequences are an excellent positive discipline technique to use.
For example, if you find your child playing on his or her iPad when he or she should be doing homework, and your child proceeds to lie and say his or her homework is done when you know for certain it isn’t, a good logical consequence would be to remove the iPad for the remainder of the day as the privilege was abused.
We’ve written a whole post about natural and logical consequences along with some great ideas to help inspire you, which you can read HERE.
4) Don’t point fingers
When our children are misbehaving, it can be really difficult to stay in control of our emotions. It can be tempting to point fingers and engage in the blame game, but if you’re trying to figure out how to discipline a sensitive child, being mindful of what you say (and how you say) is a great tip to keep in mind. Assigning blame can be extra tricky with sensitive kids as they are more likely to fixate on their shortcomings, which can be damaging to their self-confidence and self-esteem.
5) Remind your child that feelings and emotions are okay
You may have seen a meme circling on Facebook recently that says, ‘Never in the history of calming down has anyone calmed down by being told to calm down’, and if you think back to the last time you felt angry, upset, stressed, or nervous about something, I’m sure you’ll agree that the words ‘calm down’ would have done anything but make you feel comfortable and calm. And yet, when our kids show any kind of extreme emotion, our immediate reaction is to tell them to stop. If you want to know how to discipline a sensitive child, focus more on teaching your child about emotions, remind them that these feelings are okay, and equip them with the tools they need to return to a state of calm.
6) Take a time out
Another great tip for those who are trying to figure out how to discipline a sensitive child is to take a breather. The problem with reacting in the moment is that we often say things we cannot take back later. We may agree to things our child is asking for simply to keep the peace, threaten punishments that don’t align with our child’s behavior, or say mean things as a way to get our own anger out, but if we make a conscious choice not to speak until we can think rationally, everyone will be better off. You won’t negatively reinforce your child’s behavior or damage his or her self-confidence, and will avoid unnecessary feelings of guilt later.
7) Enforce clear house rules
If your child struggles with specific behaviors, put together a list of rules you expect him or her to abide by each day. Keep the list somewhere visible to your child and revisit it together often, and if you find your child struggling to follow the house rules you’ve set forth, consider turning it into a reward chart.
8) Don’t dwell
No matter how hard you try to adopt positive parenting techniques in your quest to figure out how to discipline a sensitive child, you’ll still have days where you and/or your child lose your cool. It’s all part of being human, but the way you respond to these situations can have a lasting impact on your child, so tread carefully. Once the big emotions are out of the way, suggest that the 2 of you go your separate ways for a few minutes and then try again. If your child engaged in poor behavior, give him or her the chance for a do-over. If you’re both just in a crabby mood after a hectic and overwhelming day, you may even suggest crawling back into your respective beds for a couple of minutes, and then get up and greet each other as if it’s a completely new day full of hope and optimism. Don’t be afraid to make this exercise silly and fun! Laughter is often the best medicine, and as long as you find a way for your child to learn from the situation, finding ways to put it behind you will go a long way in helping you end the day on a more positive note.
9) Strategize together
My final tip for those who are looking for ideas to help them figure out how to discipline a sensitive child is to take the time to sit down and talk to your child. Remember that this isn’t a time to discipline or shame him or her – it’s a time to work together to figure out what caused the behavior to occur in the first place, discuss how you both handled the situation, and come up with solutions for the future. Did something happen at school that upset your child? Is he or she in need of more one-on-one time with you? Is your child nervous about an upcoming event? The more open and honest you are in the discussion, the more comfortable your child will be in admitting the reason behind his or her behavior so you can look for solutions.
If you’re a parent or caregiver trying to figure out how to discipline a sensitive child, I hope these tips and ideas prove useful to you! Remember to opt for positive over negative reinforcement, to use logical consequences wherever possible, and to remain calm. And do your best not to dwell!