Parenting strategies for our highly sensitive child

8 Apr

Over the years Jason and Is have come up with some successful strategies to help us deal with the emotional reactions of our sensitive older son.

Time out:
This is a fairly new technique. I occasionally used time outs when RJ was younger, but it wasn’t consistent. RJ would NOT stay in the designated “time out area” unless I held him there. But I couldn’t hold him in one place when I had to hold a newborn or (later) keep close to my mobile infant.

A friend suggested the time-out method she used successfully with her four children. Basically, if a child does something “wrong” (decided by the parents), then the child gets a time out (always the same place if possible) and the time out is the same number of minutes as the age of the child.

So, if RJ physically hurts his brother or doesn’t listen to our directives, he sits on a kitchen chair for five minutes, timed by my kitchen timer. The key is to be consistent. Hitting JP or ignoring mom and dad (or Gramma) gets a time out, even if we’re not at home. After several months of consistency, RJ rarely gets time outs anymore.

Stop talking:
I know this sounds awful, but sometimes RJ cannot turn it off. It’s like he’s on auto-pilot and nothing can stop the talking. (Talking which is often antagonizing, teasing, and yelling at his brother) Jason and I have started telling RJ (firmly but calmly) to stop talking: all words must cease now. It’s as if he can’t decide on his own to stay quiet and it’s easier to have someone else make the decision. Then he has a few minutes of enforced silence, which he really needs, in order to regroup and press reset.

Warnings about going places and doing things:
For years, RJ has been infamously resistant to any change in his routines, but he has responded extremely well to being warned well in advance about any changes that are coming.

For example, if we want to do something after RJ gets off the school bus, we try to tell him our plan several days in advance. On Monday we will say, “RJ, Thursday after school we’re going to see Santa Claus.” We reiterate our plan on Tuesday and on Wednesday and by Thursday he is excited about the idea. If we had just said on Thursday, “RJ we’re going to see Santa,” he would put up a big fuss and cry and sulk all the way to the mall.

As RJ has gotten older, we don’t need need as much forewarning anymore. Sometimes, we really need to go somewhere after school but it had to be decided last minute so I cross my fingers and tell RJ as soon as he gets off the bus that ALL of us are going to leave in ONE HOUR to go get Gramma. Nine times out of ten, I’m met with an agreeable child.

Warnings about changing activities:
Just like we warn about going places, we try to warn about activity transitions, such as needing to have a bath, eating dinner, and going to bed. There was a time that stopping one activity and moving on to the next would cause half an hour of hysterics.

What we do now, is try to tell RJ the plan for the whole day or the next several hours as a way to get him prepared, “Good morning RJ, today is a busy day! Remember we have the birthday party and then as soon as we get home it’s bath time and then dinner. Then you can play and relax until bed time.” Usually, RJ still whines about going to bed or having to eat dinner (especially if we made him stop playing Lego), but the transition tantrums have been reduced a great deal.

Even if RJ is well aware that we have a plan (family dinner, visit Santa, birthday party), he will often make his annoyance known through sulking and sour faces. He is a child who wants to be at home ALL the time, but that simply isn’t realistic. So I bribe him.

I realize bribery isn’t a great life lesson for adulthood but often my goal is to get through a day or an event as smoothly as possible while maintaining an element of fun. So when we go to lunch at great-uncle’s house, I say, “Uncle is old and his house is very messy. Do not mention the mess at all. Be on your best behaviour and remember to respond to uncle when he asks you a question. Don’t complain about the food. If you can maintain good behaviour, you will be rewarded!” The rewards are Lego mini figures, chocolate chips, or check marks on the good behaviour chart (more about that in a minute). In another situation, I would say, “We are having family photos taken and I need you to be well behaved. You don’t have to smile but you must not whine, sulk, or throw a fit. If you cooperate, you will be rewarded!”

I also dole out chocolate chips or gummy bears if RJ will pose for a “candid” photograph with his brother.

And the food. As RJ has been a temperamental and picky eater for years now, I often bribe to get him to try new foods or to eat everything on his plate. I don’t even care that it might not be a good idea. Trying new food gets you a check mark and eating most of the plate could get you three check marks. I never force it though.

Last year, through bribery, I introduced pancakes, scrambled egg, sausage, carrots, chicken, and cookies that I baked myself. This year, RJ has successfully consumed broccoli, cabbage, bagels, potatoes, and birthday cake. I’m so encouraged by the progress he’s made and I’m totally ok with giving out rewards for this kind of growth.

Bonus points and demerit points:
Jason and I have experimented with several different versions of the “chore chart” and have found the bonus point and demerit point system to be the most effective for RJ. We tried sticker charts but RJ stopped caring about stickers after he was potty trained.

What we’re doing now is giving check marks for positive behaviour and exes for negative behaviour. At the end of a month, the checks and exes are tallied up and the one with the highest total is the winner. A check mark win earns a reward (RJ always chooses Lego. I always buy things on sale and there is always a small set in storage ready to be handed out) and an ex win earns a punishment such as losing Lego video privileges.


I realize that the above is a detailed account of what could be considered typical strategies for dealing with various behaviours.

Maybe you think my strategies are great or maybe you think they’re horrifying. Either way, every child is different and something that works for your child might never work for my child.

Having said that, Im very curious about the strategies and techniques you’ve developed over the years. Especially if you have a “high-needs” or “highly-sensitive” child.

Please, share!

Note: I’m open to hearing suggestions about getting your kid to eat. However, I’m not interested in hearing stuff like, “just tell your kid to eat it and that’s that” or “make him sit at the table until he eats.” I’m not interested in turning dinner time into a battle of wills. I’ve already lost that battle hundreds of times.

3 Responses to “Parenting strategies for our highly sensitive child”

  1. icanhazjoy April 8, 2014 at 1:51 pm #

    These are the same strategies we use at my daycare with sensitive children (minus perhaps bribery). Transitions are a big thing and can be life changing once you figure out some good tactics. With one child in particular, we use a big clock timer to let him know that when it dings, it’s time to get ready for school/wash hands for snack/get ready to go outside. 🙂

    • L.W. April 8, 2014 at 1:57 pm #

      Joy, I think you mentioned the timer thing to me once before. I use it for the time outs but it didn’t really work for transitions because he was so nervous about the ringing sound. But like I said, what works for one, won’t work for another. Thanks for your feedback! And yeah…it’s probably a good idea to avoid bribing children that are not your own 😉


  1. Having our child evaluated: update | eating dirt - May 12, 2014

    […] Keep on with our strategies, as mentioned here. We are, of course, open to reviewing and altering these […]

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