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I Have a Sensitive Child – a Discipline Dilemma

By Sarah Liebetrau – 16th November 2010

My husband and I are pretty much chalk and cheese in many ways. Although we have similar values and priorities in life, it’s safe to say we have some pretty different approaches when it comes to parenting. My husband is from a  rules-based background where you know what the rules are – they are first explained and then enforced, and if you break them, you know exactly what will happen. He has softened his attitude considerably (with much convincing from me) in the years we have been parents. I come from a laissez-faire, lead-by-example background where there was so much else going on for my single mother that rules didn’t really enter the equation. I like to think I have incorporated the elements of consistency and appropriate boundary-setting into my parenting style that I may not have seen enough of growing up. So, with some negotiation, and most of the time, my husband and I meet in the middle and agree on how to handle things with our kids.

There are still some instances, however, when my husband is a little quicker to threaten punishment than I would like, and where I am a little slower off the mark in reprimanding undesirable behaviour than he would like. While I am happy to say that corporal punishment has long ago been taken off the table as a possible threat, there is ongoing discussion in our house about the merits of certain other types of punishment such as putting the kids in their room for ‘time out’ and withdrawal of privileges.

Dealing with an emotionally sensitive child can be tricky. The techniques that may work with other, more emotionally robust children, will leave Mr 4 in a flood of tears. The tricky side to his temperament is that there seem to be far more issues that cause him anxiety, where another child would shrug and move on. But to my mind, Mr 4 also has an incredibly mature emotional intelligence for his age, and is able to articulate his feelings remarkably well.

Mr 4 tends to become quite obsessed with any new interest, and so it has been with his recent discovery of online video games. We have to be very consistent with setting limits on how often and for how long he can play them. In times of frustration I have told him if he carries on with certain behaviour, he will not be able to play his video games for one ‘sleep’- two sleeps if the infringement is serious. I prefer this to putting him in his room because I’d rather he didn’t play the video games anyway! And I feel that the idea of something he likes to do being taken away from him could be an incentive to modify his behaviour, whereas  his fearful reaction to the idea of going to his room is stressful for all of us.

Recently I was lying next to Mr 4 in bed and before he drifted off to sleep, he told me that he thought we should never send him to his room for any reason. He explained that it doesn’t make him stop doing things we don’t like, it just makes him feel sad and scared. “I’m a kid, Mum,” he said, “I’m not a grown up. I haven’t learned everything yet so I still make mistakes and do things that aren’t nice sometimes.” I was quick to assure him that grownups often make mistakes too, but I understood what I thought he was trying to tell me – that kids need more understanding because of how much they have to learn, and that maybe there was a different way to teach him rather than putting him in his room, which doesn’t seem to be effective anyway. He thought about this. “Yes well even when grownups say things that aren’t nice to each other, no one puts them in their room so that isn’t really fair to do to kids.” I told him that some people thought that taking a child away from what was annoying them was a good way of stopping it from turning into more of a fight. He said it would only work if the grown up stayed in the room with him to help him calm down and didn’t leave. I said I’d talk to Dad about it.

The next morning, after obviously giving it some more thought, Mr 4 said, “Actually you don’t even need to take me to my room at all, or say that I can’t play video games and things if I do something that isn’t nice. I’ll just say sorry and try to think about not doing it next time. But it doesn’t mean I’ll never do it again. I’ll just try.

I asked him what he thought I should do if he persisted with the behaviour, and kept doing it even if I had said no. He sighed. “Mum, I won’t do that! I’m not a bully! Just give it a try.” It all seems so obvious when you put it that way! Hmmm. I’m not saying we’ll never have a ‘time out’ or ‘no video games’ situation again, but Mr 4’s input has certainly given me food for thought.

My husband interprets the same conversation as evidence of our son’s ability to say what I want to hear in order to get out of being punished.  And he knows which parent to approach on that basis as well. What do you think? Do sensitive children need to be parented differently? Or do all children deserve the same level sensitivity? Is Mr 4 paving the way for his sister by asking questions that she won’t need to ask? Or am I indulging him and possibly giving him too much responsibility for coming up with his own solutions?

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Comments (8)


So timely Sarah!

