Table of Contents
- How Do You Know You Have a Strong-Willed, Highly Sensitive Child?
- Balancing the Emotions of a Strong-Willed, Highly Sensitive Child
- Highly Sensitive Children Are Wired Differently
- Parenting a Strong-Willed, Highly Sensitive Child is Challenging.
- 5 Key Strategies Parenting Strategies for Strong-Willed, Highly Sensitive Children
- A Final Note on Sensitive and Strong-Willed Children
Parenting a strong-willed, highly sensitive child is challenging. We want to preserve their spirit while effectively parenting them. This is how to work with your child’s temperament, improve cooperation and celebrate who they are.
If you have a highly sensitive child, people may describe them as being an “old soul,” intuitive, and shy.
My daughter had traits of being a highly sensitive child as an infant, and I just thought she was difficult. Although she was a happy baby, she got overstimulated easily. Sleep was also a huge struggle for us. These were some of the first signs that she was a highly sensitive child.
Highly sensitive people’s brains work differently, and they have an amazing capacity for empathy. With the right parenting strategies, raising a child with a highly sensitive temperament doesn’t have to be a struggle.
How Do You Know You Have a Strong-Willed, Highly Sensitive Child?
Children who have strong-willed temperaments tend to:
- question authority and rules,
- be bright and persistent,
- frequently test authority figures (parents, babysitters, substitute teachers, extended family) to determine what the boundaries are,
- protest readily when expectations seem unfair,
- carry arguments on for longer and farther than one would anticipate (3).
Highly sensitive kids tend to:
- be very intuitive,
- learn better with gentle correction rather than harsh punishment,
- notice when others are bothered or upset,
- feel emotions deeply,
- pick up on subtle changes in the environment
- ask a lot of questions,
- struggle with peer and sibling interactions when overwhelmed,
- have a victim mindset,
- be very sensitive to pain.
You can take the Highly Sensitive Child test, developed by Dr. Elaine Aron, here.
Highly sensitive kids need the right tools to thrive in daily life. We want to preserve their spirit while helping to build confidence and provide them with effective coping mechanisms. Not all hs children struggle with the same things, and sensitivity can present differently based on your child’s temperament.
Balancing the Emotions of a Strong-Willed, Highly Sensitive Child
My child’s first day of preschool was another clue that she was going to be a highly sensitive person with a strong will.
She had her backpack ready days before the first day of school. Once she was packed, she was furious she couldn’t go to school immediately. When the first day of school came, she was so excited. But that excitement was short-lived.
In the classroom, her whirlwind of excitement came to a screeching halt as she saw another girl crying. Her eyes welled with tears as my confident little girl was hit by the enormity of the situation. Not only did she feel sad because someone else was upset, but I could see how the bright lights and noise levels were affecting her.
My daughter didn’t know how to make sense of her conflicting emotions. She had been so excited about school, but suddenly everything felt overwhelming and scary.
Highly Sensitive Children Are Wired Differently
Like many highly sensitive children, my daughter was acutely aware of her environment and the emotions of those around her. Your highly sensitive child actually has a brain that is wired differently to other kids.
Sensory Processing Sensitivity
Sensory processing sensitivity, according to Dr. Elaine Aron, occurs in 15-20% of people and can be challenging for parents to deal with. Highly sensitive kids may have a low tolerance to strong smells, experience intense emotions, and struggle with certain foods and loud sounds. Highly sensitive children are also at risk for other mental health challenges if not properly supported.
They can be overwhelmed by sensory input, which may affect your child’s behavior. Their nervous system gets activated quickly, leading to emotional distress. Highly sensitive children take time to process things, and they feel things much deeper than other kids.
Sensory Processing Sensitivity is a personality trait and is inheritable. That means you may have multiple highly sensitive kids who can be overwhelmed by sensory input. This can also influence peer and sibling interactions.
Highly sensitive children tend to move into a stressed fight-or-flight state quickly due to sensory overload. Because they feel emotions more vividly than other kids, they react from their emotional limbic system more often than their rational prefrontal cortex. But, the mirror neurons in the brains of highly sensitive children are more active, meaning they have a greater capacity for empathy.
Because your highly sensitive child is more prone to anxiety and self-consciousness, they may be more likely to experience other mental health challenges as they grow.
Sensory Processing Disorder
Sensory processing disorder isn’t based on temperament like sensory processing sensitivity. Although they have similar traits, sensory processing sensitivity is situational, but sensory processing disorder reactions have a different root cause.
