Clinical Therapist * Mental Health Specialist * Media Expert

Handle With Care. Is Your Child Simply Sensitive or Downright Vulnerable?

How do some children maneuver around life’s bumps easily, while others are so sensitive that those bumps can leave serious bruises? Parents have no surefire way to deal with raising a highly sensitive or vulnerable child, however, it is helpful to know that either characteristic gives the child an extra emotional antenna that can serve them well. In the fast-paced reality of most children’s worlds, even those with a seemingly charmed life can use a few extra tools. Parents can do a lot to help negotiate those bumps in the road by understanding what makes a child grin or groan, building in some learning moments and creating resilience together.

So how does a parent separate what some psychologists label “the sensitive child” from one seen in perhaps more alarming terms – “vulnerable” or “at risk”? Recent research tells us that some children have a temperament that makes them sensitive by nature, while others develop a deeper vulnerability caused by difficult circumstances. A 2005 study by Elaine Aron, author of The Very Sensitive Child, suggests that 15 to 20 percent of children are born with a cluster of traits that make them particularly sensitive. These children might startle more easily, complain about scratchy clothing, need their socks to be put on perfectly or just feel things more deeply. Their brains, it seems, process sensory information more thoroughly and they notice more about their environment.

While sensitivity can be a wonderful asset and need no adjustment, vulnerable children need extra care. Being aware of the factors that place children at risk helps us intervene early and take a preventive approach. Those factors include developmental difficulties; exceptional learning needs; and emotional, behavioral, or psychological problems. Other factors appear to be more causative: a parental style that lacks warmth and responsiveness, parental stress, marital stress, or trauma like the death of a loved one. Parents of vulnerable youngsters face a difficult question: What can we do to help ensure they grow up happy and thriving? Now, thanks to the thoughtful and committed work of researchers involved with Canada’s National Longitudinal Survey of Children and Youth, we have some clear answers that shatter some myths about our most vulnerable youth.

Myth 1: Canadian children are not vulnerable. The study found that 28.6 per cent of children are at risk for poor physical and mental health, unemployment or delayed development. That is a whopping one in four children facing a bumpy road ahead. We also know that that percentage is growing.

Myth 2: Boys are at higher risk than girls. Overall, the statistical differences between boys and girls are insignificant, however, they differ in specific areas. Girls are more likely to have problems with anxiety; boys have more difficulties with cognitive or behavioral development.

Myth 3: Dangers outside the home pose the greatest threat. Wrong again. Relationships and activities within the family matter the most in determining how well a child fares. If parents stay connected and focused on their children as well as on each other, youngsters can weather a lot of outside pressure.

Myth 4: Poverty always leaves children vulnerable. Prolonged, severe poverty definitely has an impact on children. However, a child’s vulnerability is only weakly linked to family income. Good parenting, a cohesive family and parents with stable mental health apparently combine to outweigh the negatives of poverty.

Myth 5: Children in single parent households fare just as well as those with two-parent families. When there is just one parent around, children seem to be at higher risk for behavioral problems such as physical aggression and emotional difficulties. The study found girls between 6 and 19 were at significantly greater risk for anxiety and indirect forms of aggression such as cyber-bullying. While many single parents do an outstanding job of balancing career and home duties, a lack of support continues to be the pitfall for single-parent households.

How Can Parents Help Protect Their Children?

Childhood stress is a reality, and all children need a hand to better inoculate them from the risks of anxiety, depression and other increasingly prevalent disorders. A child who is vulnerable to out- side stressors not only needs the problem addressed directly, but needs extra support to develop tools to help them become more adaptive and resilient. Children with a sensitive temperament and few outside stressors may simply need extra understanding and sup- port to live in a world where 80 per cent of people do not fully understand them.

• Help your child understand their frustration. Children with physical sensitivities, like those who grab you for body warmth at the smallest breeze, must learn to understand their own needs and build skills to cope with them. Parents who go too far in shielding children from discomfort miss an opportunity to teach ways to adapt. Helping the cold-sensitive child remember to bring extra clothes, or reminding the sun-sensitive child to pack sunglasses teaches a valuable skill – preparedness.

• Learn life-long stress management skills together. Credible researchers in cognitive-behavioral psychology have long proven that mind over matter really does work. Help your child through positive “self-talk”, framed in resilient language (“I’ll get it next time”; “I’m getting better”; “I’m glad I tried”) and avoid negative, irrational beliefs (“I have to be perfect” or “I’m not good enough”). Lifestyle tools are also important – enjoying physical activity together, creating healthy sleep patterns and taking time to just do nothing at all, all help develop resilience.

