zaterdag 17 juli 2010

The Highly Sensitive Child




A highly sensitive child is often bright, articulate, creative, and insightful, easily able to tune into other people and their feelings. She may display a deep sense of empathy and compassion for other people. Perhaps she is a budding artist, a future novelist. And yet, she is also clingy and whiny, sometimes bossy and demanding. Sometimes she's all of these at the same time! She throws long tantrums over seemingly minor issues - shoes that feel "funny," familiar cereal that suddenly tastes "different." She shrieks furiously when you leave her with a babysitter, even one she knows well, grabbing desperately at your legs as you leave. Her teachers complain that she is "scattered" and seems to pay attention to too many things at once. It's no wonder that parents of such youngsters feel frustrated, helpless, angry - under the thumb of a mercurial, moody "prince" or "princess," as some describe their children to me.
To help you understand this child, let me walk you through how she may look and behave at different stages of development. You may recognize many features of your child. Of course, every child is unique, and you may see only a few similarities. If you are feeling discouraged, rest assured that I will soon discuss ways to approach your child's challenges.

The Sensitive Baby and Toddler
A sensitive infant is often colicky, finicky, irritable, demanding. She may cry almost constantly for the first year of her life (or so it may seem to an exhausted parent) and want to be held continually. The normal activities of infancy - sleeping, eating, diaper changing - can become early battlegrounds between parents and baby. One seven-month-old girl I saw screamed in fury if her mother put her down for the briefest instant. She fell asleep only when her mother or father rocked her for an hour or longer. Several times each night she woke up crying and needed to be rocked back to sleep. She hated having her clothes changed and would even squeal indignantly when her parents removed a dirty diaper. Breastfed, she furiously resisted taking a bottle, and she angrily pushed away spoonfuls of rice cereal and bananas when they were first offered. She cried when the vacuum cleaner made noise or if her older siblings were loud. When she learned to crawl, she simply used her newfound skill to scurry over to her mother and cling to her leg, rather than venturing out to explore the world. She fussed when her mother tried to interest her in toys and threw temper tantrums when her parents tried to put her in her playpen. "I feel like the prisoner of a tyrant in my own home," the baby's weary mother told me.
These sensitive infants find the emotional skills that we expect them to master in their first year more difficult to learn than do other babies. Ordinarily, babies begin learning to calm and regulate themselves in their first few months and, at the same time, remain interested and engaged in their environment. They also learn to relate to people in a warm, trusting manner - by gurgling and cooing as they study their parents' faces, for example. Especially gratifying to most babies is the ability to let their parents know what they want through vocalizations and gestures (reaching up to be picked up, pointing at a desired toy, and so on). But such goals can be elusive for a baby who is overly sensitive. New people, sights, sounds, smells, and the results of her own exploration and initiatives (touching daddy's rough beard, for example) easily overwhelm her and make her cry.
As a toddler, the very sensitive child often continues to be demanding and clingy. Once she has mastered a few words, she may resort to whining. "Mama, mama, mama," she may say over and over again as her exasperated mother tries to untangle her arms from around her legs so she can work. She throws monstrous tantrums if her parents try to leave her at daycare or with a babysitter. Now, her parents' sleep may be disrupted by her shrieks as she wakes up at night feeling scared. New situations upset her, and she may avoid playing with other children, shaking her head stubbornly and bursting into tears if a parent tries to lead her over to a group of other toddlers who are happily rolling toy trucks and banging toy drums. She may act aggressively, but more out of fear than defiance: she may bite or hit other children who come too close, for example, or pinch a child who tries to take away a toy. She may not like to be held or carried in a certain way.
Rather than become more assertive and organized as she grows, by taking her father's hand, for example, and leading him over to the cracker box, she may whine and passively expect daddy to guess what's on her mind and get it for her.
As she approaches the ages of two and three, when children ordinarily start to engage in lots of pretend play with each other and begin to expand relationships beyond their parents and siblings, the overly sensitive child may be cautious, fearful, and clingy. She may not be comfortable in expanding her fantasy life, even though a full fantasy life is very important at this stage of development. She may feel cautious about exploring certain themes in her pretend play, such as coping with aggression. Her dolls or action figures may always kiss and hug, but never fight or tussle with each other, for example. Or the dolls or action figures may fight, but then the story line may disappear: she may simply bang her dolls and toys together in what looks less like pretend play and more like a direct discharge of energy.
As she learns more words, she may start talking about her fears, telling you about the witches under her bed or the monsters in her closet. Fear and shyness inhibit her from making friends, and she is very frightened of children who are more assertive than she is. When parents leave for work or an evening out, she may shriek hysterically, "Mommy, no go!" or "Daddy, come back!" even though she is familiar with her daycare center and acquainted with her babysitter.

