Soothing the Sensitive Soul

parent-child.jpgToday, Tracy shares tips to help soothe sensitive souls:

When our second son was born, he wailed from the moment I brought him up to my chest. He wailed through his first bath, an experience his older brother had loved. He wailed for the first three months we put him in his car seat. Snow suit? Wailed. Hiring a babysitter? Cue the wailing. At nearly every turn, tearfulness and sobbing were part and parcel of his experience. I realized very early that I had an emotionally sensitive kid on my hands.
In my private practice, I often talk to my clients about the two main tasks in managing an emotional experience. One has to be able to tolerate a certain amount of emotion (usually negative); this involves the ability to identify and understand the emotion as well as link it with relevant experience(s). One also has to be able to regulate the emotion; this is the ability to modulate or control the intensity and timing of our reaction, as well as whether or not we express is outwardly or hold it in. I think of these processes as sliders on a music producer’s mixing board. They can move independently of each other, yet are very much related. For example, if someone has high tolerance and high regulation of emotion, others are not likely to know much about their emotional experience. They can take a lot and are likely able to control the expression of this emotion so well that it seems hardly to make a blip on their radar. One can also have high tolerance and low regulation, or vice versa.

If, however, someone has both low tolerance and low regulation of their emotional state, you are likely to know every single thing that bothers them no matter how seemingly trivial it is. This is our son. It takes very little to send him into a flurry of tears, and they are often loud. His reactions can often seem so out of proportion to what is going on that it’s frustrating to try and help him through it. This year has been particularly hard on him. We’ve realized that in addition to being emotionally sensitive, he is also likely easily overstimluated by sensory stimuli that others are able to tolerate with a minimum of distress. Loud noises (he wears industrial hearing protection when we vacuum), bulky or wrinkly clothing, and too many people are too much for him. Add to this his tendency to worry excessively about what will happen if he misses me during the day, and you’ve got a recipe for leg-clinging, tear-filled, angst-ridden transitions, drop-offs, and new classes.

I believe that the best way to help my son is to empower him with strategies that work. He needs to learn ways that he can calm himself and feel competent in his ability to do this, so that he is not overwhelmed by every single thing that is new or loud. It is heart-wrenching to watch him struggle, but he is also my best example of courage in the face of fear. Here is what I have done/said/used to help him start on the path of self-soothing.

Find out his perception of events. My biggest lesson in this experience has been that what I think is going on and what he is taking from situations can be two vastly different things. It does not matter if his take is factually correct or not. It is what it is.

Ask what he thinks will help. I was shocked and amazed that my son came up with a rewards strategy for encouraging him to stick with his martial arts classes. He really, really wants to be a ninja, but the classes can be overwhelming for him. He typically has fun by the end of class, but each one starts out with a nervous tummy, feelings of anxiety, and yes, tears. We employed a classic sticker chart, more as a way to track his “acts of bravery” than to reward him for going specifically, but he is proud of his ability to overcome his nerves.

Teach calming alternative responses. This has been far and away the most successful strategy employed. I taught him the same breathing technique I teach clients in my private practice, which is easy enough even for a 5-year-old child to use as needed. The Perfect Breath goes like this: Breathe in for a count of 3, hold briefly at the top, then breathe out for a count of 3. It’s perfect because when you hold at the top, that is the moment when you are no longer in need of more oxygen, and don’t yet need to exhale excess carbon dioxide. This technique has the effect of slowing down breathing in a manageable, easy to implement way. The trick is to practice is when you’re not anxious. That way your body associates that rhythm with being non-anxious and the response will be quicker when you need to use it in a situation.

Encourage dialogue about what’s happening internally. What are the physical sensations that go along with the emotion? Does it have a visual image such as a color, shape, or texture? Putting tangible words to the larger more amorphous concept of emotions helps us to not only feel that emotions can be managed, but also that they can be recognized. It’s easier to breathe away a red circle of nervousness or a tickly, tumbly tummy than to “deal with anxiety.”

Explore the difference between emotions in the moment and emotional memories. For me, a big realization was that even the idea or memory of an emotion (e.g., missing me during the day, or anticipating being nervous about martial arts) was enough to trigger a full-blown emotional meltdown for my son. Talking with him about what was a memory versus what was actually happening at that moment was key in helping him feel more in control of what he experienced.

Have a plan for expected or unavoidable situations. This year’s biggest hurdle was practicing fire drills. The emotional intensity of this experience combined with the very loud bell positioned just outside the kindergarten room door added up to a horribly negative spiral of tears and wailing. Knowing that this drill was to be repeated several times leading up to the fire marshal’s inspection meant we needed a way to tackle this, and fast. Our plan was simple: deal with the sensory overload as best we could and use as many calming alternative responses as necessary. We decided that as soon as the bell sounded, he would cover his ears, and take a few breaths. This was a way to keep his mind clear enough to use visual imagery to distract himself a bit. He chose to think of something happy (my face) or funny (his baby sister running away from her diaper after a bath). He understood that it was okay to cry if he needed to.

Overall, it has been several weeks of hard work as we’ve spent endless hours exploring, experiencing, and discussing his emotions and sensory issues. I am pleased to say, though, that he has made it through the last three fire drills very successfully (on two occasions, NO tears!). It has been most gratifying to watch his and my efforts pay off as he approaches new situations and I can see him breathing to calm himself, and to listen to the note of pride in his voice as he reports on his successes at school. Mostly, I am feeling good about the fact that he is armed with coping strategies that many adults aren’t skilled at using and can employ them at such a tender age. I’m hopeful that these strategies and his knowledge of himself will serve him well as he transitions through the rest of his school years, and into adulthood. And I hope those of you who parent similarly sensitive souls will find these tips useful.

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