An emotionally sensitive child needs to be seen and heard. It is the feeling of being alone and abandoned that creates in a child a heightened sensitivity to often painful emotions such as sadness and fear. The world feels like a very scary and lonely place for a child who is not secure in feeling attached to people who love and care for them. These children need empathic listening and communication that assures them that they are loved and that their feelings are valid.

It can be very difficult for a parent to see a child in an emotionally sensitive state. Often it can induce in the parent feelings of frustration and the impulse to communicate to the child “toughen up” or “get over it”. A child perceives this frustration as shaming and abandoning…exactly the underlying feeling that makes emotions difficult for a child to tolerate. A sensitive child needs to be encouraged, not discouraged from expressing their emotions. Often, witnessing a child’s feelings can seem overwhelming to a parent, but imagine how overwhelmed the child who is actually experiencing the emotions must feel. Use your empathy as a caregiver to attune to the experience of your child. Most importantly, LISTEN to your children. Allow them a safe space to feel every emotion and encourage them to express their feelings.

Create structured and regular times to talk about feelings with your children, and make it a shared and normal activity--a time for you and your child to connect and talk about anything that may be happening in their lives. Give this time a name, (“talk about it time” or “sharing time”). Set aside a place in your home to meet and maybe even create a special chair for you both to sit in together. Help the child to look forward to this opportunity to connect with you emotionally. This special time becomes an “emotional container” that will allow a sensitive child to feel “held” emotionally. Show your children that you can handle their emotions, by being a good emotional role model. If you show a child that you can handle feelings, then a child will learn that they can do so as well. Through the acknowledgement and discussion of a child’s feelings, emotions become normalilzed and not to be feared. As fear of emotions subsides, so will emotional sensitivity.

A child’s ability to tolerate and handle painful emotions is built upon the feeling of secure attachment to caregivers and a sense of assurance that it is okay to talk about and express feelings. A child who feels safe to be emotional will ultimately build “emotional strength” to handle emotions on their own.

PROBLEM: An emotionally sensitive child is one who does not feel secure in knowing that he is cared for and understood. Children who appear “sensitive” experience the world as a lonely and scary place that cannot tolerate their feelings.
SOLUTION: Providing empathic listening to a child who is feeling emotionally sensitive will help the child to feel cared for and understood. This “emotional holding” allows a child to increase their ability to tolerate uncomfortable or painful emotions such as fear and sadness.

Author's Bio: 

Matt Casper, M.A. MFT; Matt is a licensed Psychotherapist with a private practice in Los Angeles, California. He graduated cum laude from Duke University where he studied personality psychology, comparative religion and film. He received his master’s degree in marriage and family therapy from the California Graduate Institute of Professional Psychology and Psychoanalysis and has worked with a diverse population including individual adults, teens and children as well as with groups and couples. Matt has been involved with the Maple Counseling Center, a non-profit counseling clinic, as well as with the Julia-Ann Singer Therapeutic School where he worked with children who fall somewhere on the Autism spectrum, and has served as a supervisor for teenagers at TEEN LINE, a hotline and website that provides teen-to-teen outreach for teenagers facing emotional challenges. Matt is also the author of a series of 12 books in the "Emotes!" series which aims to help children identify, express and manage their emotions.