On Parenting

20 Dec 2015

“The Highly Sensitive Child: Helping Our Children Thrive When the World Overwhelms Them” by Elaine Aron

A very interesting and wise book about how to raise a highly sensitive child; it explains how to see the world with his/her eyes; it teaches empathy and confidence in the abilities of the child. A great book on how to be a better parent. (Purchase at the author’s site or at Amazon )

I think that it is not just about kids who are highly sensitive by nature; everybody who happens to grow up as part of a minority, or as an outsider is in a similar situation; Being an outsider places the individual in a situation that forces him/her to notice finer social difference (these can be safely ignored if you are part of the majority).

Also I think that the general approach of trying to understand, respect and engage your kid is of great benefit to all kids; in a way we are all highly sensitive.

Here are my notes on two key chapters; there is much to learn from every chapter! I can only recommend to buy this book and to work through the whole of it. I am very thankful for this book.

Chapter 1

  • highly sensitive child (HSC)
    • notice more (finer perception in one or multiple senses) and reflect more deeply (more thorough/intensive processing of information); think more, but often processing is on a sub/unconscious level
    • Are easily overwhelmed by lots of information; affected more deeply by stimulus - overstimulation (too much noise, too long family reunions) results in extreme reactions: tantrums + meltdowns (the child is trying to say here: ‘I can’t take it anymore’), persistently avoid negative stimulus, perfectionism as a way to overcompensate. Need more downtime (time to relax) - to absorb stimuli.
    • more affected by pain; more sensitive immune system (often sick); often faster reflexes
  • 15-20% are ‘highly sensitive’ (same number with boys and girls) That’s too much to be ‘abnormal’ - the success of upbringing depends on the environment: support from the family. Says that among animals there are highly sensitive and lower sensitive animals - both types compliment each other (in terms of evolution its not a trait that is weeded out). Large minority of HSC is of benefit - notice dangers earlier, help others; creativity.
  • Says its a spectrum - some are more some are less sensitive; some more tuned to social relations others to external stimulus. There are differences along the following axis of temperament traits:
    • sensory threshold (of things getting noticed) ; which senses? (distinctions that seem small to adult are a really a big deal to HSC !)
    • activity/energy level
    • higher intensity of emotional response
    • rhythmicity (need there order and are predictable)
    • adaptability: (seem to be poor at adapting - but that is because fear of being overwhelmed, asked to adapt too much); make an effort to fit in at school but let it go at home??
    • initial reaction; does the child ‘go for it’ when it seems save or does he/she withdraw as initial reaction?
    • Persistence; tend to be persistent but get upset when things don’t turn out as expected. Does that cause them to quit or go on? How does the kid react to input by others in this case?
    • Easily distracted
    • predominant mood: says for HSC mood is more affected by their experiences.
  • each child is different; nothings wrong with the child - its a gift. ‘when they grow older still, they are often remarkable for their kindness and conscientiousness’; are emotionally healthier as adults (less likely to be depressed or psychotic) - on condition of supportive upbringing (!).
  • on negative inputs: more likely to become shy, fearful, depressed; That’s why guidance is important.
  • How comes? It might be genetics; neurology: in HSC the ‘behavioral inhibition’ center is very active (it does pattern matching with past situations) - its in the right hemisphere (the one supposedly responsible for creativity) ; (very different from ADD - here the left hemisphere is more active - HSC often mistreated as ADD because of adverse reaction to stress)
  • at first the author thought that high sensitivity is ‘highly introverted; but 30% of ‘highly sensitive’ people are extroverts - often the result of supportive upbringing, so that they don’t fear people. (still many HSC prefer two, three close friends to wider circle of communication - saver that way)

Parenting- the keys: Self-esteem, shame reduction, wise discipline, knowing how to discuss sensitivity.

