Q: My 5-year-old is constantly overwhelmed by any disappointment and life's inherent unfairness. I try to walk the line between being sympathetic, being realistic (disappointment will always be there) and teaching her to overcome, but nothing seems to help her. Any advice?
A: Let your 5-year-old know that I feel her pain. As long as humans have walked the Earth, there has been disappointment and unfairness, and we know that despite our big brains and strong will, life happens in ways we never saw coming. Faith, spirituality, therapy, online shopping and social media can all help fill the void for adults, but at the end of it? Disappointment is a certainty for everyone, including children.
How is it that a 5-year-old is overwhelmed by life’s inherent unfairness? I am thinking there could be two options: First, many children are simply born more sensitive than other children. Or second, you may be giving attention to her big reactions to disappointment, growing the very behavior you don’t want to see!
When a child is extra-sensitive, it may mean that she is taking in more sensory information than other people. Now, the brain is able to handle incredible amounts of sensory information, even in young children. Think of what you are doing right now: reading this, perhaps listening to music, smelling a soup cooking, feeling your chair under your legs, tasting the coffee in your mouth. And until I brought it to your attention, you were largely unaware of all of this. Your brain is clicking along, processing all this information in a beautiful and unconscious symphony, and a child’s brain can do the same.
But extra-sensitive children often are taking in more sense information than their brains need, resulting in more-overwhelming emotions. They take in the little stuff (you ran out of ice cream) and the big stuff (your beloved dog dies out of the blue) with seemingly equal weight. This can be confusing to parents, and they can even begin to feel manipulated. You might think, “How can this child think everything is unfair? She’s just crying so I will go get more ice cream.” You may worry that your child won’t be able to cope as she gets older, or that she will stay overwhelmed her whole life. This is all to say that I often find parents of sensitive children to be overwhelmed and disappointed themselves. It is not easy.
But I also mentioned a second reason that your child is constantly overwhelmed by disappointment. Let’s say she is a typical 5-year-old, or even a sensitive child. You may be unknowingly exacerbating the problem by paying special attention to her big feelings. It is common that a normal developmental behavior (disappointment over something average) can grow into a real problem when the parent pays too much attention to it. What started as a normal complaint becomes the way your daughter gets your attention, and this is powerful. If every time she is overwhelmed or disappointed, you are rushing to her with sympathy or trying to solve her problem with logic, your daughter unconsciously learns that this is how to get your attention.
How can we help you and your daughter?
You mentioned that you are trying to walk the line between being sympathetic and realistic (well done), so let me tweak this to see if something else may work a tad better. The difference between sympathy and empathy is small, but it’s important to understand. Sympathy means that you feel sorry for your child, while empathy means that you feel with her. Empathy has you placing yourself in her shoes, rather than in a place of power, outside of her thoughts and feelings. This small shift in definition can have a big effect on how you parent your child. Empathy has you feeling with your child, which means that your body language and tone are more in agreement with what your child is saying. The power of true empathy is that it requires you to say very little. You may want to focus on staying what I call “compassionately silent.” It sounds hokey, but I fill myself with love of my child and try to allow that to come out of me in a hug, in my eyes or in a gentle smile.
When children are worried or overwhelmed, parents jump to say the “right” thing. We want to fix whatever is happening in our child, to take away their pain. And although we have the best intentions, it rarely results in helping our children through their disappointment. This is because, like most feelings, overwhelming emotions and disappointment aren’t based in logic and won’t be “fixed” with problem-solving and reason (at least, not right away). Instead, maintaining a loving presence soothes the child’s nervous system, allows her to experience the fullness of her feelings, and the brain can acclimate to, “Hey, I was worried, but I am safe. I am okay.”
Two last points: I know parents who have had a lot of success with telling stories about when they were little and also were scared, as a way to empathize and connect with their child. Humans, especially children, love stories, and we love to identify with people in stories. So, it is great if your child can feel connected to you because you also know how it feels to be overwhelmed by life, and she can see that you are okay. And, I always encourage parents to focus on what stays the same, even when life feels chaotic and scary. For children who feel overwhelmed, routines are vital to feeling safe, and I would suggest sticking to a schedule as much as you can. And when you can’t? Give the child a heads-up of what is happening and when.
For more information, check out “The Highly Sensitive Child: Helping Our Children Thrive When The World Overwhelms Them,” by Elaine N. Aron.