Sensitive kids need encouragement as much as the next child, but they can have a paradoxical reaction when you praise them. What do I mean? You compliment your child by saying “GREAT job! I knew you could do it!”, and they react by becoming angry or even arguing with you. They may even try to destroy what they had done. This can include being mean to a sibling or pet, or breaking something that they created.
Why? Weren’t you supposed to support them? All the parenting books recommend giving children accurate and immediate feedback. You could have done everything as suggested: you were warm, you were specific about their success, and you used words that match their age and developmental stage. You even avoided the pitfall of praising results and instead you praised effort. It backfired on you.
What went so wrong?
Simply put, you didn’t expect that they would think that any future performance could be seen as a failure, and this burden was more than they could bear, or the sensory input overwhelmed them. Or both. This reaction is more common than you would think, and happens in very young children, as young as two! Some very sensitive kids cannot handle the physical intensity of some methods of praise. Your change in vocal volume and even vocal pitch may send them into physiologic alarm mode. The longer you go on, the more upset they become. And they don’t have a good answer when you ask why they are so upset. They are just as eager for true appreciation as any other child, but they know that they feel bad, not good. You weren’t intending to create pressure on them. Kids can place it on themselves. These are often the kids that need things to go the way they expected, or to go perfectly or it isn’t acceptable. They are very invested in being seen in a positive light.
What can you do differently?
If you think that your child is reacting this way, dial down your response and observe how your child takes it in. Using a lower voice and shortening your response can help. Making a general statement rather than elaborating might be easier to hear. “Nice work” can be more acceptable than “You did an AMAZING job; I cannot wait to show everyone what you did!” Dr. Karp’s “gossiping” technique, whether it is gossiping to a toy or to a person in the general vicinity might be more acceptable. Waiting a few minutes, or even waiting until the next day to deliver praise can be helpful. It sounds great to follow the strategies listed in the parenting blogs and in magazines, but if you have a sensitive child, you have already learned that things sometimes have to be altered to fit your child’s needs. This is just another example!
Another suggestion is to put more effort into modeling how to handle slip-ups. Kids need to know that we make mistakes and don’t always succeed. We look so powerful and accomplished to young children. We know that we have our limits and faults, but kids don’t always see it that way. Explicitly tell your child when you make a mistake, and talk about your feelings and how you make yourself feel OK with not being perfect. This can go a long way to helping a sensitive child handle praise.
Looking for more information on helping sensitive kids? Read What Helps Sensitive Kids Handle Haircuts?, and Young Children, Sensory Modulation and the Automatic “NO!” plus Holidays Hints For Sensitive Kids. Sensitivity is common in gifted kids, so read Sensitivity and Gifted Children: The Mind That Floods With Feeling and in kids with sensory processing disorder Sensory Sensitivity In Toddlers: Why Responding Differently to “Yucky!” Will Help Your Child.