In this episode, we talk to Melissa Schwartz, who was actually our first podcast guest !! Melissa has just published an amazing book about highly sensitive children!! As we know, this really is an underserved population.
How would we know if our kids are highly sensitive?
How do we cope if we are also highly sensitive?
What do we do when we see them struggling, when we see extreme reactions, or when we see them struggling in school with their peers?
How you can set boundaries with your highly sensitive children without hurting their feelings?
Melissa’s new book Rico the Race Car
Melissa Schwartz was born an intense, sensitive, empathic, power seeker. Her intuitive ability to decode misbehavior and her passion for giving a voice to the legitimate needs of children naturally evolved into becoming the co-creator of Leading Edge Parenting, co-author of Authentic Parenting Power and author of soon to be released, Under the Hood: A Manual to Understand the Inner Workings of Children. She is an internationally acclaimed author, coach and public speaker bringing new perspective based on current research and personal experience to transform the field of child development.
www.facebook.com/groups/highlysensitivechildren — her private group for parents of HSCs
Imi: Hi, Melissa. Hi again. Long time no see.
Melissa: Hi, Imi. Always a pleasure to see you.
Imi: How are you today?
Melissa: Pretty good. Thank you.
Imi: Well, a lot of exciting things has happened in your world since we last spoke. Can you tell us a bit about your new project?
Melissa: Yeah, I’m so excited about this new project. So I released a children’s book called Rico the Race Car.
Imi: Oh, it’s beautiful.
Melissa: Thank you. The illustrator did such a beautiful job. And I’m really excited about this project because it is designed not just for sensitive children, but also for sensitive adults. And so it’s a really cool way to help children and their parents, educators, the adults in their lives at the same time. We wrote this book so that young children that are highly sensitive feel understood and seen. They recognize themselves in Rico, this race car who is a little more high needs than his friend who’s a van, but he goes through some challenges and he’s given some support and some tools to navigate his sensitivity and comes out on the other side of it being thrilled that he’s highly sensitive because he’s learned how to navigate it. How to use it for his well, his best. Yeah.
Imi: That is a wonderful story. And I think we’ll come back to your book for sure. Let’s go around and talk a little about what we will discuss today. And then maybe in the end we plot the book again, probably people will understand the genesis of it a lot more. So today we plan to talk about societies, highly sensitive kids and parenting, which I don’t think I have any guests in the past specifically address this and it’s such a pertinent topic. I don’t know why I haven’t done that. And that’s where you come in. Yes. And I know, so there are two types and they overlap. Some parents suspect that their kids are highly sensitive and they don’t really know what to do with it. And other times, parents themselves are a highly sensitive person and it does affect their parenting. And so perhaps we can talk about both.
Melissa: Yeah, absolutely.
Imi: For parents whose children might be highly sensitive, how would they know it? What are some of the signs? Because it’s not something that they can go to a psychiatrist to get a diagnosis for this whole idea of being highly sensitive is not in the diagnostic menu. So how would parents know and where can they seek help?
Melissa: Great question. So it’s a great question. It’s a challenging one to answer because I always say no too highly sensitive people look like we’re like snowflakes. We have similar characteristics, but they show up differently. So in a very young child infancy and the toddler years, these kids tend to have big reactions. They may have trouble sleeping. They may have some sensory sensitivities, like when you go to change them, their clothing or their diaper, or bathe them they might need a gentle transition into those things. Like these abrupt scoop them up, do this, do that. The babies that can handle that are a little more, what I would call easygoing. I’m using a general label, not a judgment in that.
And so once we get into more of the toddler pre-school years, these children tend to have breakdowns over things that they want. They wanted the red cup, not the blue cup, or they don’t want to stop what they’re doing because they’re so into it. Or they just feel their feelings in a really big way, a lot of crying or a lot of joy like exuberant joy. They’re generally, again, no judgment when I say this, a little more difficult to be with a little more challenging to be with. They also may respond to our emotions as the adults. They may pick up on what’s going on for us.
