8 Discipline Strategies for Parenting a Sensitive Child

We know discipline is important in raising healthy children, yet how can you properly discipline a child who feels things more acutely than average? 

Parenting a Sensitive Child

There's nothing wrong with being sensitive. In fact, a sensitive child can be one of the kindest, most compassionate kids you'll ever meet. But, raising a sensitive child can pose some parenting challenges. Emotionally sensitive kids become overwhelmed easily. They cry often, worry about getting into trouble frequently, and they require a great deal of reassurance.

Some sensitive children aren’t just emotionally sensitive, but they’re sensitive to anything physical that triggers their senses. Loud noises, bright lights or certain textures can send them into a tailspin. They might fear large crowds and struggle to deal with any type of change.

While some people think sensitive kids are just shy, there's more to it than that. Sensitive kids feel every emotion quite intensely. That means they're likely to become overexcited, extra angry, and super scared. Consequently, sensitive kids are hesitant to try new things and they struggle to deal with frustration. And their peer interactions may suffer when other kids start referring to them as “the kid who cries a lot” or “the kid who gets mad easily.”

While strict discipline may help some kids turn their behavior around, harsh punishments are likely to cause more problems with sensitive kids. So it's important to find ways to nurture and guide a sensitive child who may be struggling to thrive in a less than sensitive world. The following discipline strategies may help you provide the discipline your sensitive child needs.

1
Accept Your Child's Sensitivity

These parenting strategies can make raising a sensitive child a little easier.
These strategies may help you provide the discipline your sensitive child needs. Cavan Images/The Image Bank/Getty Images

If you child is sensitive, don’t try to change your child's temperment. Instead of viewing your child as "wimpy and whiny," emphasize your child’s strengths and gifts.

Acknowledge how something that might be easy for one child, can be quite difficult for a sensitive child. So rather than discourage her from experiencing big feelings, focus on teaching her to deal with her emotions in a socially appropriate manner. 

When you're feeling frustrated, and wish that your child were less sensitive, keep in mind that it's this same sensitivity which often leads these same children to be extremely compassionate and kind to others.

2
Provide Plenty of Downtime

Sensitive kids can become overstimulated by large crowds, bright lights and chaotic environments. So it's important to avoid over-scheduling your child.

Create a “peace corner” with quiet activities such as coloring books, headphones with soothing music or books to read and encourage your child to use it when he's feeling overwhelmed. A little downtime can be key to helping a sensitive child recharge his batteries.

3
Set Limits

Although it might be tempting to bend the rules to avoid upsetting a sensitive child, constant exceptions to the rules won’t be helpful in the long run. You may be tempted to simply overlook a behavior you would discipline in a child less sensitive, simply to maintain peace.

Be flexible, but remember that discipline helps teach your child how to become a responsible adult. If your discipline is too relaxed, he won’t be prepared to deal with the real world. To skip the discipline you would enforce with a less sensitive child denies the sensitive child the opportunity to learn and grow by experiencing the consequences of her actions.

4
Praise Your Child's Efforts

Sensitive kids need plenty of encouragement. Praise your child’s efforts, even when he's not successful. There is a caveat to this, however, and children who are praised no matter what they do often have lower self esteem than those who are praised more intermittently. Praising your child for doing things another child would be expected to do can give her the opposite impression of what you intend; as if you're surprised she can do something others her age do routinely. The point is to praise a child's efforts rather than the results of those efforts.

An example of praising efforts rather than results would be to say, “I like the way you you kept trying hard when you were struggling with your math.” Make it clear that hard work and effort is worthy of praise, even if it doesn’t turn out perfect in the end.

It's especially important to provide praise when your child tells the truth. Sensitive children tend to lie to get out of trouble. So it's important to praise a child for being honest, especially if her honesty doesn’t paint her favorably.

As we noted earlier, sensitive children are often very compassionate and kind. Offer praise to your child when she recognizes the feelings of others.

5
Provide Rewards

Sensitive kids sometimes feel bad if they “get in trouble” so simply changing the way you word things can spin it into a reward. Instead of saying, “You can’t eat dessert unless you eat all your dinner,” say, “If you eat all your dinner you can earn dessert!”

Create a formal reward system to help your child celebrate milestones and change her behavior. Just remember that a sensitive child may feel really bad if she doesn't earn a reward sometimes. Offer helpful reminders like, “You can try again tomorrow.”

If you are living with a sensitive child, you may wish to take the time to think of different ways you can word what you are saying in the example above. Reframing strategies are an excellent way for adults to reduce the stress in their lives. In cognitive reframing a situation does not change, but your reaction does. In the case of a sensitive child, the way you word what your are saying can be done in more than one way as well.

6
Teach Feeling Words

Sensitive kids need to learn how to verbalize their feelings and they also need to learn appropriate ways to cope with those feelings. Use emotion coaching to teach your child how to identify and deal with uncomfortable feelings in socially acceptable ways.

Sensitive children often show parents how they feel with their behaviors. Teach your child how to identify her feelings with words. Having a name to associate with how she is feeling will help her communicate better with you, and allow you to better understand what she is feeling.

7
Teach Problem-Solving Skills

Problem-solving skills can make a big difference in a sensitive child's daily life. Teach your child step-by-step instructions for tackling problems and she'll gain confidence in her ability to handle uncomfortable situations.

8
Use Logical Consequences

Sensitive kids need negative consequences just like every other child. Just because a child cries or feels bad, doesn’t mean he should escape other consequences.

Use logical consequences that will help your child learn valuable life lessons. Just make sure the consequences you offer focus on discipline, rather than punishment.

Bottom Line on Disciplining a Sensitive Child

It can be a challenge knowing how to best discipline a highly sensitive child. In fact, some parents may avoid discipline in an effort to reduce their child's pain and behaviors related to that pain. Yet we know that discipline is important and in fact critical to help our children someday face the outside world as an adult. The strategies above may help your child gain the benefits of thoughtful discipline while sparing her some of the emotional anguish inherent when a highly sensitive child needs correction.

Sources:

Zhang, X., Cui, L., Han, Z., and J. Yan. The Heart of Parenting: Parent HR Dynamics and Negative Parenting While Resolving Conflict With Child. Journal of Family Psychology. 31(2):129-138.

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