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How do you Deal with the Super-Sensitive Child?

Ever since he was a baby, Gavin has been a very sensitive boy. If ever I thought it was my fault, my nurturing that brought about his extreme sensitivity, having Gareth has taught me that perhaps more of this behaviour might be innate that I had previously believed.

For instance, when Gavin was a baby, going out was a nightmare because getting him into a carseat was tough. It took so much preparation and perfect coordination to make sure a trip out went smoothly that I rarely planned play dates for fear that something might go wrong. Going out with baby Gavin meant ensuring that he was in the car within the first two hours of waking up in the morning. If we missed that window, then going out was out of the question. I had to make sure the car was loaded with “things” to distract him and I always had to have one secret weapon up my sleeve for the ultra-mega emergency. Going out with Gavin also meant we could only go to one place and come straight home without any detours.

Taking Gavin out was like perpetually walking on eggshells. You could say I was over-anticipating but if I didn’t, and if he started to cry, it was game over. When Gavin cried, he would work himself up into a tantrum storm that would continue until he threw up over himself and then howl even more because he was upset by the vomitus. This was the scenario every single time I failed to keep him calm in the car seat – I kid you not.

Now that Gavin is older, it is a lot easier, but when Gareth was born, I had major flashbacks of Gavin in the carseat and I felt sick with dread about having to cope with it now that I had an older child to take care of as well. Thankfully, Gareth gave me no such grief – or at least, he was so much easier to handle in the car seat. Gareth didn’t mind if I placated him with a toy he had seen before. Even if Gareth cried about having to sit in the car seat, he usually calmed himself down quickly after that and he has only ever threw up on himself once from crying and that was because he was sick that day.

Gavin cries over the smallest paper cut and makes mountains out of molehills. Once he gets started, it can go on and on until you feel like rolling your eyes upwards and wondering when it’s all going to stop. Gareth, on the other hand, is tough as nails. He takes all his bumps and bruises, cuts and scrapes, and being sick like a real trooper. He fusses minimally and only really gets cranky when he’s tired.

Although Gavin is possibly overly sensitive about everything, I have noticed that his sensitivity comes with a big heart that is full of empathy. Even when he was little, he could recognised when someone was upset and he would look like he really wanted to help. Being overly sensitive about many things helped him to be more understanding towards other people’s pain. Gareth, however, is not nearly so understanding. If anything, he appears to lack empathy. He laughs when you’re in pain because he thinks it’s a joke – he’ll bite me and when I yelp in pain, he’ll laugh. Even when I reprimand him for inflicting the pain, he doesn’t look at all remorseful. He doesn’t appear to notice when another child cries. He doesn’t even realise when another child slaps him either. We know he registers pain because he has cried over really painful situations – he just gets over them very quickly.

I’m sure there are many exceptions to this rule, but it would appear that in our situation, Gavin’s sensitivity has led to him being more empathetic, while Gareth being oblivious to pain has meant he is less aware of the pain others feel. There is a positive and negative to every characteristic of our children no matter how “good” or “bad” they might appear. We just need to learn to take them in stride and accept them for what they are.

And yet, I confess I have been troubled by Gavin’s sensitivity especially as he grows older and it does not appear to be abating. Why do I worry? Because he will be going to school and a sensitive boy is a child who will be ragged by his more “macho” peers. There are times when I feel desperate for him to “toughen up” because I don’t want him to end up being a victim at school. This is where I get torn because Gavin is exactly the kind of child I have hoped to raise – one who is sensitive to others and aware of their feelings, one who has the capacity to be kind and caring. If I brush off his pain, I am indirectly telling him that his pain does not matter.

Pain is a subjective feeling. Who are we to decide what is too painful or not very painful at all for someone else? Maybe their nerve endings are just more sensitive to ours – it’s just like how some people have a keener sense of smell than others. So it is right to tell a boy to toughen up and stop whining about his pain just because that is the expected behaviour for boys? It’s okay for girls to cry, but boys who do are “wusses”? Where’s the sense in that? We are so proud of our children who “feel no pain” but I am beginning to wonder about the logic in that.