Melissa: Elaine Aron, who coined the work in the late ’80s and ’90s, she uses this model of DOES, which stands for depth of processing, overstimulation, emotional sensitivity, and sensing subtleties. Those are the four qualities that we’re looking for. And in a child, it’s going to look like them becoming over stimulated after playing on the playground or being in a music class or coming home from school and having maybe a bit of a breakdown. Even really fun things can be overstimulating. It’s not just the unfun things that can be overstimulating for these children. So they need downtime, they need periods of rest, of destimulation.
Melissa: And as they get a little bit older once we’re into the school age years, they may struggle socially with other children. They may not understand why kids are mean. They might have big questions about the world and the universe and life and death, and why they ask a lot of why questions. They have this desire to understand-
Imi: They’re inquisitive.
Melissa: They’re inquisitive. But they’re usually asking bigger why questions? Like, why do people have to die? Not why can’t I have ice cream for breakfast. They’re asking these really profound, meaningful questions most of the time. Sometimes sensitive children are what we would also called old souls. They have this maturity and immaturity at the same time. This maturity about life, but this emotional immaturity because it really needs to be nurtured. And what I mean by that is because highly sensitive people have such a broad capacity to experience and process emotions, it’s going to take us longer to really own that, to grow into that emotional body.
Melissa: So in the early years, they may look emotionally mature and savvy while also being immature and unable to handle the emotions at the same time. There’s this paradox that goes on.
Imi: Oh, yes.
Melissa: And it’s almost because our emotional body, I think about like a golden retriever puppy, if you’ve ever seen one where their body is too big, it’s like they don’t fit in their body properly. They’re joyful and exuberant, but they don’t fit in that body in the right way. I think about highly sensitive people and their emotional body in the same way. In our early years, we’re trying it on, we’re figuring it out, but we’re not really fitting in that body in the right way, which is why so much of my work with parents is around emotional literacy, helping children to identify and express their emotions in appropriate ways. Because once a highly sensitive child gets that the world is their oyster. That’s like one of the hardest things for sensitive people in adulthood. And it’s usually because we don’t get it in our childhood.
Imi: I have to say, you are such a great speaker.
Melissa: Oh, thank you.
Imi: Yes. And what is it’s missed that’s often missing in these people’s childhood?
Melissa: Yeah. So I think it’s just that. It’s this let’s call it like a modeling of emotional health. One example that I always love to give, I was working with a client several years ago. Mom is highly sensitive, dad is highly sensitive too. And they have a…
Imi: Wow. What a pair.
Melissa: … highly sensitive. Yeah. And who are too highly sensitive adults. It can go a couple of different ways because so much of this has to do with adults healing their own wounds, feeling mature in their emotional capacity, being able to handle whatever life brings with honesty and authenticity and presence. And I was working with this family some years ago and mom was sharing an example with me. She was in the kitchen doing something and her daughter at the time was like about three, maybe four years old and came in and said to her mom, “Mommy, are you happy?”
Melissa: And mom was not happy. Mom was stressed out. She was busy cooking. She was dealing with life. Life is challenging. Even for everybody. Life is challenging. It’s got ups and downs, but some days we have bills and a to-do list and we have errands and we have work and the dog wants stop barking and the other child is crying. Life is just hectic. And mommy turned to her daughter and she said, “Yes, I’m happy.” Because mom wanted to protect her daughter from her own stuff. And I lovingly said to mom, no. Because what you’re doing is you’re teaching your daughter that stressed out mommy is happy. And so your daughter is learning a misidentification of what happy is and what stress out is. And in an age appropriate way, you can turn to her and say, no, mommy is not happy. Mommy is very busy. Mommy feels overwhelmed. Mommy feels yucky. We don’t have to use very specific language with young children, we can use other terms.