The Sensitive Preschool Child
As she learns to string her emotional ideas together into emotional thinking, which we ordinarily begin to see at about the age of four or so, the highly sensitive preschooler may have elaborate explanations for some fearful or scary feelings.
"I know the robbers are going to come get me as soon as you put out the light, and I won't stay in my bed," she may argue. "Leaving the light on will only let the robbers see where I am!"
The sensitive child's fears appear to be growing because she is able to use logic to build bigger sand castles in the sky. With enhanced logic, she may seem even more tyrannical, insisting that she will be safe only if you do everything she wants.
As your sensitive preschooler begins to approach the school-age years and becomes even more articulate, her bossy, demanding behavior takes new forms (the sensitive child is, after all, usually very verbal). "You didn't buy the right cereal!" she may yell indignantly as she glares at her bowl of Cheerios from the newly opened box on the breakfast table.
"Honey, it's Cheerios, the same as always," the parent replies.
"But the box is a different color! And they taste different. I want the old Cheerios like you always get!"
And so it goes. "My new dress feels yucky!" she may say. Or, "These socks pinch my feet!" "This sandwich hurts my mouth!"
New experiences may cause her all kinds of concerns, and she may be quite articulate about her fears. "If I go to nursery school," your four-year-old may argue, "that boy Kim will hit me and he will take away my teddy bear until you come get me!" She may worry that "bad things" will happen to her parents and may threaten and whine if she is taken to a babysitter's house. "If you go to work and leave me at Mrs. Farwell's house, I will be sad forever!"
As you can see, infants, toddlers, and preschoolers each convey their sensitivities in their own special way. Seemingly in no time at all, the clinging, fussy baby turns into the passive, avoidant, fearful toddler who, as she acquires the "gift of gab," develops ideas, stories, and plots that elaborate this same sensitive core.
At this point, some readers are undoubtedly saying, "I've had enough. What can I do about it?" But let's continue our journey through the school years. It will give you a fuller picture of our sensitive child - a picture that will enable us to discuss strategies to help her overcome her special challenges.