I’ve realised that I only feel the need for Gavin to “toughen up” because I know what school can be like – children can be cruel. Yes, children can be cruel, but does that mean I have to be harder on my child so that he will be ready for this sort of behaviour at school? What will I be teaching my son with my own behaviour towards him? Monkey see, monkey do. So if we want to instill certain behaviours in our children, we had better be sure we treat them the way we want them to treat others. Besides, if I propagate the idea that you have to be tough at school, isn’t it the same as telling children to bury their pain and pretend it doesn’t exist? For a child like Gareth, it probably means nothing if he doesn’t feel the pain, but for a child like Gavin, it could be very damaging. If our children are hurting we want them to talk about it, not keep silent about it.

Teenage suicides are all about children who are unable to talk about the problems they face. Surely that is not what we want for our children?

What do you think? Do you have a super-sensitive child? How do you deal with it? Do you think your child needs to “toughen up” to face the real world?

Published by Shen-Li

SHEN-LI LEE is the author of “Brainchild: Secrets to Unlocking Your Child’s Potential”. She is also the founder of (a website on parenting, education, child development) and (a website on Right Brain Education, cognitive development, and maximising potentials). In her spare time, she blogs on Forty, Fit & Fed, and Back to Basics.

10 thoughts on “How do you Deal with the Super-Sensitive Child?

  1. This article might be of use to you:

    I thought it was really well-balanced and gets to the heart of the issue, that there is a good kind of “sensitive” and a bad kind, and encourages you to work with the personality of your child while still preparing them for life. From the article:

    “A ‘soft’ child can be as tough as Bermuda grass without being particularly macho or brawny. This inner toughness will make the spirit resilient in adversity. One who is so strengthened in his spirit will not allow obstacles to stop him, or the pounding of public opinion to deter him… It is not a tough exterior that God desires or that people admire; it is a tough spirit, an overcoming spirit, a spirit of service, caring not for the sparse thanks, nor flinching at misunderstanding.”

    Hope this is helpful to you, thanks for your blog.


    1. Thanks Elizabeth. That’s what I aspire to achieve with Gavin – to help him toughen his spirit without trying to force him to be something he clearly is not. I do not feel a need for him to be a “macho” boy, but I do think it is important for him to be strong emotionally. The article was interesting reading but I’m still not sure that I “get” what I’m supposed to do to help him achieve this.

      I know that he does very well when he’s with his uncle who’s a typical bloke. It’s just when I’m around that he starts getting “wussy”. And I wonder again if it is because he is afraid that if he shows himself to be too capable with me, he will not get as much attention as his younger brother? Might it get better once we clear this hurdle? The way his uncle describes him when they are doing their “boy” things, seems to suggest that he should be “tough” enough for the boys.


  2. Vee was very much like Gavin as a baby, cried a lot, very fussy and we must get all his timing right. Now at 2+ years old, he’s still very sensitive to others’ feelings. When his cousin gets scolded and cries, he’d frown and cry a little too. In Shichida class, he’s often more interested in the other kids and adults than the flashcards.

    Yet, he’s physically tough like Gareth, banging everywhere and picking himself up easily.

    Somehow, I just work around his personality and temperament, which I think can’t be changed much?


    1. MieVee – Gavin tends to overreact when he gets “hurt”, but I think he also plays it up because he is desperate for the attention that Gareth is getting just for being a baby. A large part of it now is obscured by the fact that he is going through a difficult phase of his life – dealing with a younger sibling. But I also know that he is generally a sensitive boy. Having grown up largely in Australian schools, I’ve seen boys like him get ragged at school and I do wonder how he will cope in the face of that.

      I can see that his tougher, younger brother may be the one to help him in this respect because he likes to play rough so perhaps it is as his father says – a rite of passage that he will learn to get through.


  3. I had the same experience with my daughter, every excursion can turn into a nightmare (still now and she is two!) but she is also very kind and compassionate. I wonder if it has something to do with birth order, the first child being more sensitive because the parents tend to over-react. I only have one child, so I can’t answer that question…


    1. Abby – your daughter sounds very much like Gavin. I think he only started to get better in the car around about 2.5 years. The improvement was so gradual, I didn’t notice it happening until one day I realised it wasn’t a chore to get him into the car any more.

      I thought Gavin was the way he was because we tended to over-react – him being the first child and all… but now that I have Gareth who is his polar opposite, I realise that personality plays quite a significant role, too. No doubt it probably hasn’t helped that we have been overly cautious with Gavin, given his personality is like this, but I think he is largely this way because that’s who he is. It’s probably also made worse by the fact that his baby brother gets lots of attention because he can’t do things for himself. Someone else also said because he’s four and that it will get better when he’s older… We’ll see.