Melissa: But when we are honest with a child about how we’re feeling, and then we show them what to do with it. We show them how to move through it. We show them how to process the emotion. Then they learn. Then they don’t feel like they have to be protected from life. I think a lot of highly sensitive adults. And you might see this in your work because I don’t work with that many highly sensitive adults feel like they just can’t handle life. They can’t handle the emotions and they just want to hide because they never learned how to deal with them. They never learned from their mom how to deal with overwhelm or yucky or stressed out. They were told to put a sticker, a happy sticker over it and say, I’m happy and pretend. And that doesn’t work for sensitive people. I don’t think it works for anybody, but it really doesn’t work for sensitive people.
Imi: Yes the happy sticker. And I think the happy sticker syndrome is all around grownups, teenagers, children and it’s really hard for sensitive people who feel so much.
Melissa: Yes. And it doesn’t serve us because then when we become adults, we learn that we have to numb the unwanted emotions, or we have to hide from them, or we cope with them. But we have healthy tools and strategies to move through them. And what the emotions really want are to be fully felt and experienced and then they dissipate. And you can teach children how to do that. Then we’re doing multiple things. One, we’re helping them into adulthood. Sometimes when people ask me what I do for work, I say, I help parents raise children who won’t have to go to therapy. And I’m being a little cheeky because, of course, therapy is not just for people who don’t know how to navigate their emotions.
Melissa: However, in my experience, a lot of highly sensitive adults do go to therapy because this is one of their core wounds that they don’t feel safe in life because they don’t feel safe with their emotions. They don’t feel safe within themselves. And so when we teaches the children at a young age, we help them move into adulthood, but we also help them become joyful children. We help them be children that are delightful to be with. And part of why I use this metaphor of the race car in this book is I use this metaphor in all of my work. I talk about the highly sensitive child, like a race car and the non highly sensitive child like a Prius, like an easy to drive low maintenance vehicle. If we don’t service a race car and meet all of its needs, it’s going to break down. It’s not going to show up in its fullness. But when we-
Imi: I love that the race car analogy is one that I’ve used for a long time.
Imi: When they’re powerful, they’re like the most expensive race car who everyone wants, but you need good fuel.
Melissa: Yes. And it requires much more maintenance. It requires a lot from us, whereas that lower maintenance vehicle doesn’t ask a whole lot of us. But even in its top performance, it’s a little underwhelming. It’s not the most fun car to drive on the road. The race car is. But it takes a lot of work and effort and energy to keep it in that performance. And when we start in the early years, helping children navigate their emotions with confidence and clarity, they learn how to become their own mechanic. For the most part, really learn how to advocate for themselves, take care of their own needs, keep themselves in this top performance. That’s why it’s so impactful.
Imi: Awesome. That’s just, I don’t know, I don’t have anything else to add. I just love knowledge of becoming their own mechanic. If all of us can do that, what a wonderful world.
Imi: And they will no longer feel unsafe in their own heart, in their own space.
Melissa: Exactly. And to bring that happy face sticker back into it. I think what happens for a lot of people, let’s say you’re looking at your gas gauge and it says it’s empty. And you think to yourself, oh, well, it’s empty. I just have to put a happy sticker on there. Now your car’s going to run out of fuel. Now you’re not going to perform properly because you’re not meeting your needs. You’re not looking at the check engine lights, at the indicators, at the subtle opportunities before the real breakdown in life happens. And so when children learn that they don’t have to happy face sticker over everything that they can handle. Oh, my gas tank is low, what am I going to do about it? I’m feeling overwhelmed, what am I going to do about it? Now they can get through life and thrive and be the race car they were meant to be. Be this performer, be this brilliant, wonderful, fun, move through life in the vehicle that they were born with.
Melissa: But what happens is so many of us don’t learn how to do that. And so we have coping skills which in adulthood might look really unhealthy drinking or using drugs or shopping, or these days using the Internet to zone out or having relationships. All of these really unhealthy ways to avoid looking at our empty fuel tank. To avoid looking at life’s indicators that things aren’t working for us. Because we don’t know how to fix them. We don’t know how to handle the overwhelm or the disappointment or the frustration because we weren’t taught. And so we have to learn it in adulthood. And look, it’s never too late to learn it. Many of us personally, I learned most of it in my adulthood, which is why I do the work that I do. Right. But when thank you. When we can give this to children early on man, what a leap they have. It’s like hitting the turbo and just speeding off through life and just zooming around. And it really gives them an opportunity to avoid having to do so much repair work down the road.
