Disciplining The Sensitive Child

I have two children, a four-year-old boy and a two-year-old girl. They have vastly different personalities, and I’ve had to tailor my parenting to address those differences. My son is energetic, independent and fearless, he is a picky eater, and even as a young baby, he didn’t sleep a lot. My daughter is more reserved and cautious, she sleeps and eats well, and she’s quieter.

The differences between them are most apparent when it comes to discipline.

When my son was two, a timeout was effective form of discipline for him. He’s the kind of kid you needed to physically pull away from sticking his fingers in the electrical socket because he wouldn’t listen any other way. A timeout is still a part of my discipline repertoire for him, and part of the reason it is such a punishment is because he has to stop playing, leave his toys and be by himself sitting on his bed. 99% of the time, he comes out a few minutes later, all apologetic and hugs me and says he won’t do whatever it was he did. Now that he is four, disciplining him continues to be a more “hands-on” approach. We don’t spank our children, but I do have to take his hands, and have him look me in the face, so I have his full attention.

With my daughter, all I have to usually do is look at her and shake my head and she stops whatever it is. Furthermore, I rarely have to correct her for the same thing more than once or twice. She’s the kind of child who needs a reminder before someone is getting ready to leave. She doesn’t handle abruptness well, and she doesn’t handle separation well unless she’s been prepared. So sticking her in a time out, by herself, is more damaging to her. Raising my voice isn’t an option either, because it startles her and she cries. Discipline shouldn’t be traumatic, it should be fair and gentle and respectful.

For my sensitive child, some tactics that have worked are:

Redirection: Since she is only two, sometimes it’s not worth it to battle over every little thing. Quite often, distracting her with a toy or a sticker is an easy way to end the tantrum. This is particularly effective when she is doing something like trying to pet our grouchy cat or when she’s frustrated.

Time Out (On My Lap): As I mentioned, a time out, alone in her room, is too harsh of a punishment for her, but removing her from the situation and giving her a few minutes of sitting quietly on my lap has worked wonders.

Acknowledge The Validity Of Her Feelings: It’s hard to be two and not have the language skills to adequately express emotions. So while it can be hard for me to listen to her cry or scream or whine, it’s helpful for me to remember that sometimes I feel like crying and screaming too. I just don’t, because I’m an adult, and my daughter’s reaction to frustrating circumstances is completely age appropriate.

Ignore The Noise: I’m a mom, but I’ve also spent the last 15 years working with dogs. So I’m very good at tuning out annoying noise. And when applied to my children, I’ve learned that I don’t need to step in every time. If my children are having a disagreement over a toy, sometimes I stand back and let them try to work it out themselves.  If my daughter is screeching because she wants a cup of milk, I simply say, “I need you to talk nicer, I can’t understand screaming,” and then ignore her until she calms down.

Making sure that my methods of discipline are appropriate for the personality of my children has worked wonderfully, and our home is much more peaceful.

Do you have a sensitive child? What method of discipline have you found effective?

14 thoughts on “Disciplining The Sensitive Child”

  1. My 7 yo son is highly sensitive, whereas his younger sister most definitely is not! With my son, a look or a glance has always been the best for of discipline with him. He was honestly never a discipline problem!

    With my daughter, I had to learn completely new tactics! She requires a more hands-on approach and constantly “testing the boundaries” so to speak.

    A book I found extremely helpful with my son is called “The Highly Sensitive Child” by Elise Aron. There is a website at http://www.hsperson.com/pages/child.htm

  2. Very insightful post. We have a 2 1/2 year old boy/girl twins, and we are struggling with this issue right now.

    Both my son and daughter are “free spirits”; my son is a little more sensitive than my daughter. So I get tough on him only when he would not listen at all or when my efforts to redirect him fail.

    I am realizing that having them stop and look me in the eye and asking them what is wrong works well when they are throwing a tantrum. If it is a small thing, I don’t sweat over it. But if it involves their safety, I have to pull them back and move them to a different place. We rarely use time out as a punishment. I think acknowledging their feelings, constant encouragement and negotiation is the first line of defense. Of course it takes a lot of energy from us!


