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How to Discipline the Sensitive Child

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Dr. Meg Meeker

“Maggie, stop!” I yelled 

But she didn’t hear me or pretended not to, so I yelled again. 

“Maggie, stop!!”

She stopped and when I caught up with her, she was sobbing.

Maggie is a sensitive child. And I don’t mean this in the sense that all children are relatively sensitive. I mean that Maggie falls under a unique category of sensitive child.

Truly sensitive children are usually quieter and tend to hang back, rather than throwing themselves into the action. Sensitive children are unlike the strong-willed type of child I often talk about in that they respond when their parents say no, but they easily get their feelings hurt when their parents do so.

Perhaps you have a sensitive child or you know one. Maybe you were one. You know that sensitive children can be difficult to discipline because while they need it, they also strongly react to it, as Maggie did in the parking lot.

Because of this, sensitive children need to be disciplined in a different way.

Watch your tone and volume.

Maggie was sobbing because my yelling hurt her feelings. It didn’t matter that I was yelling for her own safety and ultimately out of my love for her. She just heard yelling. Granted, if your child is running across a parking lot, I don’t recommend quietly telling her to stop, but in other situations, yelling should not be used with sensitive children. It’s overwhelming for them in a way that it is not overwhelming for a strong-willed child.

Watch your tone and your volume whenever you discipline your sensitive child.

Show affection.

After you discipline your child and you and he have calmed down, be sure to return to your child and show him affection. Let him know you weren’t mad. You were just trying to teach him things he can and cannot do. Many sensitive children, especially if you yelled at them, will think you were angrier than you were. Let them know you were just frustrated and you are not mad at them. Sensitive children need resolution after discipline.  

 

Use positive touch. 

Sensitive children respond well when you get down on their level when you need to discipline them. Gently hold their shoulders while telling them “no” or touch their arm. Do not grab them or spank them.

 

Choose one thing to discipline at a time.

Even if your child is exhibiting multiple behavioral problems, don’t discipline her for all of them at once. Choose one behavior to focus on at a time. For example, if your child isn’t listening, tell her, “You must listen to me. When you don’t, you will get a time out.” Instead of: “When you don’t listen, don’t do your chores, or are disrespectful toward me, you will get in trouble.” This is overwhelming for a sensitive child. Whenever you’re disciplining, discipline for one thing.

When I saw that Maggie was sobbing in the parking lot, I bent down to her level and told her, “Honey, what you did was dangerous. When we’re in parking lots, you know we have to hold hands.”

She continued crying for a little bit then said, “But Mimi, there’s something I want to show you and just couldn’t wait.”

I felt terrible. She was so excited to show me something, and I had wrecked her enthusiasm. But of course, I had to in order to keep her safe. I scooped her up and gave her a big hug. Then I said, “You know I’m not mad at you. I just want to keep you safe. That’s why I yelled at you.”

I spent the next 10 minutes putting the running behind us and enthusiastically looked at her surprise.

Sensitive children can be disciplined well when their sensitive needs are heeded. Watch your tone, get on their level, and be gentler than you might feel like being in the moment. Your sensitive child will respond to your discipline if you do it in this way, and he will feel loved in the process.

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