Have read all the comments and Carol, you just pointed out something so bloody obvious to me, time out in a bedroom which has a plethora of cool things to play with is hardly punishment. I’m going to start using the middle connecting room of doom which has 4 bare walls and a view to the outside world where he can see what he is missing out on. (Talking about my 3 year old here)

My 8yo, who has Aspergers, is the most sensitive soul on earth. He loses it when his brother and sister get into trouble, let alone himself.

He is never really getting into trouble for being naughty, but more because his fixations take over sometimes. And he cannot be swayed, even when they are for his own good. For example, he hates wearing buttons and even though its getting into Summer, he won’t take his jumper off at school (one and only shirt he wears with buttons) because he fears he will choke on the buttons. That took about a year of coaxing to figure out what is aversion to them are. But when we have to put the heavy word on him to remove the jumper or he’ll boil, getting cross doesn’t work. It’s all about finding the magic negotiation with him. One he can deal with.

Finding the balance (my theme)

I’ve experienced this both as a former wife of someone with wildly differing background/upbringing/values/parenting style to myself and as a single mother.

I know I’m blessed with my boy, whose intelligence both mentally and emotionally makes me smile on a daily basis. But boy! does it press my buttons sometimes, which makes dealing with his stuff and my stuff a constantly evolving thing.

When I was married, I was really worried about the mixed messages he was receiving about processing and accepting his feelings, from his father and from me. I recognise that is likely very much a part of most children’s experience, yet feel for a sensitive child, finding a balance in that is critical. When one person validates your feelings and the other dismisses or tries to encourage you to repress them, what are you learning? Who do you believe?

Now, on our own, there are new pressures. I am everything, most of the time, and that’s too much, sometimes. We cry, we fight, we fail, and I wonder what the hell I’m doing being responsible for this beautiful little soul. Luckily, the fighting and crying are far less frequent, the apologies and explanations more frequent, and the conversations are far more significant and heartwarming.

I’ve come to terms with the fact that my parenting style, somewhere between tough-mama and earth-mama, is going to continue to evolve and change as he does with me. Frankly, like you, Sarah, I’d rather have those wonderful heart-to-hearts and negotiate a meaningful understanding, though sometimes I’m still going to stand my ground and risk being labelled “mean mama”.

Re the room issue – I hear what you are saying about keeping rooms a special place, and I’ve mulled over this one long and hard, but I still ask him to go in his room for a think when he’s really lost the plot. He slams the door, rails a bit, cuddles a teddy or kicks a car, then comes out when the storm has passed and calmly picks up the discussion. Maybe it’s an imperfect solution, but I’d like him to be aware that he can take control of his feelings, and his room, his own private space, is the safe place to do it.

PS. I so hear you about the computer games – new territory we’ve entered this year. Still working on that one. 😉

A cool head

My 6yr old daughter is super-smart, super-sensitive and super-adept at turning situations to her advantage. There’s no magic bullet and how you parent depends largely on the dynamics of your household. For our daughter, we find a few things helpful:

1. Montessori schooling: teaches children independence, accountability and respect (in a child centred environment that sets strong yet lovingly enforced boundaries.
2. Absolutely zero computer or electronic games and highly rationed screen time of any sort. She’s shocking when exposed to e-media.
3. Huge amounts of physical activity.
4. Routine, routine and more routine. Part of that is setting fair rules and boundaries (together, by consensus) and adhering to them (with relevant and related consequences if broken).
5. Non violent communication (NVC), pioneered by Marshall Rosenberg. (Works in business too)!

My word, is it a challenging journey!

PS Bedrooms

Just realised I did not express myself as well as I wanted in my last comment – I wanted to say that although I think the rules and consequences should be the same for all the kids in a family, it is probably a good idea for us to change our communication styles to match the temperaments of our children.

I remember when our first child was in Kindergarten at school – he had the most fabulous male teacher. I was helping out in class one day and I asked another child “Do you want to come and help me move these books?” and the teacher said to me “With that little boy, you need to tell him what you would like him to do and then he’ll happily do it, but it won’t work if you ask him if he wants to …” That one little line reminded me that the same applies in my family – same requests but sometimes I have to express them in very different ways!

