• Parenting an Emotionally Sensitive Child | Matis Miller | Episode 206

  • emotionally sensitive children

    Angry outbursts, tears, and difficult behavior can be the hallmark of the teen years. We can also see these behaviors in our emotionally sensitive child as they learn to navigate the flood of emotions that overwhelms them. Matis Miller is an expert in dialectic behavior therapy and the author of The Uncontrollable Child. He uses DBT as a base for helping parents learn how to navigate these difficult situations. He talks to Mighty Parenting podcast host Sandy Fowler about strategies for parenting teens, and particularly those who are emotionally sensitive, in a way that calms the storm and builds a stronger relationship at the same time. Find out how to respond to outbursts and ways to manage discipline and problem solving when your teen acts out or breaks the house rules.

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    A Favorite Quote from the Show: 

    Acceptance doesn’t mean approval. It doesn’t mean we won’t work towards change.

    High Points From Our Conversation on Parenting an Emotionally Sensitive Child:

    Quote on emotionally sensitive children

    An emotionally sensitive child can act out and be aggressive or they can be anxious or simply difficult. They also tend to have difficulty with sudden change in a situation; they get stuck or comfortable in patterns of action or thinking or feeling and it’s hard for them to move from those to other patterns. Black and white/all or nothing thought patterns or tendencies are common.

    Imagine a patient in the hospital with third-degree burns. The window in their room is open, and somebody opens the door, which creates a small air current. This current over the patient’s skin feels excruciatingly painful, even though it’s only a small amount of moving air, because of their skin’s extreme sensitivity due to the burns. That sensitivity dialed from zero to a hundred with the door opening. The emotions of an emotionally sensitive child share that intensity and the rapid increase in said intensity.

    Given their intense and rapidly fluctuating emotions, many teens who are emotionally sensitive are diagnosed as having ADHD or occasionally DMDD—Disruptive Mood Dysregulation Disorder.

    Emotional sensitivity is biological; emotionally sensitive children have differently structured brains. This often means that they feel emotions and changes in emotions like a ton of bricks or a tsunami—very quickly, very intense. 

    We often react to our emotional children like, Why are you so shy? What’s the big deal; why are you crying over that? Don’t be so anxious. Don’t be so angry; why do you get so angry at so many things? And maybe it is externalized behavior in the environment. Maybe the environment is oppositional or tense or destructive. But maybe the child is very emotionally reactive. It’s biological; it’s just the way their brains, bodies and nervous systems are wired, not something they’re doing on purpose to be difficult. 

    Sometimes we feel like we’ve been too permissive or too hard on our kids, and that the way we parent creates these situations, where our kids react to extremes or react emotionally all the time. This isn’t something solely produced by parenting styles, but parenting responses do play a role in their emotional behavior. 

    The phrase often used in dialectical behavioral therapy (DBT) is “it’s both true.” Which is to say, these situations with our kids are often born both from their biological wiring and our interactions often creating more dysregulation and more struggling for our children (even unintentionally).

    A lot of DBT is not just about not judging and understanding the child; it’s also about not judging yourself in understanding and validating yourself as a parent. Even if your interactions with your child weren’t effective, or you didn’t understand what their needs were or how to respond effectively—that doesn’t mean that you’re a failure or a bad parent. It means you did the best you could with the skills and the knowledge you have in that moment of understanding your child. When we judge ourselves too harshly, that can carry over into judging our children and causing problems with our parenting.

    When we’re dismissive of our children’s emotions (say they’re coming back anxious from their first day of high school and we just say, you’ll get over it.) and they don’t meet the help they were expecting, their experience is being invalidated and they get the message that there’s something wrong with them feeling the way they feel. Our children then learn to suppress or increase emotional display to get an environmental response because they don’t feel seen or heard. 

    When the parents eventually respond to increased outbursts of emotion, they reinforce the dysregulation in their child and the cycle just keeps going as the child internalizes the message that the only way to get a response from their environment, or some understanding of their emotional pain, is to keep having said outbursts.

    So our kids are angry. They’re anxious. They’re hurting. How can we interact with them supportively? Dialectics. The main idea of dialectics is that there can be two ideas or concepts that appear opposite but can both be true at the same time. This applies to parenting in that parents often believe there’s one way, but there’s no single perfect way to interact with a child. And that’s where we get into trouble.

    When dealing with an emotionally sensitive child parents often tend towards one of two extremes; we either walk on eggshells around our kid, or we over-focus on discipline and consequences and changing the child’s behavior.

    The dialectic in parenting to focus on is acceptance and change. If you’re accepting your child, then you’re not changing your child. If you’re changing, then you’re working on changing them, not accepting them.

    Parents often get stuck on a ‘should’ belief about how their child should feel and behave. This comes across in their interactions and they don’t accept their child for who they are in that moment. 