The Sensitive School-Age Child
At the ages of five and six, children ordinarily move through the "world is my oyster" phase, experiencing a sense of grandeur about themselves and a bold expressiveness. A highly sensitive child may immerse herself in the rich fantasy life of this phase, but then constantly scare herself. As a result, she can seem moody, self-centered, and demanding, throwing lots of tantrums. She may imagine herself as powerful as daddy, for example, but later convince herself that a thief is going to come into her room and hurt her. So she demands that you stay with her for the night. Or, after pretending to be Ariel saving the underwater world from the mean witch, she may refuse to go to bed, saying that she is scared of the dark. She may even begin to develop new fears - of escalators or high places, for example.
At this stage, a sensitive child may try to avoid fantasy and feelings of power altogether. She may be too fearful to elaborate or even create fantasies and be passive, scared, and shy. She may be obedient in many ways, clearing her dishes off the table and putting away her toys, but she may then put up a fuss at going to a new playground or making new friends.
In school, the sensitive child may be a quick and eager learner, absorbing with her keen attentiveness everything the teachers say, do, or expect. Or, on the other hand, the sensitive child may be overloaded at school because of the number of people, the variety of sounds, and the complexity of beginning to learn so many new things.
As this child turns seven and eight, if she is secure enough to take her family for granted, she moves more fully into the rough-and-tumble world of peer relationships. But she may become overwhelmed by the complex "politics of the playground." Unable to negotiate these, she may feel defeated. "Katherine hates me! She won't pick me for the kickball team!" Or, "My teacher doesn't like me. I put my hand up and she looks at me funny and the answer goes right out of my head, and then she thinks I'm just a big dummy."
Some sensitive children may choose to avoid playground politics altogether. They may stay on the periphery, watching the recess-time basketball games and jump-rope competitions from the sidelines of the playground. Such a child doesn't participate in the jockeying for friends that other seven- and eight-year-olds engage in. She becomes very distressed when a child she particularly likes won't play with her or makes fun of her, and she sometimes feels so hurt that she decides it is better to be done with the whole thing. She may talk to her parents about her loneliness, or she may hold it in. For many parents, watching their child in such a situation can be very painful!
Sensitive children are unusually vulnerable to feelings of embarrassment and humiliation. They may feel very angry at people who make fun of them. Mild teasing that other children take more or less in stride ("Jeffrey wears goofy shoes!" or "Ashley's hair is funny") is intensely painful to some sensitive children. "No one likes me," one eight-year-old told me sadly. "Everyone hates me. I'm a bad person."
As they get closer to the age of ten, children become more able to balance the peer group pressures with an emerging sense of themselves. But the overly sensitive child may have had such a hard time negotiating the politics of the playground that she is still focused on her peer group, struggling with the hurts or embarrassments, or finding a better way to sit on the sidelines and not jump in.
In order to be able to develop her own internal values, a child needs first to master the issues of the peer group. As the child moves ahead intellectually, dealing with the more abstract issues of what she is like and what other people are like, we may see the struggles she is undergoing very vividly. The sensitive child may wrestle with a desire to be more independent and yet be so wrapped up in the day-to-day squabbles of the peer group that she has little opportunity to explore the world inside her.
One moment she may say, "I shouldn't care what someone thinks of me. I know I'm a good person - lots of people like me." And the next minute she is saying, "Mommy, will you talk to Vanessa's mother and make her play with me?" or "I know what I'll do. I'll ignore her and she'll have to come talk to me!"
Even when the sensitive child is making progress in negotiating the many stages of development, parents may find it especially baffling that their child varies so much in day-to-day mood and outlook. That is because sensitive children, like all challenging children, have a wider range of behavior than more easygoing children. One moment they can appear mature, respectful, empathetic, compassionate. Then, later that day or the next day, they are crawling under tables, whining, clinging, throwing tantrums, and bossing everyone around. Parents often feel that they are on a roller coaster with their child, in an unpredictable "ride" of shifting moods and behavior.
Parents might find some reassurance in the realization that while they can't predict how their child will act from one moment to the next, they can predict that there will be a large variation in the child's mood. They might remember the old story about the king who told his wise men that he would cut their heads off unless they found him something that would make him happy when he was sad, and sad when he was happy. After struggling for months, their lives hanging in the balance, the wise men presented the king with a ring with a message. "This, too, will change," it said.
This insight will be reassuring when a sensitive child is in one of her more infantile moods, but not reassuring when she is being mature and helpful! But the awareness and expectation that her mature mood will also change can help parents avoid being too shocked or disappointed when, once again, they see that their child hasn't "gotten over it," or they realize they haven't mastered "the problem."
Over time, this range of behavior can gradually shift to higher and higher levels. Her "best" behavior, over time, can become better and her "worst" behavior can become not quite so difficult. But keep in mind that this is usually a slow and gradual change.