Imi: Absolutely. But going back to being a parent of a highly sensitive child, what do we do when we see them struggling, when we see really extreme reactions, when we see them struggling in school with peers. We them scaring other people away. And we want to help, but we don’t know how.
Melissa: Yeah. So I always say that sensitive children tend to struggle most with social relationships. Usually they do okay academically in school, but it’s the interpersonal relationships that are more challenging for them. So the first thing I would do is empathize and really validate their experience and say things like this is hard for you. This is painful, this is upsetting. I can see that you’re having a hard time. And depending on the age of the child if they’re, I would say like school going children.
Imi: I think it’s really hard for parents to not jump in and try and solve the problem.
Melissa: Yes, absolutely. And to remember in those moments that the jumping in robs the child of the opportunity to learn, to do it for themselves. In those moments, if parents can remember, this is where my child learns to do for themselves. This is where they become their own mechanic. This is where they learn the tools to handle life. And it’s not to say that we want them to drown in the struggle, but in a little bit of struggle with support, resilience is developed. This is really learn how to blossom into who they’re meant to be, how to handle adversity and conflict and disappointment and upset. When we rush in to save them, they learn that they’re helpless. They learn that they can’t take care of themselves. That’s not what we want to teach them. And I get it that in those moments, it’s really hard to handle our own discomfort.
Melissa: That’s our work, that’s our work as the parent and the adults. That’s where our growth comes in. When we can see their struggle and lovingly support them in the struggle and guide them and ask them what they need from us and coach them through it, then they learn to be able to do it for themselves, which is the ultimate gift. When we rush into rescue them and save them, what we’re teaching them is that they can’t do it for themselves. And essentially what we’re teaching them is codependency.
Melissa: We’re teaching them that we’re the ones who can do for them because they can’t do it. It’s not what we’re really wanting them to learn. So once children are about school age or older middle school high school especially, I would also encourage asking them, what do you need? What are your ideas here let’s brainstorm together. Because most of the time they have ideas within them, but they just can’t access them because they’re waiting for us to jump in and rescue. So why are they going to advocate for themselves if somebody else is going to be the one to take care of it for them.
Imi: Yeah. You’ve brought up some really good points and I love that you give us very concrete things of what to do and what not to do and explain the rationale behind it. Basically, we need to support our highly sensitive kids to learn, to be their own anchor and not jumping to solve problem from them. So they wouldn’t be waiting for other people to help them as they grow older.
Melissa: Exactly. It’s what gives them the confidence to handle life, to feel safe. Because when they have the resources within them, they can handle what life brings. I think a lot of highly sensitive adults don’t believe that they have the ability to take care of themselves. And what would feel more unsafe in the world than that, to have this false belief that you need someone else to come in and rescue you. It’s very unsettling to live that way. To live with the confidence and knowing that you can handle life. You can take care of yourself, makes you unstoppable in many ways.
Imi: Makes you unstoppable like I car.
Imi: Sometimes what happens is the partners, the spouse, the parents don’t agree with each other. Let’s say a partner disagrees that there’s such a thing as being highly sensitive and they think the child’s just being weak and we are just being melodramatic. Is there anything we can… This is such a hard question.
Melissa: Obviously, if someone asked me that I would probably recommend couples counseling.
Imi: Yeah. But if you do have any idea of anything we can do to help the parents be on the same page on your resources.
Melissa: Yeah. I agree. It’s a very challenging question. And it’s probably one of the hardest things that I see in my practice without overgeneralizing. Usually dads have an opinion that the moms are codling the children. That’s the broader experience that I tend to see. It is hard. And I think couples counseling is actually a great idea, especially if the pastor, the therapist, the counselor, the coach, whatever it is, understands high sensitivity. What I tend to do in those situations is I start with the science. I start by talking about the research that we know about high sensitivity.
