My child cries at everything, part 2: very sensitive children

To read part 1, click here:

Before I say anything else, let me first say I am assuming that you have had her thoroughly checked out by your doctor. Sometimes undiagnosed health issues can impact behavior. If there are sensory integration issues going on, an occupational therapist could teach you both some tricks that help enormously.

You mentioned that you've been reading about Highly Sensitive Children ( and wondering if that was just a label parents made up so they could feel like their kids are special.

Most of the folks I know, both children and adults, who fall into the classification of Highly Sensitive don't feel special; they feel annoyed by their sensitivity. And most of the parents of sensitive kids that I know don't feel like their kids are special; they feel exhausted! Especially if they are not 'sensitive' themselves - it's so hard to understand it without feeling it in your own body.

I believe that neurologists have now identified that there is a spectrum of baseline "arousal" of the nervous system, and some of us fall at either extreme. For example, some people will startle and experience an adrenaline rush when a door slams two floors away, and some people barely react when you jump out and yell at them in the dark.

If a particular nervous system is running in high gear already, it won't take much to put it over the top into overwhelm. Something like the disappointment of her pink shirt not being clean could easily set it off. It may seem like no big deal to those of us with different thresholds of stimulation, but to her, it could be the last straw. Your daughter may be crying to release excess energy.

(You may see the opposite kind of behavior in kids with nervous systems that are running in real low gear - they poke and prod and wiggle and squirm and are all over the place in their search for more stimulation.)

Perhaps you may be able to reduce some of the crying by being empathetic before you are corrective. (saying "Oh, you really wanted to wear your favorite pink shirt and it isn't clean! That IS a bummer!") Correction often adds to the overwhelm, but empathy usually reduces it. Getting her into forward motion (Let's find another shirt) isn't likely to happen until she's calmed down a bit anyway, and empathy is a very effective way to speed that process up.

It may help to be extra vigilant about giving her time to decompress, feeding her protein often to avoid blood sugar fluctuations, and making sure she gets enough sleep. Affectionate physical activity, like play-wrestling, catch-me, or don't-let-me-kiss-you games can help release excess energy in a fun and loving context. You may need to cut tags out or buy only cotton shirts or seamless socks for a while. She may do better with unscented soap.

Some parents find that reducing sugar, wheat, dairy, or artificial colors and flavorings can make a big impact on their children's moods. It's worth experimenting with. Little adjustments like these can reduce the load on her nervous system so she can handle the big stuff better, and are so much easier than walking on eggshells all the time. What's that saying ... an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure?

If you try those interventions and she still keeps winding up, she may simply need to cry. Crying is a pretty good way to clear the decks emotionally and physically. You might want to try letting her cry it out a time or two with no attempt to intervene in any way.

If it seems comforting to her for you to stay close by, that's absolutely fine to do. She may prefer physical comforting, or she may just want you within sight. Be present, quietly and calmly, and make no effort to get her to hurry up and finish crying, or talk her out of it, or distract her away from it. Just be a compassionate witness.

If you get the sense that she'd rather have some privacy, simply tell her kindly and gently that you'll be in the kitchen doing some dishes, and walk away. Come back and check on her periodically. The idea is not that you are isolating her until she stops, but that you are allowing her some space to see if she soothes herself better on her own. Most kids I know prefer company when they are upset, but check it out to see what helps your child. If you walk away and she amps up and chases you, that means that her jangled nervous system may need to connect with your calmer one as a role model. So stay close.

I've seen kids simply wail for 5 minutes, stop, get up, and just move on with their day, even though nothing has changed in the situation and the 'problem' has not been fixed. It can be sort of like a big thunderstorm - it just passes and the air is clean again. She may simply put on that yellow shirt as if nothing had ever happened. If so, then you know it's okay to stop walking on eggshells all the time, and just let her have her occasional cleansing cry while you keep her company or do something else.

Sensitive kids can learn to manage their temperament and function quite well in our society. School can be tough for them, but when given the freedom, they often design their personal environments to foster great productivity. Intuition, creativity, and compassion are a just a few of the many gifts that often come wrapped in a package of sensitivity.

I hope this helps.

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Anonymous said...

I am a brand new step-mother of two highly active preschool boys. My husband is often out on the road as a professional truck driver, leaving me home to take care of the boys. My problem is this: My sons are -not- HSCs, however I myself am highly sensitive.
I find myself constantly overwhelmed in my role as a caretaker, yet I feel guilty for needing to retreat to a quiet bedroom with a book and some calming or inspirational music. When confronting the boys on some of their bad choices, things like hurting each other or breaking things, I find it absolutely mind boggling that they did it, that they -keep- doing it.
I can't mentally or emotionally handle overseeing them directly every hour of the day, and spring break has been an absolute nightmare. How can I help my kids when they seem so completely numb compared to my way of thinking? How can I adjust myself so their behavior and presence isn't so overbearing that I can barely keep my temper? I despise yelling, yet they don't respond to my correction at all unless they think I'm angry. It breaks my heart, making it even harder to cope with my new kids.

karen alonge said...

oh my goodness, bless your heart for taking on this challenge! I love the kind of questions you are asking. Clearly you are a brave and insightful woman!

Spring break is a nightmare for lots of parents who are used to their kids - I can't even imagine what it would be like with two new stepsons and no husband/father to help.

I think job one will be to make sure you have a friend who can listen while you vent, vent, and vent some more about the frustration that is inherent in this situation. It's amazing what we are capable of handling when we can release steam in this way -- when we can rant and rave and voice rhetorical questions like, "How can they act this way?" and, "What have I gotten myself into?" When we finish a good rant, which will often include some tears of frustration and grief, we can often think more clearly and approach the same situation with a new perspective. So I repeat - job one is emotional support for you.

Job two might be some physical support for you, so you can recharge your batteries, which is critically important for your health and well-being. You WILL need a break! And you DESERVE a break! If you can't afford a sitter, perhaps a child care trade with a friend or neighbor would work. Maybe there's a grandma at church who misses her grandkids and would like to come for a few hours each week or something along those lines. It's cliche, but true, that parents have to put their own oxygen masks on first for a reason. If we can't cope, we can't help our kids cope.

job three might be to arm yourself with some information. I really like the articles on lots of good stuff on preschoolers. it might also help to read up a bit on child development, so you get a sense for what they are truly capable and incapable of accomplishing at their ages. That way you can adjust your expectations for their behavior accordingly, so you aren't setting yourself up for frustration.

Bless your heart and good luck with this beautiful gift you are giving to your husband and these boys. Please keep in touch and let me know how things are going - I'd like to be a source of support for you if I can.

warm regards,

Ian Yee said...

I was searching the web for an "answer" for my 14 year old son who cries very easily. But further searching into myself, I remember I cried easily when I was his age. I also recalled crying as a 40 year old man when a (younger) combative female co-worker scolded me for not following company procedures (I was new and did not know the Byzantine rules). I just went to the restroom to regain my composure in privacy. I recalled a few years ago, crying out of frustration of not being able to find a job (during the recession. I am working now.) I remember that as I aged (I am 53 now), I learned to suppress the tears until no one else is around. Then I cried. After recollecting my younger years, I have come to the conclusion, my son is just a younger version of me. There is nothing wrong with him. I should go over and comfort him. Thanks for the forum. - Ian

karen alonge said...

bless your heart, Ian, for so eloquently sharing this powerful insight.

I am touched by your self-awareness, compassion, and acceptance. Your son is lucky indeed to have a father who is working so actively and intentionally to parent him.

thank you for taking the time to post your comment here.

warm regards,