  3. My son is also very sensitive. A time out would break his heart. So often for us, discipline involves realizing what circumstances are triggering certain behaviors in our son. We recently were having issues because he kept wanting to crawl out of bed after we’d gone through the whole bedtime routine. He was asking to go downstairs for yogurt or to read more stories or just wanting to get up and run. I realized that though I was feeling impatient and looking at the clock, he was enjoying the time with mom and dad giving him their undivided attention. And he can’t tell time. So, as with many of the issues we’ve noticed with him, I realized we needed to talk through transitions and explain what was going to happen ahead of time. So, for the last few days, I have explained that once we go upstairs we don’t go back down for any more food, so he needs to be sure he’s done eating before bedtime. Then, even though he doesn’t know how to count, I explain that we’re going to read three books, then he’ll have some milk, then go to sleep. After each book, I remind him we only have two or one left to go, then milk, then sleep. He gets it. He’s stopped fighting bedtime because he actually knows what the plan is.

    My favorite discipline book is Playful Parenting by Lawrence Cohen. He offers many strategies for parenting that is respectful of children and discipline that is both gentle and positive, including time-ins, a practice I hadn’t heard about before reading his book.

    1. I use time in as well! I was so happy to see an article called The Case Against Time-out. It really helped me with me active, but also sensitive little boy.

  4. My 5 1/2 year old daughter is highly sensitive and it is to where she is still emotionally and socially 2 1/2 which is hard to deal with. I have 3 other children who are so completly different from her. I have a hard time dealing with her because she is so smart and so whiney and unable to cope with things. It seems as though anything that i do for her does not work and i am at a lose about what to do.

  5. My 3 yr old girl is very sensitive to noise and whiney and has a hard time coping, but like Danielle’s girl, my girl is SMART. Learning AP ways has helped ALOT! I’m still learning though…
    Danielle, I hope you find some help. I know how frustrating it can be! Hang in there!

  6. My daughter is 2, and I’ve found that, for her, time outs are mostly useless, since she happily finds something fun to do and doesn’t realize it’s a punishment. When we do time outs now, it’s mostly for severe actions, such as hitting or pushing, and I carry her away, sometimes going home, if the behavior has been admonished already that visit.
    For her tantrums, I tell her that I understand what she wants, using Karvey Karp’s “Happiest Toddler on the Block” tips, and say that I’m turning off my listening ears until she finds her nice voice/nice words. If she’s more sad than angry, I tell her I understand how she feels by naming her emotion (You’re so sad! Sad sad sad!) and when she calms down, I reiterate what she wanted. If that doesn’t re-upset her (if it does, we go back to the ‘sad sad sad’ part) then I know she’s calm enough to understand when I explain why she can’t have what she wants, or agree that it’s hard to share/wait/not get something/etc.
    I tried something similar when she was angry, but all it did was put words in her mouth. I’d say ‘You’re so mad! Mad mad! You want a cookie! You want a cookie right now! You asked with your nice voice! But it’s dinner time! We can have a cookie after.’ but my little smart ass went from ‘I need a cookie’ to ‘I need a cookie RIGHT NOW!’ She uses my tools against me!
    I also sometimes ask her to use her words to tell me what’s wrong, but in a gentle voice, and let her know I’m listening when she can calm down enough to tell me. It kind of depends on where we are (in public? At home? A friend’s?) or what her episode is (angry because I’m not getting the boobies into bed fast enough? screaming because someone looked at her toy? crying from a minor booboo? sad that her little beetle finally escaped her clutches?)
    We’ve gotten to the point where the few times she DOESN’T flip out in a situation where she normally would, I can praise her, since it’s so rare. “Good job taking turns on the slide! Sometimes other kids get pushy, and I know that upsets you, so next time let him go ahead, or slide faster to get away from him! But you did SO GOOD when you waited for the other kid to move away from the bottom!” (Most any playground toy, if someone else tries to get on it, she either sits there screeching that it’s her turn, or comes crying to me. *sigh.*)

  7. This week I took my son on a guided tour around an old Hunting Lodge. A man dressed up as a tudor woodsman and explained why the building had been built and who for etc… It was really fun, and it was set up for a banquet mostly of meats and fruit (all plastic of course).

    My 8 year old son really didn’t mind having a look around the items, he was intrigued, but as soon as we talked about the huntsmen shooting an arrow at a deer, he burst into tears. He had became distraught at the pain of it. This affected the rest of our day of course. I have a feeling he is considering being a vegetarian so I told him that we will see if he will eat the foods vital to keeping him healthy before we go down that route.

    My son used to have excessive gag reflex but has grown out of this for nearly 2 years now. He was also sensitive to light (confirmed by optician) but I have noticed recently that he doesn’t complain so much.