Melissa: About this trait, this genetic trait that is inherited, that is innate, that is wired into our neurology that is not going to change. And what I often tell the parent who is more reluctant to move forward with more nurturing discipline strategies, is that they can approach their child in whatever way they want to. But what the research shows is that the child’s behavior is indicative of their inner landscape. And if this child wasn’t struggling, their behavior would not be so challenging. And if they are willing to try a different approach, I can promise that they will see different behavior in that child.
Imi: That’s amazing. So give them a lead in basically some of the punishment.
Melissa: Yes, because once they begin to open up their mind, that’s really what we’re talking about is how do we get somebody to become more open mind about accepting high sensitivity as being legitimate? That’s why starting with the science and the research is really helpful. If we were talking about empaths or intuitives, or psychic experiences it’d be much more challenging because that’s not scientifically research. But the trait of high sensitivity is, and you’re right. It’s not in the DSM-5 because it’s not a disorder, it’s not something to be treated or remedied. So the way that I always like to explain is an extreme temperament type.
Imi: Yes. Someone is just on the further end of the same spectrum where everyone is on.
Melissa: Exactly. And generally it’s people are more sensitive, more intense, more reactive, maybe more moody. These are all aspects of temperament, usually less adaptable to change. And I’d like to start with the science, with the research. Elaine Aaron’s work in talking about temperament, which was defined by, I believe it’s doctors, Thomas and Chase don’t quote me on that. I always get their names a little bit wrong. But the child development psychologists who coined the aspects of temperament, when we go to that, usually a reluctant parent is a little more open.
Melissa: The other thing, just to keep in mind, if you’re a parent and you’re listen, and I experience this in my own relationship. And this is the work that I do. It’s usually very hard for spouse to hear something from another spouse. And so sometimes turning experts saying the very same thing that you are saying can be much more impactful. Because in our intimate partnerships, we fall into our childhood roles, into childhood wounds, into our childhood attachment styles. And so we can become triggered when our partner is telling us something, because now it’s our mother or our father or somebody else who’s speaking to us and we’re just going to push back against them because it’s our childhood wounds speaking.
Melissa: And so sometimes just turning to an expert and bringing them in to offer some of this information, even if you’ve already given it to your partner, might be really helpful. Usually parents are more willing to hear it when they’re paying somebody an hourly fee and this is somebody’s profession than when it’s coming from you as a parent as a partner who said, well, I heard it on a podcast, or I read article on the Internet that usually doesn’t have the gravitas that working with a professional does.
Imi: Such a good point. Yes. Honestly, any so called expert authority or outside forces would be useful as a buffer.
Imi: I’ve got so many questions. Do you think the world, oh gosh, we have a short of time. Do you think there’s a tendency that the world pathologizes HSP kids?
Melissa: I do. I think the world that we live in right now, people are looking for a quick fix and a diagnosis and a pill or a therapy to fix using quotes, to fix the child.
Melissa: And I get it because the fix for highly sensitive children is deep understanding and patience and compassion and working on ourselves. And that’s uncomfortable for a lot of people. And it takes much more inner work than giving a child a medication or sending them to therapy and saying to the therapist, fix my kid, something’s wrong with them. And so I do think there’s almost a desire for a lot of parents to be able to pathologize what’s going on because then it’s not about them. It’s not their approach. It’s not their discipline style. I think the other thing is that high sensitivity when you were asking me earlier, what does it look like in children, depending on the lens that you are looking at that behavior through. I’m looking at it through the lens of a coach that works with parents of highly sensitive children. So I’m always looking through the lens of sensitivity first.
Melissa: But I also do a lot of work with children that have sensory processing disorder, because the behaviors can very easily overlap. You may not have noticed that I talked less about sensory discomfort, children who are particular, certain clothing or foods or textures or light. Kids that are bothered by noise or easily distracted, because those are generally more indicative of a sensory issue, or maybe some ADHD, or maybe a child has some anxiety disorder that’s legitimate that overlaps with the high sensitivity.
