Highly Sensitive Children and Events
With 4th of July fireworks and activities coming up we wanted to take a moment to explore the best ways to handle large festivities when you have a child who is hypersensitive to stimulation. To glean some insight and helpful tips we spoke with renowned child development and behavior specialist Betsy Brown Braun about the ways in which parents can help to prepare and empower a child who is hypersensitive.
-Julia Storm, Director of Production, The Mother Company
First tell us a little bit about what a hypersensitive child looks like?
There are different kinds of hypersensitivity. There’s the garden variety hypersensitive kid who is just plain old sensitive, otherwise known as “slow to warm up” kind of kids. Some kids take a little more time to get used to all things, so anything new or unfamiliar will take some time. That is not at all an uncommon thing.
Often parents of kids who are slow to warm up don’t understand it, and they think just pushing a kid to be comfortable or to get involved or to try something is all it takes. But, when you’re a slow to warm up sort of kid, all of your senses are heightened and all of your energy goes into protecting yourself. You protect yourself when you’re busy being on the watch. Anything that could be intrusive is going to be difficult.
Another kind of child is hypersensitive – using the real meaning of the word – sensitive, as in senses. We know that there are kids who have a diagnosed sensory issue, otherwise known as Sensory Integration Dysfunction.
Sensory Integration Dysfunction has to do with the way your body monitors, processes and integrates the information through various senses through which we get all of our information. We don’t learn anything, except through our senses. We don’t take anything in, except through our senses. There are some children and adults who are hypersensitive, in other words they’re getting too much information, and they can’t manage it all.
In the case of say, 4th of July which is coming up, can you give me some tips? What can we do for our kids who are slow to warm up or are sensitive to prepare them? Or should we not even keep them up for the fireworks?
The great majority of two and three year olds do not like fireworks. The same way that they don’t like Mickey Mouse in person. It’s fine on television when there’s a distance from it. So taking them to a place where it’s loud and big, that’s a whole different experience than watching where they are far away and it’s a beautiful display and it’s a “pop” instead of a giant “crash-bang!”
There are some parents who are going to say, “Oh he’ll be fine; he loves it.” And in point of fact, he may, but there are others who won’t. I always err on the side of “won’t.” I would rather have those children see pictures of fireworks or see them on an ipad first before experiencing them.
For kids who are hyper sensitive to noise, hearing the “pop” of a firecracker is like hearing thunder. It’s really loud whether or not it startles. My suggestion would be to manage the situation. You can say “Here comes another one, cover your ears really tightly.” So you’re giving your child a way to manage it. Being able to manage something, to DO something, is the key at being able to tolerate it.
Can you talk a little bit more about that? How we can work with our kids to prepare them?
If you can prepare your child for what’s about to come with an example it is much better than just talking. For 4th of July, I would look for a Youtube clip of fireworks and I would have the child look as I say, “This is what it’s going look like. There are bright colors and sparkles that come in different colors. Sometimes they make a loud ‘Pop!’ and sometimes they make a loud ‘Crash!’ and the colors are always going to be beautiful but sometimes the sound will be too loud and we need to cover our ears so it doesn’t bother us.” This is if you have a kid who startles easily.
But what about the kid who can’t manage a big crowd or doesn’t like confusion or you’re bringing your kid to your holiday party and there’s not going to be anybody there that you know, a new situation- or a birthday party? You always prepare the child. The first thing you say when you describe what will happen is, “You and I..” (e.g. “Stevie and Mommy are going..”) so he knows that you are going to be there with him. And he’s not going to be all by himself.
The second thing you do is describe what you’re going to do. “We’re going to go to this party, there are going to be a lot of kids and a lot of grown ups. I know that sometimes it takes you a little time to get comfortable before you want to try something so you can stand by my side if you want, and when you feel ready you can go play with the kids. I’m not going to hold you on my lap but I will be close” etc. Tell him exactly what is going to happen at the birthday party.
So you anticipate. You let your child know what’s about to happen.
You say what he can do before you say what he can’t do, to anticipate what it’s going to be. That really helps him know what to expect. Timing is important – I wouldn’t say it two hours before (the event) I would say it in the car on the way.
Why is that?
(Telling a child too early ) gives him more of a chance of saying “No I’m not going.”
In summation, what we’re doing to help our child in new and sensitive situations:
- Validating for the child – “I know it takes you time to get comfortable.”
- Confirming that we’re not going to leave.
- Giving him a picture of what it’s going to be like.
- After you’ve left, go back over it and talk about it. “You were worried about going but we went and you stood by my side and then you were comfortable and played with the kids. It took you a little time but you did it, you must be so proud of yourself..”
Betsy Brown Braun, best selling author of Just Tell Me What to Say: Sensible Tips and Scripts for Perplexed Parents (HarperCollins) and You’re Not The Boss Of Me: Bratproofing Your Four To Twelve Year Old (HarperCollins), Best Hybrid Bikes Under 500 is a child development and behavior specialist, parent educator, multiple birth parenting consultant, and founder of Parenting Pathways®, Inc.
The Mother Company aims to support parents and their children, providing thought-provoking web content and products based in social and emotional learning for children ages 3-6. Check out episodes of our “Ruby’s Studio” children’s video series, along with our beautiful children’s books, apps, music, handmade dolls, and more.
Originally published June 29, 2016Posted in: Expert Advice, Emotions, Health & Wellness, Special Needs