Q My seven- year-old daughter is a loving, caring, empathetic child and feels all emotions strongly.
e often argue as she can have meltdowns easily. She shouts when she feels frustrated and also finds certain clothing unbearable against her skin. She is stubborn and I do worry that she feels anxious a lot of the time. I read articles about highly-sensitive children and she seemed to match a lot of the traits. How do I help her? How do I parent her?
David replies: It may be that your daughter has some sensory sensitivities. It might help to bring her to a paediatric occupational therapist (OT), to assess her sensory capacity and her sensory integration.
The OT should be able to determine if this is a specific problem for her. Even if she has some sensory issues, it may also help you to take a different approach to dealing with her emotional responses. Since she is only seven, she may well struggle to regulate her emotions anyway.
Part of our goal, as parents, is to help our children to learn to firstly recognise and secondly deal with their emotions. We do this by using the skill of empathy. Empathy is the capacity to place ourselves in someone else's shoes and see the world from their perspective. When we can achieve this with children, we also often get really good insight into their feelings too.
In practice, we have to be able to remain relatively calm ourselves, such that we can see things as they might see things. Unfortunately for most of us, our judgement gets clouded both by the strength with which we hold our own perspective and by the irrationality that can develop when our own feelings become intense and potentially overwhelming (which is when we too have our meltdowns!).
So, assuming you can stay calm in the face of her frustration, you need to try to guess her feelings, validate those feelings, and show her that you might understand what is going on for her. Try to avoid saying "I know you feel…" because in truth we don't "know" for sure how they feel, even if we have a good idea about it. Instead try to phrase your empathy statements with words like "I wonder if you feel…", "I guess that you might feel…", "you look like you feel…". Then you can insert your best guess as to her feeling.
Be careful, too, not to rush into criticism ("you seem really angry, but you are being so bold"), or to try to fix some problem to soon ("you seem really angry, so just calm down"). Instead, let the empathy statement sit with her for a little while, which encourages her to try to work out if the feeling you have guessed is the feeling she has.
When we can empathise in this way, it takes the intensity out of children's feelings and that allows them then to work with you to find a solution to be able to calm down and then sort out the problem if they have been frustrated, or accept our reassurance if they have been feeling anxious.