Melissa: And so a pediatric occupational therapist or a child psychologist, or a pediatrician is looking at that behavior through their own lens. And so they are pathologizing this behavior and maybe looking for where are these behaviors showing up in the DSM-5. Oh, this child has ADHD. No, maybe not. Maybe they’re just highly sensitive. And if we shift a couple of things in their experience, those behaviors will change. So it also really depends on who you’re going to for support and guidance. A lot of times parents come to me after they’ve talked with their pediatrician and I think to myself, oh my gosh, the pediatrician knows about the physical wellbeing, right about this child’s development. But most pediatricians haven’t even heard about high sensitivity. It’s not on their radar.
Melissa: And if a parent comes in and says, I have a fussy baby, and they’re not sleeping at night, they’re not thinking high sensitivity and let’s dim the lights earlier, let’s give them a soothing massage before we put them to bed. Let’s swaddle them tightly. Let’s not swaddle them if it doesn’t work. Let’s use music. In other words, they’re not looking at you into what’s going on for the child they’re just looking at the behavior. And so it really depends on who you turn to for support in the way that this child is going to be treated.
Melissa: Going back to that car metaphor, you could take that same vehicle to a dealer, to a mechanic or to a hobby mechanic. To somebody whose tinkers on the car in their garage. They’re going to have a very different diagnosis than the car dealership who’s got all of these fancy computers to hook it up to. And the garage mechanic might say, oh, I’ve seen this before I get it. I know what it is. And the dealership I’d say, well, we’ve run all of the tests and all the bells and whistles. Now there’s eight different things that are wrong. Let’s do all of them. No, no, no, maybe not. So it really depends on the lens that you’re looking at the behavior through, if it’s going to be pathologized, or if it’s going to be identified as an extreme temperament type, and then diagnosed and treated when a shift in discipline and a shift in empathy and a nuanced understanding of what’s going on in that child inner world.
Imi: Yes. Oh gosh. So we need to move on parenting. If we are highly sensitive ourselves. I guess I’m not going to ask you basic question, but how do we realize we are highly sensitive. But how realizing you ask highly sensitive could help maybe a better question, if that makes sense. Like how acknowledging that we are having this neurodiverse trait ourselves. Could be a strength rather than something that makes us feel, oh, no, it’s a bad thing.
Melissa: Yeah. I think identifying high sensitivity in ourselves is very empowering. I remember when I discovered Elaine Aaron’s work, it was well after I knew something was different about me. I couldn’t identify it. It’s almost like if you ever had the experience of smelling something familiar and recognizing it, but not being able to label what it is. Like if you smell a perfume and you recognize some of the floral notes, but you can’t identify what they are. And then you read the label on the perfume, you say, oh, Gardenia. Yes. I knew I recognized it.
Melissa: So identifying the trait in ourselves is just this… For me, it was like a coming home. It was just a real validation. But the thing that I really want to point out here is that there are plenty of highly sensitive adults who had wonderful childhoods, where they were nurtured and they were seen, and they were given emotional language and they didn’t grow up with big wounds or real deficiencies in the way that they can move through life. And so being highly sensitive is not a challenge for them because they’ve always had this innate understanding of how to take care of themselves. Most highly sensitive adults who are looking for support or who have this like aha resonance, like I was describing, we struggled in our childhood. And so we had to do a lot of work to feel whole in ourselves as adults.
Melissa: And so there are plenty of highly sensitive people who’ve just been pretty, even keeled their whole life. Yes, they were nurtured properly. So being a highly sensitive adult is not indicative of struggling or having a hard time or feeling unsafe in the world. Those things are more indicative of having struggled on the path of having some wounding or trauma or unhealthy relationships or inappropriate experiences in your childhood. Those are the things that are going to lead you to struggle in your sensitivity in adulthood.
Imi: Thank you. That’s very thorough and really help to empower, to see it as a gift.
Melissa: Yes. Yes.
Imi: You know how noisy and excited kids can be, especially if they are excitable and as a highly sensitive person who finds things so overwhelming very easily, how can we handle the noise in the sensory overload? You know how always wants our attention and mommy, daddy look at what I drew, look at what I sing. And it’s so lovely. But if we can only take so much of it the day, how do we deal with it without hurting our kids and without feeling bad?
