How to help your empathic and highly sensitive children
This post is a detour from some of the health topics I usually write about. But after all, I’m a mom to a super sweet empathic child who seemed born wide awake, and my Education degree landed me in classrooms, after school programs, nurseries, and working as a tutor and nanny many years ago. I have seen that there are tons of children out there who are highly empathic or highly sensitive but the adults in their lives have not recognized this because the emotional element (right brain) gets downplayed in the educational system and in society in general, in favor of intellectual intelligence (left brain). These kids may get ignored, learn to please people at their own expense, get quiet, suffer in silence, be unnecessarily medicated, or be treated as a problem or inconvenience.
I realized I wanted to share information about how to help these kids one night as I tucked my daughter into bed. She started crying and said she had watched her good girl friend get spanked and yelled at while at their house. This didn’t surprise me because I had sensed a lot of anger and frustration in this household and had seen the disconnect, impossible standards, and degrading myself firsthand before. This had happened a while back but it suddenly came rushing to the surface for my daughter. She didn’t understand why her friend was treated like this by her own mother and was sad for her. I gently explained that this happens to a lot of kids but I choose not to do that to her because I had experienced it as a kid and it made me sad too. Then she cried for my childhood.
Empathic children carry a secret burden that many adults are unaware of. These kids are already wise yet are often unable to communicate this natural wisdom and talk about what they have witnessed and experienced because they either haven’t been encouraged to, didn’t know to, or have flat out been discouraged from doing so. In order to help them individuate and become the happiest version of themselves, we have to support who they already are, not ask them to become something we want them to be. Who they are is already there. Imposing our own ego onto empathic children can cause a great deal of damage and some never get over it.
(By the way, this information applies to adults as well. Adults just become conditioned to deal with the lack of these things, which can lead to health problems, while children subconsciously internalize it all.)
How to help your empathic and highly sensitive children:
- Don’t lie to them. Empaths will see right through your lies and lose respect and trust. It will also generate a good deal of cognitive dissonance as they expect the best from the adults in their lives but will experience forms of existential crisis (yes, even kids) when their caregivers don’t meet their high standards. This gives way to frustration, anger, and resentment in the form of bad attitudes and behavioral problems.
- Allow them to make their own decisions. Granted, kids need their parents to guide and lead them, but empathic kids need the freedom and trust from adults to make decisions on their own. Give them the freedom to make choices for themselves, even in small ways, such as how they dress, what they want to eat at a given meal, which activities they will engage in, etc. They learn by doing. Preventing them from doing/learning will cause great frustration and boredom.
- Don’t use power plays. These kids don’t care how many letters you have after your name or your role as an authority figure. They will only trust you if you deserve it in their eyes — if you make truly healthy and righteous decisions. Possessing power means nothing if you don’t deserve the power to begin with. “Do what I say because I’m older/your parent” won’t work with these kids and they’ll resent you for it and become frustrated.
- Tell them the truth. Of course, I have already said don’t lie to them, but telling the truth is slightly different than just the inverse of not lying. Telling them the truth means finding gentle, age-appropriate ways to explain the reality of life to them so they can understand the nature of reality. These kids are old souls who naturally question everything, even if they don’t express it. They observe and judge based on what they see. Giving them a false version of reality will set off internal triggers which will have them questioning if they can truly trust you. If they decide they can’t, they can experience existential crisis which causes tantrums. This doesn’t mean you communicate harsh adult realities; it means you find a sensible, abbreviated way to help them see what life is.
- Come to their rescue. These kids have the expectation that their parents or close adults will have their back. If they have a need they cannot meet themselves, they will expect you to meet it. They may not express this (or know how to) but they do expect you to intuit it. We have to learn to read them well. Not meeting the need will break their trust and you could lose their respect which leads to emotional outbursts.
- Treat them as an equal. I’ve already said don’t use power plays with these kids, but you also want to come down to their level. While yes, you are an adult who has had many more life experiences and possesses more knowledge of the world, you can’t hold this over their head. They know they are young yet they are already wise, and their age often puts them at a disadvantage in society despite their natural wisdom which is frustrating to them. Reminding them of their age while overlooking their inherent wisdom is perceived as condescension and will cause anger or frustration. Most of these kids just want to be adults already so no one can use their age against them.