  • Self esteem - the most important part
    • HSC is often very self-critical (because of perfectionism?) ; also any outside message is always amplified.
    • The basic attitude is key; it negative then successes are not appreciated and failure is perceived as reinforcing the negative outlook. Too much criticism will lead HSC to conclusion that everything is wrong; (also criticism is perceived more intensely).
    • School/garden often treats HSC as ‘being wrong’. This leads to shame - and that’s really hard to deal with (because of negative feedback loop/reinforcement)
  • what are the sources of self-esteem?
    • Unconditional love by parents - a sense of stability is very important (HSC seek stability)
    • social self-esteem; ability to have and be valued by friends.
    • Physical self-esteem; value your own appearance and abilities.
    • Intellectual self esteem - confidence to master learning situations
  • HSC often is ‘depressed realist’ - will likely to not overestimate his abilities (people with too much self confidence do that). Says that’s because the basic strategy is to ‘get it right the first time’ - (to avoid negative feedback on failure); Also will have guilt feelings for bad thoughts (more aware of unconscious side) - important to teach that thoughts are different from deeds.
  • Promoting self esteem:
    • lead by example - also your own attitudes are visible to the highly sensitive. (me: don’t talk about yourself in deprecating manner)
    • Speak admiringly about child’s sensitivity - praise observation skills. (and all positive aspects of HSC); don’t overdo it (to stay credible).
    • Spend time with the child
    • Show respect, even in odd situations (I know that you like .. but …)
    • How to deal with non sensitive people? Teach that many people act impulsively ‘without meaning what they say’ == teach the kid to wear emotional earplugs (me: tell that there people who hurt others as a form of trolling - compensation for their own shortcomings); Teach that different people have different styles. Say that other people may not hear well, so speak louder (but don’t victimize if it does not work)
  • bring up strengths when the child is confronted by setback/self doubt (past success to match current failure). Don’t overdo praise - praise must stay credible (you have a critic before you). Don’t get into argument - cut it off: its my view. Important:
    • People with low self esteem have a good memory of past setbacks - as if stored under the same label (keyword); so that one failure brings the whole cluster in. The labeling of the kid by its environment is what gets him there.
    • Target is to have memory organized under other headlines (sports, arts, science, etc); mentioning past successes may offer an alternative viewpoint (that’s why it’s important)- even if it is not accepted by the child.
  • Shame reduction
    • Feeling shame means that the entire self is bad - that leads to withdrawal/submission (as opposed to guilt where the focus is on a particular deed). Worst case scenario: shame/guilt/shyness/anxiety become predominant emotions.
    • However shame has cultural connotations: In Japan peoples shame/pride depends on evaluations of others (more than in western culture - where one has to be ashamed for feeling shame, with HSC that leads to more shame ..); also one is expected to feel shame - in order to stay engaged with each other. (? HSC feel somehow more familiar in Japan, go figure ?)
  • different kinds of shame
    • Spontaneous shame for misdeed (not the shame induced by others for being different) can be a form of learning;
    • Shame induced by others - don’t do that (can have very bad effect to HSC - I am not good, lots of distress)
    • intense shame - creates hostility as a way to protect against the feeling (directed towards oneself - for HSC mostly against the self ;-( and others)
  • What to do? Objective is to avoid shame proneness.
    • If you never correct/discipline your child then that also has the message to the child that he/she is beyond redemption (?!) Worst kind of message is that you have given up.
    • Examine your own words/reactions (got them from upbringing)- don’t shame the child as a habit.
    • Don’t voice expectations for the future - (not measuring up is a source of shame) ; The message must be: succeed on your terms, its your world, enjoy
    • Don’t compare with other kids/siblings.
    • Teasing - kids will not appreciate your habits/sense of humor. Careful.
    • Don’t impart the impression that the kid is to blame for family problems - that can be very very bad.
  • Discipline: the aim is to teach a moral outlook - what is right and wrong (fear of punishment alone is not enough to regulate behavior)
  • Theory on origin of moral: Caring relationship between infant and parent - both enjoy sharing and try make peer happy. Still there is stress/need to discipline: child is conflict between
    • trying to have his own way.
    • Trying to please parent.
  • Still kid adopts position of parent around age 3 (if all goes well). How to impart values? (General case) kid needs to listen - says that some arousal is good because you can give additional context on social situations (Kids don’t like kids who bite), but don’t scare him/her stiff (counterproductive)!!!
  • HSC: have it easier to internalize rules, in a way they punish themselves. So just a change in tone is enough to get the child’s attention - more than that means to overdo it.
  • Make an effort to avoid the need for ‘discipline events’
    • by making your expectations explicit - important that they are age-specific (easy to understand for the given age; even better if they are part of a mutual agreement.
    • Try to understand the reason + analyze/tackle root causes: (like perceived inequality of treatment between siblings, etc)
    • Transition points are difficult: It helps if they are part of a routine; humor helps; try to anticipate the crisis in advance; being clear helps (but don’t overextend deadlines).
  • Discipline (didn’t understand it all - so only part is listed)
    • make an effort to calm the situation - so that the child and parents are not overarroused.; Listen and show empathy
    • restate standards/expectations - if you reason take care that the child is able to understand your arguments.
    • Show some alternatives for the future (hit this pillow when you are angry)
    • again and again: prevent anxiety from backfiring.
  • Know how to discuss sensitivity - with the child and others
    • you have to read it….