Bedrooms are Not for Time Out

Totally agree with Carol on the bedroom thing. Bedrooms are best left for children to play, retreat and sleep in. I really like that Triple P Parenting courses (and there’s a great post on this here…) also recommends that if parents use time out, they use it for only a brief time and keep the child more or less in sight or in the same room.

I do think that boundaries that are fair and loving and enforced are important for all kids, sensitive or not, but I also know that the same rules and consequences produce hugely different reactions in our 3 kids. So what to do? Should we change the consequences or the boundaries? That’s hard when you are also trying to be fair in a family with more than one child.

I’d love to read what other people think about this. In our family we’ve taken the approach that in spite of our children’s very different temperaments, the consequences for breaking family rules have to be consistent. But like you Sarah, and you Carol, I know only too well that the fallout can be hard to take if one of the children is very sensitive or especially argumentative for example. Hmmm. We’re working through these kinds of issues most days in our family!

Sensitive Kids

Yvette knows that I recently had a conversion on the road to Damascus when I read ‘How to Talk So Kids Will Listen and How to Listen So Kids Will Talk’.

I have a sensitive child and a husband just like yours – someone who has been brought up with traditional ideas of discipline and punishment. The difference is my sensitive child, also male, also very bright and articulate, is now 16 years old. It is only recently that I have been able to convince my husband that his methods do not work with my son. In fact, now my son is a teenager they just provoke more oppositional and defiant behaviours. And without going in to detail, I can confirm that all the stuff they say about challenging teenagers is true!

There is actually a chapter in this book (which was written way back in 1980) that is called Alternatives to Punishment, and it pretty much agrees with what your son says!

I would strongly recommend you get hold of this book and if you can, get your husband to read it. I’m so glad I was pointed to it (by a psychologist, no less) as it’s changed my parenting style and I feel so much better about my relationship with my son now.

Sensitive kids

My 10 year old son is super-sensitive. He really does go to pieces at the slightest reproach, and is so hard on himself when he does something wrong. To him a stern voice is the same as a yell. I have learned to try not to lose my temper with him in frustration (he is a daydreamer and takes forever to get ready for example) because mopping up the tearful aftermath is even more challenging.

The hardest part is because his sister is so very different. 2 years older and of a totally different temperament – she often calls shenanigans when we don’t discipline him the same way as we do her. Well, we do really. But she is stubborn and wont always take no for answer and loves to talk back and argue. (“I’m not arguing, I am debating!” is a favourite phrase of hers.) so to her mind it probably seems like we are different with him because his reactions are so opposite to hers.

Eg. Yell down hallway for 8th time for kids to hurry up.
Her: I’M COMING! I’M JUST LOOKING FOR MY SHOES! GOD! [stomps out from room. Is told in no uncertain terms to watch how she speaks. Rolls her eyes then gets over it and chatters as usual.]

Him: I can’t find my shoes! [flops onto bed, head down. I walk in, hand him shoes that were under towel on floor. “Here! Now hurry up and put them on! We have to go!” He bursts into tears.] Yells “I just couldn’t see them!”
No point remonstrating further, as he will lose it completely. Need to just get the shoes on him and out of the house.

Sensitive kids

Hi Sarah,

Your Mr 4 and my Mr 9 have a lot in common. Mr 9 is very bright and can become very distressed when he’s being disciplined.

I never use the children’s bedrooms as time out or punishment. I want their bedrooms to become their little sanctuaries where they can take themselves for happy things. ‘Time out’ at our place is on the stairs where the child can be observed and the issue discussed.

I wish I knew what to do about Mr 9’s ability to work himself into a state of utter distress … I heard him one afternoon after getting into trouble for a minor transgression lying on his bedroom floor, crying, screaming and wailing, “I’m the WORST boy in the world! My life is OVER! No-one will EVER trust me!” Oh it was heartbreaking! And I found it quite frightening – what to do?!

He is, of course, a beautiful, well-behaved child who has the ability to beat up on himself. His brother, Mr 7, seems far more resilient.

Sorry I offer no answers! But I think bedrooms being happy, secure, safe places is important.


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