    We can work on acceptance using strategies including validation and mindfulness, reflecting back, figuring out and communicating about the emotional reaction. Share what we’re experiencing and ask what they’re experiencing and figure out the cause. Maybe certain expectations or beliefs got in the way. Maybe it’s biological. Try to understand and validate their feelings but set limits anyway.

    If your child breaks the rules/limits, you don’t have to accept that. You care about them and accept them but there will still be consequences for those actions. So it’s really finding that balance. You’re accepting your child in that this is how their body functions and this is how they feel. Setting limits more around the behaviors is accepting the behaviors and changing the behaviors at the same time.

    Acceptance doesn’t mean approval. It doesn’t mean we won’t work towards change. We can accept there’s a cause even as we’re focusing on change. Accepting the behavioral issues doesn’t mean we’re not going to address them.

    There are certain constants that lead up to your child’s behavior. Until there’s a new change, that behavior should continue. You can wish and hope that your child’s behavior will change, but there is a cause and effect. You as a parent want to shed the judgement that comes with that behavior and see your child differently. This will help in moving towards changing your interactions with your child and helping them in a more effective way.

    If we’re in an emotional state ourselves in a reaction to an outburst it’s better to stand down, even if that means missing an opportunity to parent. We want to try to get to that space of acceptance, of accepting the behavior and the emotions and then guiding our teen towards changing the behavior: That seems like it was difficult for you. How can I help you manage that in the future? (For example: Throwing things) is really not the way we want to do this.

    Mindfulness comes in on stepping back to find a calm space to be aware, to understand and accept your own emotions as you’re trying to understand and accept your child’s emotions and behavior. 

    Don’t try to have a conversation until they’ve had time to calm down. They need time to come out of their “fight or flight” emotion brain. Otherwise it’s likely to devolve into an argument.

    Skip the word ‘but’ because it invalidates whatever you said before the ‘but’. Try using ‘and’ instead. I can see that this was hard for you and it hurts. Expressing your hurt is okay, and we should find you a different way to express that in the future. (Instead of, I can see that this was hard for you and it hurts, but that’s not okay and we need to change how you express that in the future.)

    A good strategy for accepting the behavior but also dealing consequences, especially for older teens/20-somethings, is you see and accept the behavior, and then ask your teen what they think the consequence should be for said behavior. How can they make this right? Allowing them a sense of control and responsibility as they get older in setting those limits and consequences to develop critical thinking and problem-solving skills often works wonderfully.

    It’s not necessarily about your teen coming back to you after an outburst. It’s about finding the appropriate time. And that’s where mindfulness again comes in—being mindful of your child, of their emotional state and their behaviors; being mindful of your own emotions, your own sensations. Who’s in the environment? What has been effective in the past? How can you get yourself more grounded and aware and focused to do what’s most effective with your child? It’s ineffective to parent a child when they’re hijacked emotionally. 

    What we really need to check is, are we being effective with our emotionally sensitive child? Is what we’re doing working? Are these strategies and interventions moving us towards our long-term goals?

    We can be mindful in the moment and yet one of the ways to be a better parent and to be the parents we want to be is to be building that mindfulness skill in ourselves.


    Embracing Neurodiversity In A Differently Wired World | Debbie Reber | Episode 82

    Understanding And Managing Emotions To Create More Joy, Love, And Peace | Jude Bijou | Episode 103

    Solve Teen Behavior Problems Using Emotional Regulation | Lauren Spigelmyer | Episode 180

    Our Guest Matis Miller:

    Matis Miller discusses emotionally sensitive children

    As the founder, director, and supervisor of The Center for Cognitive & Behavioral Therapy of New Jersey, Matis Miller is a licensed clinical social worker and certified cognitive behavioral therapist with over 15 years of experience. His impressive educational and training background includes certification in CBT from the Academy of Cognitive Therapy and the Beck Institute for Cognitive Behavioral Therapy. Matis has also been awarded certification from the DBT-Linehan Board of Certification in Dialectical Behavioral Therapy.

    His expertise and intensive training in CBT, DBT, and Schema Therapy compelled him to found the Center and select the finest therapists to complete his team. Matis specializes in several emotional and personality disorders, complex childhood trauma, and anxiety in teens and adults.

    He is a seasoned lecturer on CBT- and DBT-related topics, addressing parents, clients, and professionals, and is presently focused primarily on supervision, education, and consultations.

    To learn more or connect with our guest visit https://theuncontrollablechild.com/ 

    Disclaimer: This post may contain affiliate links which reward me monetarily or otherwise when you use them to make purchases. Thank you for supporting my work by using my links to purchase products and services.

    Sponsor Tip: 

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    You can learn more at troomi.com and use the code MIGHTYPARENTING to a free phone through December 31st (get $50 off a phone after that). And if you want to know more of Sandy’s thoughts on using Troomi to help your child develop healthy technology habits just email through the contact page on mightyparenting.com.

    From Sandy:

    How to Talk to Your Teen — free email series at MightyParenting.com