How It Feels to Be a Sensitive Child
Think about all the ways that our senses can give us pleasure and open us up to the world. We are soothed by soft strokes on the cheek, cheered by a friendly arm around the shoulder, uplifted by the exhilarating sound of a marching band. We enjoy the clean scent of freshly washed clothes, and we smile at the bright face of a clown.
These sensations, however, are entirely different for the highly sensitive child. A friendly touch might feel harsh to her. Certain sounds may seem to come out of a bullhorn. Certain smells seem oppressive. Even bright colors can overwhelm.
Imagine how you would feel if, for example, you attended a rock concert after staying up the previous night consuming cup after cup of strong coffee. The sound would probably grind right through you, while the flashing lights and crowded bodies would be bewildering, overwhelming. Many overly sensitive children feel this way every day, as if they have little barrier between themselves and the rest of the world. They feel as if things are happening to them, rather than feeling that they have much control over their life.
These physical sensitivities take many forms. The sensitive child may dislike being tickled or cuddled. Walking through a crowded school hallway or playground is daunting because it means brushing up against so many bodies. Deep voices or loud machines can set a sensitive child's teeth on edge. Even a mother's voice can be irritating.
Some children are sensitive to movement in space. They may dislike sensations that children ordinarily love - the fast rush down a slide, pumping higher and higher on a swing, whirling around a merry-go-round.
Some children are oversensitive to certain sights, although this particular sensitivity isn't as common as sensitivity to touch or sound. These children almost see too much: they are so aware of what they see that they become frightened or overwhelmed. They sometimes react to just part of a visual image, rather than the entire image. For example, they may be frightened by a clown's face or a cartoon figure because they focus on just part of it-the big red lips or nose, for example, or the bright orange hair. They are unable to view those features as part of something that others see as comforting and funny.
Because sensitive children are so tuned into sensations, they tend to experience the world in little pieces. They see the details, but miss the big picture. Such a child may, for example, look at a picture and describe the details first. "I see a tree with pink flowers, and another tree that doesn't have any flowers," she may say, "and a red-and-white tablecloth on the ground. And four people are sitting around the tablecloth." In such a manner, the child pieces together what the picture is about: four people having a picnic in the woods.
In school, these children may do well in subjects that involve grasping details, such as vocabulary, spelling, and language skills. But subjects that are more abstract, such as scientific concepts or math, may cause them difficulties. Sometimes they may feel so confused and overwhelmed in class that they appear to be learning disabled, although they may be quite capable of grasping the material.
The highly sensitive child tends to be very perceptive, sensing every nuance and subtlety of her world. "Molly looked at me funny today," eight-year-old Fanny may inform her parent about a friend who threw her a quick glance during social studies. This child is also very sensitive to the feelings of others; she can "read" other people through their expressions, their body language, the voice tone. However, because she is so perceptive, she can sometimes be too affected by the moods and feelings of others. Adults who have such traits often say they wish they had "thicker skin."
A tendency to get lost in the details further intensified by a challenge they have in dealing with spatial concepts may mean that certain children get lost easily. Not being able to figure out distances easily, they feel less secure than other children, and panic easily when their parents leave them. An ability to picture spatial concepts is also an important component of any "big picture" thinking - seeing how the pieces fit together in a particular situation (or life in general).
In addition to spatial difficulties, the overly sensitive child can also experience motor-planning challenges - that is, the skills that are required to carry out a series of action sequences, such as putting on socks or remembering a nighttime routine of brushing teeth, putting on pajamas, and kissing mom and dad goodnight. This challenge can be very perplexing to parents, because their son or daughter otherwise seems so bright. The problem may be so severe that a teacher may raise questions about attention problems, or even the possibility of medication.
So if your child has a "gift of gab" and can stay on the subject while talking, but gets lost when she has to do anything that involves a sequence of movements, the difficulty may be a very circumscribed part of a motor-planning problem. Your child is well organized when operating in an area of strength, but may appear disorganized when dealing with an area of vulnerability.
Some sensitive children are overstimulated not only by outside sensations, but also by internal forces as well - that is, their own emotions. They experience their feelings very intensely. Such a child may throw herself on the floor sobbing when she is sad, jump up and down and scream when she is happy, and shriek and pound the walls when she is angry. Never is there a middle ground: no pleasure is merely mild, no irritation is slight, and sadness is felt as despair. She may also complain of sore muscles, stomachaches, and other pains. Because of her sensitivity to internal experiences, puberty may be especially troubling because of all the new sensations and stirrings of her body.
The foregoing profile is a broad cluster of ways that sensitivity commonly manifests itself in a child. Not every boy or girl who appears cautious and fearful has these sensitivities. And not every child with these physical sensitivities comes across as cautious and fearful.
Article with thanks to Family Education

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