Welcome to this week’s issue of #MyFiveThings. Hands up if you have a sensitive or spirited kid at home? Well you will know that although having one of these bouncing round at home (as I do), it can also make parenting THAT much harder. So thankfully, the lovely Lucinda who blogs over on Laugh, Love, Learn has some coping strategies to share with us right here…
Being a mum to spirited child, or one who is sensitive and intense is a bit like regular parenting, but with everything that normally happens in a month squeezed into a day. With a few extras thrown in, like meltdowns that don’t stop at toddlerhood but continue into the teens, and having to explain your child’s behaviour to every disapproving adult he meets.
You know those days when you bounce out of bed, full of good intentions?
“Today I’m going to allow plenty of time to get out of the house!”
“I’m going to be so patient today.”
Even (on really good days), “Today’s the day I’m going to say ‘yes’ to finger-painting, play dough and hide-and-seek!”
When you’re the mother of a sensitive, spirited child, here’s what happens next:
You spend ten minutes helping your daughter find a pair of socks that don’t rub.
You break up a fight about who loves the dog most.
Your son knocks an entire bowl of porridge onto the floor while dancing at the breakfast table. (You spend 10 minutes prising it from between the floorboards with kitchen paper and a butter knife.)
You break up another fight following a game of Ludo.
You ask your son 20 times to please jump on the trampoline rather than the sofa.
You listen to a 15-minute monologue about Minecraft.
You dry your daughter’s tears after she accidentally steps on a worm in the garden.
You field a zillion questions on subjects ranging from whether worms go to heaven to why the sky is blue.
By lunchtime, patient is the last thing you feel. If anyone so much as mentions getting out the art and craft stuff you’re liable to make an inappropriate suggestion about what they can do with the finger-paints, and you haven’t even thought about leaving the house yet (despite being due at a friend’s house in 15 minutes).
Parenting a sensitive spirited child can be exhausting. I used to think life would get easier as they got older, and it has – but not because my children are any less demanding. Life has got easier because somehow, along the way, I’ve discovered a few secrets about how to stay sane around these delightfully intense young people I’m blessed to share my life with.
1. Have realistic expectations
Life became much easier when I stopped holding my kids to standards they had no hope of meeting. I don’t expect my introverted, easily over-stimulated son to behave perfectly throughout a three-hour playdate – I just don’t arrange three-hour playdates.
If we make a trip into London to go to the Science Museum I don’t try and ‘make the most’ of our visit by taking in the Natural History Museum, lunch and a walk up to the Royal Albert Hall.
I’ve learned that by the time they’ve experienced a train, a tube and half a dozen subway buskers, my kids have just enough juice left to marvel at Apollo 10, race round the hands-on exhibits and make it home again without a meltdown (if we’re lucky).
I know my kids’ limits and I don’t feel guilty for respecting them, no matter how much social pressure we come up against from people who have no clue what it’s like to experience the world as intensely as they do.
2. Pay attention to your needs
One of nature’s ironies is that intensity and sensitivity are genetic traits. This means that the parents who most need peace and quiet are the ones who have to cope with the most demanding children.
Of course the flip side of this is that, once we stop worrying there’s something wrong with our children and accept that they’re just wired differently, we’re the people best placed to understand our kids’ needs.
Understanding what our children need and helping meet those needs are two different things, though. We need to remember the oxygen mask rule: in order to help our kids, we must first meet our own needs.
Needs might be practical (sleep, food, drink), emotional (feeling understood and supported) or intellectual (being sufficiently mentally stimulated by conversation, reading, etc). Extroverts need plenty of time around other people to recharge; introverts need time on their own to replenish their energy.
As a mum it’s easy to get into the habit of catering to everyone else’s demands at the expense of our own. But if we don’t pay attention to our personal wellbeing, we’ll become gradually drained of energy until we have nothing left to offer. A crashed-and-burned mummy is no use to anyone.
3. Keep a list of things that help you have a better day (even if you don’t feel like doing them)
This one is related to number 2 but it’s for a special category of needs. These are the things I never feel much like doing, but when I do them I always have a better day.
Apparently there exist people that get as excited about a five mile run as I do at the prospect of spending an hour with my laptop in Starbucks. I’m not one of them. However, I know that when I force myself to exercise I tend to have a better day. So I write it down, and then I’m more likely to do it.
Also on my list is spending time outside in the fresh air even though, except on the most glorious summer days, I’d far rather curl up indoors.
When my kids were little this meant forcing us all out to the park, even on dreary winter mornings when no one felt like going anywhere (but we all felt better afterwards). These days it means rounding everyone up for a dog walk, having a game of catch in the garden or planting tomatoes just so I have to go out and water them.
4. Be kind to yourself
As intense and sensitive parents it’s easy to beat ourselves up for not meeting the high personal standards we tend to set. But we’re more likely to meet our parenting goals (and stay sane in the process) if we treat ourselves with the kindness we’d show a good friend.
Reassure yourself when times are tough: This too shall pass.
Catch yourself when you’re catastrophising about how your son’s never going to have any friends and is going to end up spending his days in a dead-end job playing video games all night. None of us knows the future, so why not imagine a happy one?
Don’t try and be the perfect parent: good enough is good enough.
Forgive yourself when you make mistakes – you’re modelling being human to your kids.
5. Find your tribe
Parenting an intense, spirited child can be deeply isolating. Thanks to their hyper-sensitive nervous systems, these young people experience the world differently from most other children. This means they behave differently, often in ways other people frown on.
These disapproving bystanders, unaware (or disbelieving) that you’ve tried every parenting technique in the book, have no hesitation throwing out suggestions while you’re in the throes of dealing with a meltdown.
“Have you tried the naughty step?”
“Why don’t you just take away his GameBoy for a week?”
“She needs a good slap!”
No wonder you feel like a failure.
We need to connect with parents who know what parenting intense and sensitive children is like. I finally did this last year, at a PowerWood workshop. I can still remember reading the flyer headline aloud to my husband. ‘Is your child intense? Sensitive? Over-anxious? Easily overwhelmed? Reacts out of proportion? That’s Jasper!’ I yelled excitedly as I signed up.
Finding my tribe has made such a difference to me that I began volunteering for PowerWood and started Laugh, Love, Learn to connect with kindred spirits. If you have intense and sensitive children, I’d love you to head over and share our journey.
What things help you have a better day (even if you don’t feel like doing them)?
What’s your favourite way to recharge?
How are you kind to yourself?
After she had children Lucinda Leo escaped the law and retrained as a cognitive hypnotherapist, specialising in helping parents enjoy their children more. She writes about about life in a family that embraces its quirkiness at Laugh, Love, Learn and shares her home-educating adventures at Navigating By Joy. Connect with her on Twitter here.