Author – Judith Locke ©
Dr Judith Locke is a Clinical Psychologist and child wellbeing specialist who presents sessions for parents and teachers at schools around Australia, New Zealand and internationally. For more of Judith’s work read her parenting books, The Bonsai Child or The Bonsai Student. Buy the Chinese translation of the book at China Books or DangDang. You can also follow her Facebook page Confident and Capable.
‘Sensitive’ is a word I hear often as a clinical psychologist. It typically describes children more impacted by change or events not going the way they would prefer. Often, they become highly emotional to unpredictable or uncertain outcomes and seek their parents’ presence to comfort them or change things to make it more pleasant for them again.
In my experience, I have found there are three types of children who are often tagged with the ‘sensitive’ label.
1. Timid children. These children are usually the classic ‘shy’ child who lack confidence and express doubt about their skill. They often push back into their parents, rather than run toward a new activity. Timid children often seek reassurance from their parents about new things and often need to be coaxed into activities that are out of their comfort zone, or might prefer to keep their parents nearby.
The trouble is, many parents of shy children allow them to avoid uncomfortable, new situations and this sets up a cycle of being over-protected, not getting the opportunity to face and develop from challenge, and then being even less capable to face the next task. Despite good intentions, this makes their shyness much worse over the years.
2. ‘The directors’. Directors like to be in charge of the environment. They often appear to lack confidence in facing things, but typically it’s things that they don’t want to do or activities in which they won’t feel in control. So, their reluctance is more about what they want to do, rather than what they think they can handle. Directors tend to get a little angrier and louder about things not being the way they want, much more than their shy peers.
Director’s sensitivity is typically based on a belief that they can’t cope unless things are done ‘their way’. They often have a way of expressing reluctance which sounds like they’re anxious, but it is more to do with the expectation that they need to direct the action.
For an easy life, and to cater to traits they might label as anxiety, many parents give in and let the child dictate the terms to make them happy. Unfortunately, over time, the more often children are in charge, the stronger their belief is that they need to get their way, and that’s the only situation they can cope with. Often their enraged behaviour then becomes worse.
3. ‘Timid directors’. As the name implies, timid directors are a combination of the first two types of sensitive child, and they might show the different traits at different times. One moment they might be needing cuddles and care, the next moment they might turn into a Godzilla, storming around, trying to tell everyone what to do, who can look at them, and which parent must put them to bed. Over time, often their timidity recedes and the whole family can start to be on tenterhooks and trying to appease the director they live with.
The great challenge about ‘directors’ or ‘timid directors’ is that the misunderstanding of everything as being anxiety means that when parents present to me, they often only discuss the child’s anxiety as being the main problem. Worse still, if the child is the only one to receive therapy for shyness, then their behavioural issues are unlikely to be addressed at all.
The solution for all of these types of sensitivity lies in slowly encouraging the child to face things they aren’t comfortable with – such as doing unfamiliar things that require a bit of confidence or coping with situations where they follow rather than lead. The more they do, the more they think they can do, and the more varied their life will become. Also, good therapeutic assistance will help, and there’re some tips below.
Takeaway for parents
Try to increase what your child can face but get good therapy if you make no progress.
- Make sure you make contact with the psychologist first and explain all of the behaviours your child is exhibiting rather than being selective. You’re not betraying your child to tell the truth; you’re doing your best to get your family the right treatment.
- Most times, particularly for children under 12, parents should be the main recipients of therapy to coach their child, particularly for behavioural issues.
- For older children, make sure parents also get guidelines about what they should do to supplement the child’s treatment.
Wellbeing Coordinator / Registered Psychologist