One of my favorite parenting moments in film is in the 1994 movie
“I’ll Do Anything.” Nick Nolte is escorting his very young daughter
on a plane for the first time and she has an epic tantrum. She screams
and cries and jumps up and tears through the plane into first class.
The flight attendant stops him at the curtain and he just looks at her in
total bewilderment and says, “I don’t…know…what…to do.”
Little ones with big feelings, big thoughts, big ideas and lots of difficulty managing all of it present unique challenges for parents. Typically, it’s not at all what they are prepared for. And the usual solutions that work easily for other parents can totally bomb with intense/sensitive kids. The key for parents is to recognize what’s underneath the challenging behavior and to work with it.
Secret Superpower: BIG feelings.
Parenting hack: Help them learn emotional regulation strategies
Children with big feelings may need a lot more help learning how to calm themselves down. “Self-soothing” is not a skill they are born with, and it’s one that may take longer to develop. In the meantime, they may need a lot more active help from you.
When they’re infants, this may mean getting to them before they are “hysterical.” Children can learn self-regulation when distress is manageable. This means that we don’t over-challenge or under-challenge them. With tolerable amounts of frustration, children can learn to manage it.
Intense children, on the other hand, can go from zero to sixty very quickly, so distress gets unmanageable fast. Getting to them quickly doesn’t mean that you are “rescuing” them or preventing them from self-soothing. You are helping them manage feelings that are overwhelming. When they’re infants, this may mean providing more active soothing than advice may recommend.
Helping children regulate also means helping keep distress manageable. It doesn’t mean eliminating distress altogether. It means stepping in when it goes past what the child can handle on their own. Once they’re old enough, parents can also help children learn their triggers, as well as what helps them feel better. Skills like these can have lifelong benefits.
Intense children also need parents who know how to self-regulate. It’s not a bad idea to ask yourself about your own temperament. How well do you know how to calm down? Temperament apples often don’t fall far from the tree. Learning how to emotionally regulate can sometimes be a family project.
Challenge: Stubbornness/Strong willed
Secret Superpower: Persistence.
Parenting hack: Choose your battles but fight the ones you choose.
Persistence is hard-wired and not likely to change much (and really, who doesn’t want a persistent college student or young adult?). However, that doesn’t mean you have to give in all the time. It’s okay to let some things go. But, when you decide that a behavior needs to change (e.g. two books at bedtime, not six), really set your mind to it and don’t waver. It’s often the wiggle-room in decisions or rules that throws these perceptive/intense kids off. Be strong, supportive, and über consistent.
You will also have to budget for pushback. There’s really no way to sneak up on these superpower kids. They will notice and they will not like the change in routine. If you expect pushback, you can see it as a temporary phase of change, rather than a potential sign than you’ve made a bad choice. When I work on sleep with parents, I budget for a few days when the child will be frustrated, lost, confused, and kind of furious. But when parents can be crazy consistent, these little firecrackers pick up on the new way and they settle in.
Challenge: Absolutely will not sleep
Secret Superpower Part 1: Sensory sensitivity
Parenting hack: Reduce the input
Sensory sensitivity has been found to be one of the best predictors of sleep problems. Getting ready for sleep is, in fact, filled with sensory experiences. Textures, sounds, temperature, etc. Intense/alert children almost always have low sensory thresholds, meaning it takes less to overstimulate or bother them. As a result, the very things we do as parents to help our child to sleep may actually work against us. Work on reducing the amount of everything you are doing. Some parents even go so far as to only do one thing at a time: sing OR pat, make eye contact OR talk. Also observe what helps your child wind down. Does a bath calm them down? Or rev them up? Does a book cause them to be more engaged? If so, switch to a music or visualization recording. Do they need more wind-down time before bed? Dimming the lights and/or speaking more quietly may help them transition into the sleep-ready zone.
Secret Superpower Part 2: Super strong second wind
Parenting hack: Solid naps, consistent limited routine, and early bedtime
Spirited/intense children also have terrible “sleepy signals.” They may not yawn and conk out like other children when they’ve had too much. These children tend to go the opposite direction into “wired.” Be a good observer of your child so that you can get ahead of the wired zone. Make sure they have good naps and an early bedtime. If they’re “up” until 9pm at night because they “don’t seem sleepy,” you’ve missed their window and you’re into second wind zone. Don’t wait for them to “look sleepy” because they never, ever will.
Children with these “extra” kinds of temperament qualities are curveballs for parents. You zig and expect them to zig, too…but they zag every time. Understanding why they do this can help parents support the amazing aspects of the superpowers these kids have, while helping them learn the skills they will need to be superhero adults…like their parents.