THE BLOG
05/31/2016 02:28 pm ET Updated Jun 01, 2017

When Does Protecting Sensitive Kids Turn Into Coddling Them?

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When does watching out for your Highly Sensitive Child turn into a level of protection that may prevent your child from healthy development? This is a question that I hear a lot when discussing sensitive kids with their parents, and there is a lot to unpack in this one question.

First off, the language that is used may be framing the issue in the wrong way. When you discuss "protecting" a child, this means that there is something scary and dangerous that a child and her parent needs to watch out for. This is a surefire way to turn your Highly Sensitive Child into an anxious one (like I was), as a hallmark of anxiety is the idea that the world is a harsh and unpredictable place, which leads to fear, avoidance, and panic.

If you want your child to grow into an assertive, confident, and unafraid adult, it is never too soon to expose her to new experiences, and to consistently give her opportunities to push herself out of her comfort zone. Whether your child is highly sensitive, anxious, both, or neither, all kids (and all adults!) can do a lot more than they originally think, if given guidance and what psychologist call "scaffolding," or giving your child appropriate help to reach their goals.

If you start from the expectation that your highly sensitive child will be panicked by a situation or new activity, this sets your child up to fail. Read about the classic "visual cliff" experiment to learn more about how parents' anxiety is transmitted to even small babies, creating avoidance and fear where there was none before.

Take the example of a 6 year old highly sensitive child whose family takes her to a carnival. Her father asks if she wants to try the Tilt-A-Whirl, but before she can respond, her Mom interrupts, "No, she'll get scared, these things never work out. Stay here with me, honey." Instead of giving her daughter the room to try something new, and even saying that it is a possibility that she might enjoy it now (even if she hadn't enjoyed similar activities in the past), her mother is "protecting" her. Although this is well-intentioned, the upshot is that the child learns that she is not capable of "scary" activities and that she should stay firmly within her comfort zone in the future, as her capabilities are unlikely to change over time.

Alternately, the girl's mother may have tried just asking her daughter, in a neutral voice, if she might like to try the Tilt-A-Whirl. Even if she says no, her mother could answer, "Okay, maybe next year." Now, the world is open in a new way for this child. She knows that there is a future in which she may grow into being someone who tries new rides, and she, buffered by her mother's faith in her, can visualize what it would be like to be a little girl who tries and likes rides at the carnival. And, in fact, the girl may even have said yes, and tried and loved the ride, if she had been asked about it in a neutral way. This would be the best possible outcome, and it could only have happened in an atmosphere where a parent wasn't trying to "protect" her.

Another issue that crops up with highly sensitive kids is when a parent takes their side against siblings, schoolmates, and even teachers. This is usually because the intensity of the highly sensitive child's reactions make a parent fear that something awful has happened, when the reality is that the child is just reacting intensely to a fairly common situation. For example, if a highly sensitive sister screams like she is being murdered when her brother pushes her, but her brother takes it more calmly when she pushes him, a parent may conclude that the brother is bullying the sister, rather than that the children are equally at fault in the interaction. This is when it's imperative for a parent to get in the mindset of neutrally observing the siblings at play, making sure to be conscious of their preconception that the highly sensitive sibling is being victimized, and see what is really happening in the interaction. The goal is to empathize with and validate your highly sensitive child, but also to teach her to empathize and validate the other person's feelings in any given encounter. And don't solve your child's problems for her, because happy children are confident that they have the skills to resolve their own issues.

I hope this perspective is useful when dealing with your highly sensitive children, and for more examples on conversations you can have with them, read this. Remember, though, that being highly sensitive can overlap with anxiety, but anxiety is its own issue. Thankfully, anxiety in kids is also very responsive to treatment, particularly cognitive-behavioral therapy. If your child seems anxious a lot of the time, avoids many situations that other kids her age are comfortable with, has nightmares or other manifestations of fears about herself, her family, the world, her health, and/or her social and academic life, it may be time to see a child psychologist who can help your child learn new ways to reframe her fears about the world.  You can use free child anxiety tests like this one that to give you a sense of whether you're dealing with an anxiety disorder or "just" a highly sensitive child. 

Till we meet again, I remain, the Blogapist Who Was Both An Anxious Child And A Highly Sensitive One And Coddling Didn't Help Any Of It.

Follow Dr. Rodman on Dr. Psych Mom, Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, and Pinterest. Order her book, How to Talk to Your Kids about Your Divorce: Healthy, Effective Communication Techniques for Your Changing Family. Learn about Dr. Rodman's private practice here. This blog is not intended as diagnosis, assessment, or treatment, and should not replace consultation with your medical provider.