- Explain your reasoning. When you make a decision that they don’t like or when you have to tell them no, don’t give the old “because I said so” answer. They genuinely want to understand what led you to that decision so they can feel included and so they can understand what the decision making process looks like. This helps with synapse formation — connecting the dots, rather than getting stonewalled.
- Admit when you are wrong. They need to know that you are human too and sometimes make mistakes. Empathic children will understand if you genuinely apologize and explain that you sometimes mess up too. They will appreciate this much more than any facade of perfection.
- Give them time and space. These kids need time and freedom to process and feel what is happening to or around them. They need to feel to think, not just use intellectual predictions about what to do. Rushing them will lead to outbursts because they feel pressured.
- Affirm their experiences. They likely have their own unique perspective on life. They may already feel different inside and try to hide this. Allow them to share freely and when they do affirm what is right or guide them into further questioning and direction if their perception is off. They need to feel someone else gets it and understands without being flat out told they are wrong (which will make them feel ashamed).
- Show you trust them. When they make their own decisions, don’t overreact if you anticipate something will go wrong, or if it does. Of course, as parents we still have to look out for their safety and well being, but when it comes to the small things, allow them to learn the natural cause and effect of their actions without chastising them when something goes awry. Water spills, paint gets on clothes, the eyes are bigger than the stomach, etc etc. Unless it’s a deal breaker for you, help show them the cause and effect without punishment. Ask them questions to lead them to the truth: “What do you think will happen if you do it this way?”, “Do you remember what happened when you did that last time?”. Help them anticipate the best course of action to take in advance. This will also give them courage to learn their life lessons rather than avoid them in the future.
- Never publicly shame them. If they need correcting, do it in private ideally. Correcting or chastising them in front of adults or other kids will make them feel ashamed and alone. They need grace within their learning processes and publicly outing them as being “bad” or “wrong” will cause resentment and self-doubt.
- Protect them from difficult stimuli. Violence, fighting, abuse, and energetic tension are soul suckers for these children. They expect adults to right the wrongs and protect them. They expect you to do the right thing to remedy the situation. This could mean in the environment with other adults, or it could simply mean turning off the evening news when they walk in the door so they don’t have to be exposed to difficult scenarios.
- Create a peaceful environment. See above. This means actively working to create peace and harmony in their home life, school, and other communities. It means having the hard conversations, getting to the root of things, not overlooking the problems. If you love them, you will break the karma, so they subconsciously feel.
- Give them a say. Ask them their opinion and take it seriously. They feel if you love them, you will want to know what will make them happy. This doesn’t mean letting them eat candy for dinner. It means giving them a voice in big changes in their lives and seriously taking it into consideration because what is good for one is good for the whole. If you care, you will ask and take it seriously they feel.
- Don’t punish, remind and question. When and if they make a poor decision, don’t use punitive punishment with these kids. That is a major trust breaker. Remind them of the times they made good decisions, the outcome of those positive choices, and who they are when they are at their best. They know they are here to learn and punishing them while they are learning will prevent them from wanting to learn in the future. If you remind and question instead of punishing as they learn, they will likely take it seriously and change their behavior to avoid disappointing you or themselves.
- Treat them like they’re magical. Look them in the eye, listen intently, tell them they’re special, remind them how good they are at what they’re doing, etc. It doesn’t mean telling them they’re the most special, the best, the prettiest, the brightest. It means telling them they are great and wonderful as they are — and so are others. There is enough to go around and withholding this kind of affirmation because you don’t want to build up their ego “too much” or make them feel they are better than someone else will leave them seeking such validation the rest of their lives. They need their uniqueness recognized. They need it from you.
Raising these kids and learning new parenting behaviors from what was done to you is sometimes challenging. After a while, it becomes second nature. It sets them up for a healthy confidence, attachment level, and ability to go forward learning their life lessons and exploring the world with bravery instead of fear.
If you are empathic yourself, it is very likely you also have an empathic child. Use these tools as a guide to help create a harmonious, happy, healthy kid who thrives in your environment. You may find you begin to thrive as well.