8 Discipline Strategies for Parenting a Sensitive Child

Discipline is an important element in raising healthy children. Yet, for parents of sensitive children, it's not uncommon to struggle with properly disciplining them—especially because they feel things more acutely than other children.

The first step is recognizing that there's nothing wrong with being sensitive. In fact, a sensitive child can be one of the kindest, most compassionate kids you'll ever meet. But, raising a sensitive child can pose some parenting challenges, especially when it comes to discipline.

Mom being affectionate with sensitive young son
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Understanding Sensitive Kids 

Emotionally sensitive kids become overwhelmed easily. They cry often, worry about getting into trouble frequently, and require a great deal of reassurance. They also feel every emotion intensely. That means they're likely to become overexcited, extra angry, and super scared.

Some sensitive children aren’t just emotionally sensitive, but they’re also sensitive to anything physical that triggers their senses. Loud noises, bright lights, or certain textures can send them into a tailspin. They might fear large crowds and struggle to deal with any type of change.

Consequently, sensitive kids are hesitant to try new things and they struggle to deal with frustration. And their peer interactions may suffer when other kids start referring to them as “the kid who cries a lot” or “the kid who gets mad easily.”

While strict discipline may help some kids adjust their behavior, harsh punishments are likely to cause more problems with sensitive kids. As a result, it's important to find ways to nurture and guide sensitive kids who may struggle to thrive in a less than sensitive world. The following discipline strategies will help you provide the discipline your sensitive child needs.

1

Accept Their Sensitivity

If your child is sensitive, don’t try to change their temperament. Instead of viewing your child as "wimpy and whiny," emphasize their strengths and gifts. Acknowledge how something that might be easy for one child, can be quite difficult for a sensitive child.

So, rather than discourage children from experiencing big feelings, focus on teaching them to deal with their emotions in a socially appropriate manner. When you're feeling frustrated, and wish that your child were less sensitive, keep in mind that it's this same sensitivity which often leads them to be extremely compassionate and kind to others.

2

Provide Downtime

Sensitive kids can become overstimulated by large crowds, bright lights, and chaotic environments. So, it's important to avoid overscheduling your child. Limit extracurricular activities and provide plenty of downtime at home where your sensitive child feels safe and can unwind.

You also can create a “peace corner” at home with quiet activities such as coloring books, headphones with soothing music, or books to read. Encourage sensitive kids to use the peace corner when they're feeling overwhelmed.

A little downtime can be key to helping a sensitive kids recharge their batteries.

3

Set Limits

Although it might be tempting to bend the rules to avoid upsetting a sensitive child, constant exceptions won’t be helpful in the long run. Avoid overlooking behaviors that would you would discipline another child for simply to maintain peace.

While it's important to be flexible, don't forget that discipline helps teach kids how to become responsible adults. If your discipline is too relaxed, they won’t be prepared to deal with the real world.

When you skip discipline, this also denies a sensitive child the opportunity to learn and grow by experiencing the consequences of their actions, which is essential to healthy development. So, be sure you still discipline your child for breaking the rules. Just try to be softer in your approach.

4

Praise Their Efforts

Sensitive kids need plenty of encouragement. Praise your child’s efforts, even when they're not successful. Just be sure your praise is earned. Children who are praised no matter what they do often have lower self-esteem than those who are praised more intermittently.

Likewise, praising your child for doing things another child would be expected to do can give them the opposite impression of what you intend—as if you're surprised they can do something others their age do routinely. The point is to praise a child's efforts rather than the results of those efforts.

An example of praising efforts rather than results would be to say, “I like the way you kept trying hard when you were struggling with your math.” Make it clear that hard work and effort is worthy of praise, even if it doesn’t turn out perfect in the end.

It's especially important to provide praise when your child tells the truth.

Sensitive children tend to lie to get out of trouble. So it's important to praise a child for being honest, especially if being honest doesn’t paint them favorably.

Also remember, sensitive children are often very compassionate and kind. Praise sensitive kids when they recognize the feelings of others. This reinforces the idea that being kind to others is important and encourages them to continue thinking of others.

5

Provide Rewards

Sensitive kids sometimes feel bad if they “get in trouble." Simply changing the way you word things can spin it into a reward. Instead of saying, “You can’t eat dessert unless you eat all your dinner,” say, “If you eat all your dinner you can earn dessert!”

Creating a formal reward system also helps kids celebrate milestones and change their behavior. Just remember sensitive kids may feel really bad if they don't earn a reward sometimes.

Offer helpful reminders like, “You can try again tomorrow.” If you're living with a sensitive child, take time to think of different ways you can word what you are saying so that you aren't making things worse.

6

Teach Feeling Words

Sensitive kids need to learn how to verbalize their feelings and they need to learn appropriate ways to cope with those feelings. Use emotion coaching to teach your child how to identify and deal with uncomfortable feelings in socially acceptable ways.

Sensitive children often show parents how they feel with their behaviors. Teach kids how to identify their feelings with words. Having a name to associate with how they're feeling will help them communicate better with you, while allowing you to better understand what they're feeling.

7

Teach Problem-Solving

Sensitive kids often feel overwhelmed by situations and may be left not knowing how to respond. In these situations, it's important for them to know how to come up with solutions that can relieve their stress and anxiety. So, it's important for parents to teach them how to engage in problem-solving.

Having problem-solving skills can make a big difference in a sensitive child's daily life. Teach your kids step-by-step instructions for tackling problems and they'll gain confidence in their ability to handle uncomfortable situations.

8

Use Logical Consequences

Sensitive kids need negative consequences just like every other child. Just because a child cries or feels bad, doesn’t mean they should escape other consequences. So, make sure you are implementing consequences when your child breaks the rules.

Using logical consequences will help your child learn valuable life lessons.

Just make sure the consequences you offer focus on discipline, rather than punishment. Also, be sure that you are gentle in handing down the consequences. You don't have to use a loud voice with your sensitive child for them to get the message.

A Word From Verywell

Knowing how to best discipline a highly sensitive child can be challenging. In fact, some parents may avoid discipline in an effort to reduce their child's pain and behaviors related to that pain.

Yet, we know that discipline is important, and in fact critical, in helping our children someday face the outside world as an adult. The strategies above help children gain the benefits of thoughtful discipline while sparing them some of the emotional anguish inherent with a highly sensitive child.

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  1. Pluess M, Assary E, Lionetti F, et al. Environmental sensitivity in children: Development of the highly sensitive child scale and identification of sensitivity groups. Dev Psychol. 2018;54(1):51-70. doi:10.1037/dev0000406

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