Highly sensitive children are often extremely sensitive to tone of voice and facial expressions. A stern look or shush from an authority figure can immediately crumple their faces to tears. I knew very early on when my eldest was a baby that typical discipline measures (time outs, lectures, spanking) were not going to work for us.
Highly sensitive people usually want to do the right thing. We are rule-followers. We try hard. When we fail, we are crushed. We don’t need as much correction because we are already beating ourselves up for our mistakes. Even in high school, a stern correction from a teacher could make me sob in front of the whole class. I can remember several clear instances of this. I didn’t get in trouble often, but when I did, I was a total wreck for the rest of the day. It was awful.
Why did I care so much? My brother was always in detention, even suspended once or twice, and didn’t seem all that phased. I understand now that my sensitivity to correction stems from my experiencing it- the disappointed look of a teacher, the harsh words of a parent, the sting of being caught, and the public embarrassment- much more intensely than the typical kid. Because of this, I tried so hard to be perfect. But I’m a human and a sinner and perfection is not possible. My perfectionism probably made me an easier child to raise than my less sensitive brother, but it filled me with inner turmoil. I am trying hard to steer my children away from that same turmoil.
So, if I don’t lecture, spank, yell, or do time-outs, what’s left? How can we discipline children sensitively? I’m not lax in my parenting. I run a pretty tight ship. I have routines, rules, standards, but also allow a ton of freedom.
I call it front-end discipline. Taking a preventative approach. Setting up the situation carefully to decrease the odds of misbehavior.
1. I set my expectations up front, clearly. Time-limits, expected behavior, spatial/behavioral boundaries. This is like 90% of discipline in our household. It takes a lot of time and effort to give a detailed rundown beforehand, but it is key to keeping the peace.
2. I pick my battles so I’m not always nagging. I offer lots of freedom within boundaries. For example, at restaurants, I often let my child choose her meal between a few healthy options I give her. I let her eat with her fingers if it’s easier for her to do so. I don’t force her to eat everything on her plate. I even let her play with her food a little (put the olives on her fingers, disassemble the casserole, stuff like that.) I know, horrible manners, we probably get judged. But I’m just not going there right now. If she sits and eats peacefully, I’m happy. As long as it’s not disruptive to those around her.
3. There are certain realms that I just don’t enter. It’s just not my business. Giving kids control in these realms allows them to submit in other situations.
- PLAY: She can play however she wants as long as no one is getting seriously hurt, she cleans up after, and abides by whatever boundaries I’ve set. I’m always baffled when I see parents butting into their kids’ play- “Honey, go on the swings now! Share your ball with Susie! Build a tower like this!” That seems like such a royal waste of energy. She knows much better than I do what is fun for her.
- EMOTIONS: Her emotions belong to her, so I don’t discipline her for negative emotions (anger, grumpiness, jealousy.) I discipline actions that stem from these feelings, like hitting, but not the emotions themselves.
3. If she has outright crossed my boundaries, I am calm but firm. I calmly say, “I will not let you hit.” I don’t leave any room for argument, I simply tell her I won’t let this behavior continue. If necessary, I physically stop her (hold down her hands) or remove her from the situation if need be. But always calmly (or at least, that’s what I aim for.)
4. Empathy, not shame. “I understand you are frustrated, and that makes you want to hit, but I will not let you.” Sometimes this sparks a tantrum, but usually it fizzles out quite quickly because a) I’ve left no room for negotiation, b) I didn’t make it personal by slathering on the guilt, c) I honestly allow so much freedom that she doesn’t feel the need to push back for very long. She accepts there are just a few big-time no nos, and that she must abide by them.
Sometimes even the gentlest correction brings forth a tantrum or tears, which makes me feel so crappy. But I don’t need to feel guilty about correcting my child so long as I did so respectfully. Correction is a part of life. I then give her a little space and say she can come to me if she needs a talk or cuddle.
5. Give them time. I find that if I give her time to choose the right, she often chooses it. If the night time routine is dragging, I will say, “Please brush your teeth and use the restroom. If you dawdle, we may not have time to read books.” I’m simply stating the natural consequences of her actions. 99% of the time, she’ll pause, think, and then rush to the bathroom, no punishments needed. I learned to pause and calmly wait for her to choose the right path from the amazing book Bringing Up Bebe.
Recommended Reading: I highly recommend checking out Janet Lansbury’s blog Elevating Childcare or reading her book No Bad Kids: Toddler Discipline Without Shame. Although she’s not directed at highly sensitive children per se, her ideas about respectful, empathetic parenting are especially well-suited for HSCs.
Question: Were you super sensitive to discipline as a child? How did your parents handle it when you misbehaved, and how do you wish they’d handled it?