Have you ever stopped and judged a mom when her kid is having a meltdown outside of the library right before story time? I have a confession. I have.
I have another confession. I am that mom with a daughter crying uncontrollably outside of the library!
My eldest daughter, Sawyer, is nearly four years old, and she is also highly sensitive. I know this mostly because I was just like her as a child. What is a highly sensitive child, you may ask? In Sawyer’s case, it means that she startles easily, gets overwhelmed quickly, and feels things in a bigger way than most people.
All toddlers have big feelings and are learning through trial and error how to cope. But highly sensitive children tend to have bigger reactions and need a little bit extra in the way of compassion and comfort.
The library incident happened about a month ago. I took my daughters to the beautiful Corrales Library for story time, and Sawyer got the idea in her head that there was a dog in the library. She is incredibly fearful of dogs–a fear we are working to overcome–and that day, the idea that a dog might want to jump on her during story time was just too much.
It can feel really frustrating as a parent when your highly sensitive child is crying and feeling overwhelmed. I find myself often wanting to say, “CAN WE JUST GET OVER THIS AND GO TO STORY TIME?” However, reacting in that way may cause more crying and clinging, as well as make the child feel unsafe.
Does this experience sound familiar? If you are reading along thinking, “Wow, I definitely have THAT kid, too,” I have great news! I have come up with four little life hacks to help you (and me) learn to navigate this road with our littles and their big feelings.
1. Learn to lower your expectations.
Obviously, I still expect my children to behave appropriately in public. I never would have let my daughter’s upset feeling disrupt the enjoyment of other children attending story time. First and foremost, I removed her from the situation. I have learned that having unreasonable expectations for my small child can amplify her stress (and mine!) and adds to the chaos of her nerves. Rather than expecting your child to navigate new situations, no questions asked, prepare for the idea that things may not go according to plan. This hack alone has saved us from a lot of frustration and has probably saved my daughter from a lot of traumatic experiences. Maybe I want a cute Instagram picture of my kid petting an alpaca at the zoo, but realizing that she may be too nervous to participate helps me to manage my expectations
2. Talk to your child about their feelings.
This concept has been incredible for our family. I think we often expect children to be able to name their feelings. But we forget that they don’t have our knowledge and experience. Big feelings can feel overwhelming (especially to an already overwhelmed child). And helping a child to name their feelings can help them to process them.
For example, during the library meltdown, I was able to sit outside at a picnic table with Sawyer and ask her how she was feeling. She replied, “I FEEL SAD!” That is already a step in the right direction. But I took it a step further and said, “It seems like you are feeling a little bit nervous that you might see a puppy inside, is that true? Are you afraid?” And that gave her the words to understand what she was feeling. This helps more than you may realize! Next time she is nervous or afraid, she can communicate that to me and we can talk through it.
3. Don’t shame your child for big feelings.
We live in the society of “rub some dirt on it and toughen up!” There is a time and place to learn that type of resilience, certainly. But it’s also important to remember that when you are three, small things can feel really BIG. I try not to say things like, “Are you really scared? That is silly!” or anything that may teach Sawyer that there is shame in being sensitive or emotional. Instead, I treat her feelings like a teachable moment and ask questions to better understand where she is coming from. Remembering what it feels like to be very small in a big world helps me to empathize with both of my children.
4. Prepare your child before a big event.
I always try to talk Sawyer through new experiences. I talk to her about what we will do, what it will look like, who will be there, etc. This has been incredibly helpful for doctor’s visits! We talk about the waiting room, the nurse checking her vitals, the scale, the doctor looking in her ears and mouth, etc. and that way there aren’t any big surprises to overwhelm her.