In the Hans Christian Anderson’s fable, The Princess and the Pea, the sleeping princess is so sensitive that “she felt the pea through the twenty mattresses and the twenty eider-down beds.” Her sensitivity seems unbelievable, the substance of fairytales, unless, that is, you are a parent to a sensitive child yourself.
Parents of sensitive kids will readily attest to their child’s heightened sensory receptivity to the world, with varying degrees of stimulation to touch, taste, smell, seeing, and hearing. From being tormented by tags in their clothes to the sound of toilets flushing, from walking on tippy toes, to a sense of smell that would rival any restaurant critic – these kids experience the world in a heightened way. Current estimates place them at 1 in 5 kids or 15 to 20% and they can also have at least one parent who is sensitive as well (1).
Sensitivity can bring many gifts including natural brightness but give rise to particular challenges as well. Sensitive kids can be easily stirred up by their environment with sensory stimulation quickly becoming too much for them. For example, one mother was trying to understand why her four year old would run to the door to try and escape music class when other kids loved to participate.
Sensitivity also poses challenges when it comes to attachment and forming deep connections with others. Sensitive kids don’t seem ‘to suffer fools gladly’ and often see through facades, unwilling to trust just anyone. While this makes them more wary of people and keen observers, it does ensure that they will only follow those who they feel they can lean on and have confidence in. The good news is when a sensitive child has given their heart to an adult for safe keeping, this adult can be assured they are the child’s answer to contact, closeness, and that they will be able to lead them.
What Makes Attachment Challenging?
We often take for granted the vulnerability involved in forming deep connections with others. Attachment is the doorway through which separation opens up. Being separated from the people and things we are attached to should be provocative for everyone, especially for the sensitive child. Whatever we care for we also run the risk of losing. Whomever we attach to has the power to hurt us or may withdraw their invitation for connection. To be in relationship with another person sets us up to get hurt given the vulnerability of dependence.
1. Sensitive kids are more prone to resisting contact and closeness
Due to the vulnerability involved in attaching to things and people, some sensitive kids will resist it. One child told his mother after his hamster died that he couldn’t love his new hamster because he knew it would die too. Some sensitive kids are acutely aware that if they attach they could get hurt. They are also allergic to being coerced and may strongly shy away from those who try to push too hard to connect, feeling overwhelmed. They are often slower to warm up and if an adult lacks the patience or insight to see that the sensitive child needs time, they will have a harder time cultivating a strong connection to them.
2. Sensory overwhelm creates too much stimulation
Some sensitive kids can be overwhelmed by their senses; which poses two problems. The first is their caretakers face competing stimuli for the child’s attention, making it difficult for them to appear front and center. Second, the overwhelming sensory stimulation can provoke defenses in the child’s brain to numb and tune out emotional information depending on each situation (2). This makes it difficult for caretakers to garner the child’s attention and get through the defenses. What every child needs from adults is to feel a strong invitation for connection but if their world is too noisy, it makes it hard for their caretakers to find a way through. Reducing stimulation and competing signals will help a sensitive child and an adult cultivate strong connections.
3. More prone to trying to take the lead in the relationship – Attachment between a parent and child needs to be hierarchical if an adult is able to truly invite a child to rest in their care. This allows the child to take for granted that their parent can be counted on, can read their needs, and take the lead in orienting and directing them as needed. To be dependent on someone for caretaking is the most vulnerable position, the emotionally safer position is one of caretaking. As a result, sensitive kids are more prone to wanting to attach to their adults but in the lead position. They may become commanding or demanding with their caretakers, directing their parents on how to care for them. When a sensitive child tells others how to care for them, they are not at rest and are working to be cared for. This can create a host of problems including anxiety and frustration. For more information on alpha problems read Reclaiming the Lead with an Alpha Child.
Three Strategies for Building Strong Attachments with Sensitive Kids
- Collect their attachment instincts – If adults desire a strong relationship with a sensitive child they will need to be patient, not overwhelm the child, and to go slow until they can see the child is receptive. To collect a sensitive child’s attachment instincts you need to engage their eyes or ears, perhaps get a smile from them, and even try to find agreement on something, for example, you like to play with lego too. Repeatedly trying to collect them is the way through to deepening one’s relationship. The collecting dance is meant to activate the attachment instincts in the child and invite them into relationship.
- Matchmaking – If there is an adult the sensitive child is attached to then it will be important to get an introduction from this person first and let the child see you as a ‘friendly face.’ A sensitive child will follow the cues of the people they are attached to so it is imperative for the child to see these people as sanctioning any new relationship. For example, if a doctor wants a sensitive child to do something, it may be best bet to go through their adult than to make a direct request of the child. In a school environment it is important to matchmake the child to their teacher, pointing out similarities and how a parent trusts the teacher to care for the child.
- Take the lead and invite dependence – A sensitive child will rest in the care of people who convey they understand the child’s need and provide for them in a generous way. It is the consistent representation of the adult as being available, of being counted upon, and knowing what to do to help the child that helps foster a strong relationship. When an adult can walk a sensitive child through their big emotions, as well as shield and protect them when overwhelmed, it will help cement the relationship.
Attachment is the greatest human need but it can be more vulnerable territory for sensitive kids as it opens the doors to separation. We will need to be patient and to be generous with our invitation in our caretaking. Strong relationships are critical for sensitive kids as it is here they will find refuge from a world that often feels too much and overwhelming.
- Boyce, T. (2014). Orchid children and the science of kindness. Dalai Lama Centre for Peace and Education, Vancouver, BC. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_mSrc0GFpJw
Ellis, B.J., Boyce, W. T. (2005). Biologial sensitivity to context: Empirical explorations of an evolutionaly-developmental theory. Development and Psychopathology. V. 17,(2), pp. 303-328.
- Neufeld, G. (2013). Level I Intensive: Making Sense of Kids. Neufeld Institute Vancouver, BC, Canada. www.neufeldinstitute.com.
Deborah MacNamara, PhD is on Faculty at the Neufeld Institute and in private practice working with parents and professionals based on the relational and developmental approach of Gordon Neufeld, PhD. She is the author of Rest, Play, Grow: Making Sense of Preschoolers (or anyone who acts like one). Please see www.macnamara.wpengine.com for more information or www.neufeldinstitute.org.