    I am here today because I am now looking for ways to help him deal with his feelings. I have hope because he is growing out of other senstive areas, but I worry that I am failing him at times, especially when we lose our patience when we can’t understand why he can’t deal with something slightly delicate. He is a wonderful boy, so funny, creative and clever, always looking for approval, especially from me. I wouldn’t want to change him but I do want to help him so that he doesn’t get upset so often.

    I find talking to him lots really helps, sometimes I have to make him look me in the eye if he is avoiding something. He always had the ability to understand and reason from such a young age. I could go on. I find talking about his sensitivity and reading helps me understand him better, but I try not to overprotect him, as this could delay his emotional development further!

  8. It’s great that parents are developing strategies to help their sensitive children. My grandson had great difficulties with transitions He was especially fussy at meal-times, which proved difficult to manage. He also had sensitive skin and often it took a while to get his socks comfortable; he couldn’t bear bumps and lumps of fabric. Over time and with the help of a ‘Sensitive Child,’ book, and regarding his traits as positive rather than negative, my daughter developed strategies to manage this intelligent, delightful child. She also used a marble jar; three each day for good behaviour; lose the lot for really bad days. When the jar was full it could be cashed for a toy. This worked really well.

  9. I realize this is an older post, but does anyone have trouble with their sensitive AP child at school? My 7 year old daughter is extremely well behaved and like the parents of the senstive children above, all it takes is a look or a comment spoken in a regular voice to get her attention. In school she really struggles with teachers disciplining other kids that don’t listen. It’s been like this from preschool to now 2nd grade. The teachers try their best to not raise their voice or punish the entire class when some misbehave, but it’s a recurring conversation that my daugther started crying because the class was lectured or told they couldn’t have free time or whatever due to their behavior. How can I toughen her up!? AP is great at home, but all of her teachers have had the same effect and I hate to say sometimes I wish I was tougher.. even though it wasn’t necessary just to get her ready for “life.” She loves her teachers, but if they get upset she comes home so distraught. Any tips? I remind her that kids that misbehave need consequences and it’s not her concern to worry about them, but it doesn’t work. HELP!

  10. Timeout depends on how you do it. It doesn’t have to be emotional abuse. Ignoring anyone for a long time and not dealing with feelings is part of emotional abuse.

    My son being a bit older now I may suggest to him he needs some space to calm down, or to call his own depending on why he is upset. He understands this and will take himself to where he needs to go.

    In the same manner, if it is me who needs timeout, I will remove myself and walk away to calm down… I don’t think it is abuse, It is giving space to think things over.

    With my niece I always tell her that she needs to sit down and come and see me when she is ready. Then we need to talk things through about why she felt the way she did.

    The problem often with sensitive children is that they need to know Why they felt the way they did, and then you need to empower them to get over it too. Find a way they can get around their problems and move on. If they can’t think about what was wrong on their own and get their thoughts together, then they can’t learn to understand themselves and how to deal with it.

    My son will write things down in lists, but I think this helps anyone whether sensitive or not.

  11. My sensitive son just turned 2, and I have to say I’ve never been in a position where I’ve ever felt he needed ‘punishing’. I always view behaviours that I don’t like as fulfulling some need within him. I find that if he’s ‘acting out’ or bugging me a lot it’s because he’s craving some undivided attention. Working from home, it’s amazing how just spending 10 or 15 minutes with him every hour will have him happy to play by himself the rest of the time. The ‘problem’ lies with my expectations, not his behaviour.

    In saying that, it doesn’t mean he’s allowed to do whatever he wants whenever he wants. But I think most of the negative outcomes I’d prefer to avoid come down to my behaviour anyway – most specifically, my failure to get up off of my butt and stop it before it happens. It’s a luxury at the moment since we only have one child (soon to be 2) but if I get up, go to my son, get down on his level and explain why he shouldn’t do what he’s doing – 9/10 that’s enough. Calling to him from across the room rarely works – but that’s developmentally appropriate. If I can’t be bothered doing what I know works, then how can I get mad/frustrated at my son for not doing the ‘right’ thing? I direct that frustration inwards and learn better for next time, while getting my son to help me clean up the mess and we talk about what happened.

    Also often I will let him make mistakes (as long as the consequences aren’t dangerous) because I find that is the absolute quickest way they learn – for themselves!

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