Melissa: Yeah. That’s a good question. So I’m laughing because I’m like, are you in my head are you in my experience when you say that. I have an eight-year-old stepdaughter who is very loud, bless her heart, lovely, very needy of attention. And it is very overwhelming. And so I have to take little breaks and earplugs work really well for drowning out some old overwhelming sound. Especially when my nephews are also here or she has a friend over or she’s playing with the dog and now the dog is barking and she’s making noise. Personally, I’m very sensitive to sound. It is the sense that sets me into overwhelm the easiest.
Melissa: And so keeping like earplugs around or stepping away into a quiet room, fortunately, I work from home. I have an office, it’s my sanctuary. There are times that I come into it when I’m not working. And I close the door and I sit on my meditation cushion because that’s what I need to bring myself back into balance. So the first thing is recognizing when you’re getting close to your own overwhelm and do something about it before you reach it, which is something that we want to teach the children also. And so there’s nothing wrong with saying it’s very loud in here. I need to step away for a few minutes.
Imi: What if you can’t though?
Melissa: Say again. Sorry.
Imi: What if you can’t. There’s only you with your kid. How can you set boundaries with them without hurting their feelings?
Melissa: Well, in terms, of-
Imi: I’m asking you all these really difficult questions.
Melissa: Well, they are difficult questions because they’re what happened in life. But I want to say that when we plan ahead, we can do it with more ease. When we wait until we’re in the midst of it-
Imi: Good points.
Melissa: We’re not going to be able to really do it in an appropriate way. If we wait until the kids are screaming for us to say, ah, stop it. You’re too much making noise using inside voice. Now we’ve lost it right now. We’ve reached overwhelm. We’ve become dysregulated. We’re now showering that on the children. We’re not modeling what we want to model. So when we can see the tipping point coming for us, and then we say something to the children, like it’s too loud in here. This is something that I go to. This is my go to language. It’s too loud in here. I don’t want to yell and I’m getting close to yelling and telling you to stop. So we all need to take a break and bring the energy down. Or it’s too loud in here. It sounds like you’re at the park. Let’s go to the park where you can run around and scream and play. The house is not the place for that. Or you can go in the backyard and do it.
Melissa: In other words, we offer options that let the child meet their need to run and play and be loud and be a child appropriately. One of the things that we struggle with in my house is running up and down the stairs. We don’t do that. It’s not safe. And so every time I see my stepdaughter run up the stairs, I remind her the stairs are not for running. They’re you’re getting up and down the floors. If you want to run and climb, the park is right across the street. Let’s go, we have a whole backyard where you can run and play. This is not the place for it. And so we just redirect them into it.
Imi: It’s a brilliant example of how you redirect things.
Melissa: But the real key is to identify the places where you struggle. Then when you’re in a calm, regulated state, that’s what you need to brainstorm. That’s why when I coach parents, when we’re on a coaching hall, we’re all regulated. We’re calm. We don’t have the children in the room unless we’re working with the child, which is something else completely. But when it’s me and a parent or me and a couple, we are in a regulated state. So we can come up with these ideas. We can put them into our back pocket. Sometimes I’ll encourage parents to write this language on their phone and keep like a folder in their photo album of things to say in the moment and pull it up.
Imi: That is such a good sound recognition strategy.
Melissa: Yeah. Because when we become dysregulated and then we model inappropriate coping skills, what we’re doing is we’re teaching the child what we don’t actually want them to do.
Imi: That’s right.
Melissa: And I also want to say, nobody’s perfect at this. We all lose it on a regular basis because it’s stressful having children and being with them. And when you do it wrong, amusing air quotes, because we can never really do it wrong. But when you realize that it wasn’t your best, you have the opportunity to turn to the child afterwards and say, I’m sorry, I yelled. I’m sorry. I said that wasn’t the right thing for me to do. I could have handled it differently. I was feeling so overwhelmed. We can then turn to them and acknowledge our error in handling it and repair the relationship. And by doing that, we’re actually teaching them it’s okay to make mistakes. I’m not perfect either. Nobody’s perfect. There’s no standard to hold ourselves to.
