The past 12 months have been super hard for adults. And equally as challenging for children. Remote learning, social restrictions, masks—are new and confusing things to process for kids. They can bring up lots of different emotions.
Emotions are not an easy thing for adults to understand. Sometimes we don’t know what’s driving our anger or our sadness. Too often, we bottle up what’s going on, and misplace those feelings on others who may not deserve it.
It can be even harder for children to identify their feelings. And if you’re a highly sensitive child, these feelings are bigger, and can be overwhelming—in either a good or a bad way.
I have the great fortune of being a parent to not just one but two highly sensitive daughters. With my oldest, I misidentified her moodiness and temperament swings. Not being able to help her identify her emotions caused her to internalize, much to her detriment. It took a long time for us to understand what was happening and how to best work through situations that upset her. The knowledge I gained through research and with professionals has helped me guide my youngest child through tantrums and meltdowns while still holding it together myself.
Highly sensitive and empathic kids typically experience emotions on a much greater scale than others. And while this can be wonderful — I have seen my two daughters experience happiness on a level that most people can only dream of—they also experience crushing sadness, terrifying anger, and shame that causes them to hide in closets.
Unfortunately, there is not a clear way of identifying if a child is highly sensitive. And while the medical community has made great strides in regards to emotional and mental health, much of the identifying is left to the parents.
According to the book “What is a Highly Sensitive Child?”
“A highly sensitive child is one of the fifteen to twenty percent of children born with a nervous system that is highly aware and quick to react to everything. This makes them quick to grasp subtle changes, prefer to reflect deeply before acting, and generally behave conscientiously.”
“Subtle changes” is the key phrase here. Because as a busy working parent, we may not have picked up on what is causing our child to suddenly have a meltdown. “Why is my child crying hysterically that her macaroni and cheese is not cooked right? She always eats it that way.” Except, is it really about the food, or is something else causing the meltdown?
To make matters more interesting, many highly sensitive people are also empaths.
A Burden and a Gift
Judith Orloff the author of The Empath’s Survival Guide, states that an empath is able to absorb the energy of another person and internalize it.That’s a lot to handle for a little person!
An empath can pick up on a change in another person’s facial expression and demeanor that is so slight that the person may not even realize it themselves. For example, if I read an email that annoys me, I will slightly curl my lips. I don’t even know I’m doing this. Yet my youngest daughter, Bella, will notice and ask me what’s wrong. She picks up on most of my emotions. Once, when I was upset, she cut up fruit and arranged into a smile to make me feel better.
Explaining to a child that their emotions are so much BIGGER than others is not easy, but not impossible. Reading how these beautiful souls process life, particularly if you’re highly sensitive yourself, is a great way to start. Having your child read, especially if they are school-aged, is also very helpful.
Books to help your child understand their emotions
Below are some books that I have read with Bella, and when she was able, she would read by herself. Bella was also kind enough to provide some of her thoughts on these books, and included one that I didn’t have on my original list!
Who doesn’t love Dr. Seuss? A board book, this story is ideal for the younger set and also a wonderful reread for any child under 10. Colorful and engaging, showing colors as various moods and emotions, helping kids to understand that having different feelings is ok.
Bella: As I read this book, I can feel the colors. Pink is always my favorite day!
Having a bad day? Moody Cow can relate. Everything seems to be going wrong for Peter today until Grandfather is able to help him.
Bella: This happens to me! My bad day starts, and it just gets worse and worse until it is the worst day ever! Grandfather helps Peter by speaking calmly and making a Mind Jar together. When I read this book, I can hear Grandfather’s soothing voice and imagine the glitter in the Mind Jar falling.
Most of the time Katie can manage her emotions. But when she gets really mad, she’s Bombaloo, who kicks and screams. Katie is not just scary when she’s Bombaloo, she’s also scared. Big emotions are frightening, but Katie knows that after some time, she can be herself again.
Bella: Reading this is how I feel when I am really angry. I like it when Katie throws her clothes all over her room and realizes that her underwear has landed on her head. That makes her laugh and sometimes when I’m really angry I realize I did something silly. Her mom knows Katie gets scared too when she is upset and gives her a hug.
This is part of the WorryWoo series about embracing your emotions, and matching stuffed animals is also available. Twitch, the monster is having an overwhelming day — because even good times can sometimes be too much. This book helps children see how slowing down and focusing on one thing can sometimes help them with their emotions.
Bella — this is my favorite book! Twitch had so many different feelings, and there were too many noises. It describes how he feels - his stomach felt like it was bubbling. He was having a “why does everything go wrong in my life” day. Then Twitch saw a squirrel, whos acorns fell. The squirrel didn’t get upset, he just kept going and picked up the acorns. Sometimes things don’t go the way you want them to. It’s good to take a deep breath, and tomorrow will be better.
Mindfulness — the act of being fully aware of our thoughts and present in the moment, is not easy. Kids today are increasingly overstimulated, between video games, phones, and computers. Practicing mindfulness can help regulate emotions, as well as decreasing stress and anxiety. Many schools have incorporated mindfulness into their curriculums, and I’m happy to say they practice it at Bella’s school.
One of my favorite ways to practice mindfulness is to sit with Bella, close our eyes, and imagine clouds floating by, one by one. If its a nice day, this is a great activity for outside! Watching the clouds pass is not only calming, it also helps the child focus.
Creating a mindfulness jar is also a great activity and an excellent tool that children can reach for when things are getting out of control. Easy to make, simply fill a mason jar with distilled water, glitter glue, extra glitter, and voila!
One of Bella’s favorite activities is slime. Creating it, mixing it, incorporating different textures has kept her occupied for hours and relieved much stress.
Most importantly, take time for yourself! As parents, we need time to de-stress and re-charge ourselves.
Celebrate your child’s sensitivity and empathy! My two girls are the most beautiful souls I know. Is it exhausting? Undoubtedly. Yet through their endless love and compassion, they have opened my eyes and my heart.
The author is a parent, not a licensed therapist. Always seek professional counseling or help if needed.