• Teach children who worry excessively how to manage their mental hamster wheel. A simple light switch can help teach your child how to control worries. Let them worry away as much as they can while the light is on, then stop the worrying when the light turns off. A few rounds of this technique shows them they really can control anxiety-producing thoughts. If that doesn’t work, try having a “worry time” of 10 to 15 minutes every day (after school works well). Remind them that all worrying has to wait until the worry time, which contains the emotion, then gives permission for you to discuss their worries – and hopefully solve them together.

• Turn problems into lessons.

Covering up problems leads to more anxiety and does little to teach a child how to cope. Instead, try a direct approach – help your child to define the problem, make lists of possible solutions, and gather information on likely outcomes – then make a decision. The key is letting them come up with their own solutions and following up on the natural outcome of their approach. Sometimes giving children room to make mistakes is painful, but it is best to do so while you are still close by to pick them up and dust them off afterward.

.  Develop a plan to break negative behaviour patterns earlier rather than later.

While setting a firm boundary on problem behaviour is necessary, understanding the underlying cause can help you respond more constructively. Getting at the core of a problem can be tricky, but many young people will answer honestly when asked directly whether something is making them feel bad. When a child holds his or her emotional cards closely, you may have to take a more covert approach; consider whether there have been any extra stressors such as losses or changes in his or her life.

•  Practice being in-tune with your child.

Work at picking up on the subtle ways a child expresses needs. Some call it having an “extra ear,” and it shows the child that you value their opinion, with the added gift of bringing you closer. Perhaps ask this: “Do you want to know my opinion or do you want me to just listen to what you’re thinking and feeling?”

•  Democratic parenting encourages independence.

Clearly stated and well understood behaviour rules help everyone. They give children a sense of security and stability. Rules with room for sensible adaptation can be even more effective because children learn critical thinking, self-analysis skills and discover how to self-regulate. An example? The general rule might prohibit pop and sugary snacks, but at birthday parties, a child can indulge. Leaving room to discuss a child’s opposition to a rule encourages independent thought, gives the parent an opportunity to discuss the reasons behind a decision, and demonstrates that the rule is not arbitrary.

•  Get them involved in activities such as athletics, arts and music.

Children are more likely to establish meaningful friendships when they are engaged with like-minded peers. Whether it is learning the ukulele or hip-hop, developing a unique gift can have a wonderful effect on self-esteem.

• Join in whatever your child is passionate about. Volunteering an hour or two of your week is a worthwhile investment that not only gives invaluable insights into how your child is coping, but also allows you to take a closer look at what is happening on the play- ground or soccer field.

•  Offer a hand to a single parent.

Dropping off a meal, offering to run an errand or taking care of a single parent’s garden can give them a little space to play or take care of themselves. First make sure the gesture would be welcome, but most parents are genuinely grateful for a little extra support. Keep in mind that when you support a parent you are supporting a child.

•  Check that your child’s school has a specific program to teach social skills such as communication, problem solving and dealing with conflict.

Friendship skills (or lack of them) play a big role in whether a child has problems later on. Leadership skills in particular are linked with positive development. Finding something your child can teach others can make them feel great about themselves.

•  Tell your child you know they will act wisely.

Valuing your child’s independence and focusing on abilities (despite the clumsiness that comes with learning) will take them a long way. Knowing they do not need to get it right the first time will give them a broader learning space, especially with your understanding arms to fall into.

Whether your child is likely to be the one who struts into their first art class with confidence, or the one who hangs behind your leg wondering how long it will last, parents armed with information can teach the keys to resilience that many of us only wish we had acquired in our own formative years.

Great Books on Emotional Sensitivity and Resiliency

The Highly Sensitive Child: Helping Our Children Thrive When the World Overwhelms Them by Elaine Aron

Guiding the Gifted Child by James Webb, Elizabeth Meckstroth & Stephanie Tolan

Resiliency: What We Have Learned by Bonnie Benard

Building Resilient Students: Integrating Resiliency Into What You Already Know and Do by Kate Thomsen

–Michele Kambolis
BC Parent Magazine, Fall 2007 


1 Comment

  • Amber November 12, 2013 at 10:13 am

    People often take for granted that many children need to be taught specific skills that will help them effectively problem solve and cope with stressors. Many times, the things we learn are not taught as direct lessons but through example. How we know if our children are picking up positive coping mechanisms is by seeing how they cope under pressure. If they haven’t picked up the skills it’s important to teach them directly and this article has some wonderful examples of how to do this!


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