Melissa: It also teaches them that they’re allowed to make mistakes. That we have grace, we have forgiveness, we have love and acceptance in the family. So don’t be hard on yourself if you mess up just own it, own it. Acknowledge to the child that you could have done it differently and then try to do it a little differently next time. That’s how they really learn. Yeah.
Imi: Well said, Melissa, I noticed a time. I still have a few question. It would be great for us to continue, but if you need to go.
Melissa: Let’s do one more.
Imi: Okay. One more. That’s hard. Thinking, thinking, okay. One more. Well, as someone that’s feeling, that’s highly sensitive, whether or not it’s grounded in real, it can be quite easy for us to feel rejected and criticized sometimes even though the reality is not the case. You know how teenagers can be a bit harsh sometimes. Yeah. I wonder, is there a way of dealing with that and not try not to take things personally as a parent? I think that’s my question. How can we not pick things personally as a parent.
Melissa: Yeah. So the thing to remember is that young children, teenagers, whatever age the child is, they are trying on identity. They’re trying on ways of expression and they try them on with the people that they feel most safe with. So when your teenager is sassy or nasty to you, if you can say to yourself, this is about them, not about me. They’re saying this to me because they feel safe with me. I’m going to give it some space to calm myself down before I respond. And then you say something to them like, you know what you said really hurt my feelings or what you said was not kind. Can we talk about it? Can we have a conversation?
Melissa: Most of the time when teenagers have been raised in an environment where these things have been happening, they’ll be open to having that kind of conversation. If they feel safe enough with their parent, be able to express what’s going on, where a parent hear it and not be super reactive or take it personally, we’ll be able to have this interplay. I remember years ago, getting an email from a friend of mine, her son was seven at the time. Now he is in high school and she was so upset. And I said what’s going on? He said I was the meanest mom in the world and he hated me. And I said to her, here’s the good news, if he didn’t feel safe enough to say that to you, he wouldn’t say it to you. He doesn’t mean that.
Imi: You are so good. Yeah.
Melissa: He didn’t turn to me and say, you’re so mean I hate you. He doesn’t know me, even if I was mean to him, because doesn’t feel with me. There’s not that trust in the relationship. So if you can, in your mind, remember the meaner a child is to you, the safer they feel with you. And instead of taking it personally, like how could they say that mean thing to me, I’ve done all of this. They’re so ungrateful. And instead say they said that mean thing to me because they feel safe and they trust me, how am I going to be able to respond to this to continue building on that safety and trust? How can I turn this into a dialogue to get to whatever hurt is going on in my child that they would express it in this way. Now you can really solidify that relationship.
Imi: Yeah. Thank you so much, Melissa. You are such a mountain of germs. Every time I talk to you, I download so much wisdom. And can you believe it? You were my first guest of this whole little podcast that I’m doing. And that is still one of the most popular episode. Guy, go back and revisit it and she shared so much and people have emailed me to tell me how they find your metaphor of the color and everything really useful. And today you’ve done it again.
Melissa: Thank you, Imi. It’s always such a pleasure talking with you and I’m overjoyed every time we get to spend time together.
Imi: Yes, yes. And your dog has behaved today.
Imi: Oh, all right. Well, I will let you get on with your day, but please can we talk again?
Imi: I really want to.
Melissa: Anytime it’s always a pleasure. Yeah.
Imi: And if there’s anything I can do to help you as well, let me know.
Melissa: Likewise, thank you.
Imi: No problem. Okay.
Imi: So I will stop the recording.
Imi Lo is a consultant and published author with extensive and international experience in mental health and psychotherapy. Her books Emotional Sensitivity and Intensity and The Gift of Intensity are available worldwide and in multiple languages. Imi has two Master’s degrees; one in Mental Health and one in Buddhist Studies. She works holistically, combining psychological insights with Eastern and Western philosophies such as Buddhism and Stoicism.