Highly sensitive kids with SPD have the same reaction to stimuli regardless of the situation.
Parenting a Strong-Willed, Highly Sensitive Child is Challenging.
There is no autopilot for parenting kids with strong wills and high sensitivity. This is because strong-willed children take nothing at face value. They are forever trying to determine what the boundaries are and will always try to negotiate. Then, because these kiddos are sensitive, they are acutely aware of changes in their environment and have big hearts and equally big reactions.
But it’s not all bad! In fact, it’s pretty amazing.
Strong-willed children with high sensitivity are naturally equipped with some of the greatest predictors of lifelong success. For one, they are naturally tenacious. When a strong-willed child doesn’t get their way, they brainstorm, negotiate, and press the issue. They are also more intrinsically motivated, and these amazing kids will passionately work towards their goals.
In addition to being gritty, these children are more inclined to be leaders and stand up for what’s right. Laura Markham, a clinical psychologist at Columbia University explains,
[Strong-willed children] are usually self-motivated and inner-directed, and often grow into leaders as adults. They are more impervious to peer pressure and go after what they want with more gusto. They want to “learn things for themselves rather than accepting what others say, so they test the limits over and over,” and this relates to relationships as well. Such discernment involves not only when they cut their hair, eat vegetables, or choose to wear a coat, but also in whom they decide to trust and in whom they choose to follow or who they allow themselves to be influenced by.
5 Key Strategies Parenting Strategies for Strong-Willed, Highly Sensitive Children
Frame Your Child’s Behavior
How parents frame their child’s behavior tends to determine how they respond to it. Parents who approach their highly sensitive children with more understanding and compassion (while still making sure they follow the rules) have children who tend to cooperate more and show lower levels of aggression and anxiety.
Understanding your child is strong-willed and sensitive gives you context for why your child may be more headstrong and/or emotional. When you recognize the emotions behind the actions, you can help your child gain control of their emotions and stop them from having a victim mindset.
Collaborate and Cooperate
Call a family meeting with all family members and discuss problems as well as goals. Prompt your children to talk about what rules they think are reasonable, as well as how they should be reminded when mistakes are made. In this situation, you are still the parent, and you are guiding the discussion while collaborating to accomplish peace and cooperation in your household. It’s also empowering for your highly sensitive child to be involved in making decisions.
Setting rules and expectations before an event or scenario (e.g., going to a restaurant, visiting a museum, or going over to someone’s house for dinner) will also increase cooperation and make discipline easier if needed. When all family members contribute, it helps build confidence and healthy relationships.
Set Realistic Expectations
Give your child a heads-up before engaging in a situation they will find challenging. Highly sensitive kids struggle with new experiences, so giving them information about what to expect can help manage their anxiety.
This will make it so much easier for them to be resilient when they feel challenged. Daily life is full of unexpected challenges, and your child with high sensitivity needs coping mechanisms to help them gain control when they are overwhelmed by sensory input.
Make Boundaries Firm and Discipline Gentle
Strong-willed children need to know what rules are non-negotiable. This minimizes conflict and also facilitates confidence in a child. Research shows that children with high sensitivity feel the most vulnerable when boundaries aren’t clear (3). Equally, discipline must be calm and gentle. Studies on highly sensitive children show that they hold themselves highly accountable for their mistakes (4).
In cases of misbehavior, the best approach is a subtle reminder or, in more extreme cases, a timeout where you’re with your child. Positive discipline fosters healthy relationships and equips highly sensitive children with the tools they need to deal with overwhelming sensory input.
Most people may mistakenly think your child is intentionally being too sensitive or strong-willed. When people don’t understand sensory processing sensitivity, they can make highly sensitive children feel self-conscious. Chat with your child’s teacher so they can be intentional in the classroom.
By giving context to who your highly sensitive child is, the adults in your child’s life will be better equipped to take care of and guide him.
A Final Note on Sensitive and Strong-Willed Children
Strong-willed, highly sensitive children require patience and consideration. They aren’t easy to raise, but their high sensitivity gives them the innate capacity to become compassionate and meaningful leaders.
The key is to work with their high sensitivity and see it as the superpower it is. To do so, the adults in their lives must work with them instead of against them, be clear with their expectations but gentle with their discipline, and act as their advocate where appropriate.
In doing so, adults are able to guide the child in a way that celebrates who she is. This then gives the child to truly become the person she they were meant to be.
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