  4. I can completely relate to your car seat scenario. I have a very sensitive baby girl who is now 10 months and we have had to develop lots of skills with the car seat because she will work herself up so much she will throw up. When she was an infant, she would even cry so hard she would pass out. It was traumatizing for her and for me. We rarely go anywhere without a buddy for her in the car: Grandma, Dad, Nanny, friends. AND she pretty much feels the same way about her stroller too. It’s so sad for me because I would love to take long walks with her but she protests so much it’s not even remotely enjoyable.

    With that said, she is so sweet and snuggly and affectionate. I can tell already that she has a big heart. I wish that we could have peace in the car seat without so many games and having buddies for her. It would be so much easier. It’s funny how many of my friends with non-sensitive children suggest that I let her cry. I just can’t do that — it goes further than crying.

    What kinds of things did you do with Gavin? What were your tactics? Did you notice any changes once you could turn the seat facing forward?


    1. Hi Danielle – I had the same experience. When you’ve never had a sensitive child, it is easy to say just let them cry. I got caught in a traffic jam with Gavin once and there was nowhere for us to stop so he cried and cried and threw up three times. Luckily we were on the way home, but I think I was so traumatised by the experience that it was a while before I took him out alone again.

      For us, facing forwards didn’t make much of a difference for him. He still hated the carseat. I did everything – I bribed him with lollipops, junk food, new toys; I played music, sang songs for the entire journey, gave him my mobile phone to play with. When all failed, I tried to get him to sleep before putting him into the car. Even that was tough because I had to time everything just right. I had to wait ten minutes after he knocked out before I could put him into the carseat without waking him. Then I had to get home before 30 minutes was up because that was about when he’d wake up and if he woke up and found himself in the carseat, he would melt down immediately.

      As he grew older, I modified what I did to help him deal with sitting in the chair. A few things worked really well for us – a old wallet with lots of old cards for him to pull out was great for holding his attention; old CDs in CD cases for him to open and pull out; the carseat steering wheel; and music and audio stories. He was crazy about Thomas and Friends and I would hunt for Thomas music and audio stories for him to listen to in the car.

      When we went out, I didn’t bother with the pram at all. I just used a baby carrier. I found that if I gave him enough “carrying time”, it also helped him accept the carseat a little better. If he had to endure being in the pram, then there was no way he’d take the carseat no matter what tricks I pulled out of my sleeve. Gavin was a very challenging baby and toddler but the good news is that it is a phase that he outgrew so just hang in there and take it one day at a time.


  5. I too have a “sensitive child” so I am told. He was an amazing baby and wasnt too fragile to be honest but was “fussy” as in he wouldnt eat anything with sauce or wet food sludgy stuff but did eat healthy food so I didnt worry. He then progressed to not walking anywhere unless his shoes were tighter than tight… then it was belts had to be tight…a fter years of frustration and shouting/crying/pleading with him and him me we finally grew out of this stage….He is now 10 and his school teacher has advised me that he needs to “toughen up” she said whilst its nice that he is sensitive he is taking comments from other school children to heart and hating school for it. How do I teach him to toughen up when I think he is the most caring nicest polite kid around? He is a great boy who is a good athlete, well rounded but is struggling with the nastiness of school life and boys his age with hormones…??
    I am just supporting him emotionally letting him discuss his issues with me being open with the school and generally trying to keep his personality. I feel that school shouldnt ask him to toughen up. Life is tough but surely we need sensitivity in some people to make it more harmonious?


  6. I actually found your post searching for advice myself. I have two kids; 8 year old girl and 5 year old boy and both are truely highly sensitive children. It really came as no surprise because both my wife and I were and still am very sensitive people. We both dealt with it differently and being a dad I am desperate to save my son from the horrific experiences I went through. I had to deal with it myself as my dad did not care and my mom had too much to deal with. I feel he needs to toughen up and my wife disagrees with my methods which include teaching him to fight and being hard on him when he starts to cry for little things. I just saw my 4 year old nephew who is a brat by the way and extremely rude but much smaller than my son; shove my son over as if he was nothing and with no real response. It is more out of fear of his well being than anything that I wish to toughen him up.
    Which ever way you lean towards, good luck to you because in all honesty it looks like both decisions have positive and negative consequences.


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