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Big brains, thin skins, and oceans of feelings: Do you have a “livewire”?

Cute little girl with headphones and pursed lips
If your child is just a little more "on," you may have a livewire.

Have you ever made any of these statements about your child?

“They go from zero to screaming bloody murder if I don't respond quickly.”

“We spend hours bouncing on the ball to get her to sleep.”

“Once he gets really upset, it’s hard to calm him down.”

“She hates (H-A-T-E-S) the car seat (or swaddle).”

“He just does not want to sleep. It’s like he’s afraid he’ll miss something.”

“She’s either asleep or go, go, go like the Energizer Bunny. There’s no in-between.”

“We can get him dead asleep, and the minute we lay him down, his eyes pop open, and we have to start all over.”

Does any of this sound familiar? If you’re thinking, “That’s my child…” you, my friend, have a livewire.

What's a livewire? Super smart, super sensitive, super aware...very big feelings.

There are several popular terms in the parenting world that refer to children that are just a little…."extra." Terms like highly sensitive (Elaine Aron), spirited (Mary Sheedy Kurcinka), high needs (Dr. William Sears), dragons, differently wired (Deborah Reber)....a handful.. all refer to different aspects of a subset of children who experience and process the world a little differently (more intensely) than their peers.

Toddler girl in a pink top with arms outstretched against a gray background.

I like to use the term “livewires” as an umbrella for all of the various sub-categories of temperamental differences. “Livewires” refers to the way that these kiddos just seem to have more energetic current coursing through their little systems. Because the sheer volume of energy can easily outstrip their immature processing systems, their circuits are easily blown. They routinely have more meltdowns, bigger sleep problems, and more difficulty with self-soothing as a consequence. It’s a package deal in many ways: big abilities in very little bodies.

What is temperament and why is it important?

“Temperament” is a hard-wired system that takes in and processes information from the environment. Some important research on the underlying biology of temperament found that individuals can be divided into two sub-types: dandelions and orchids. (Click here to watch a video by Dr. Thomas Boyce about this.)

I know, I know: why are we talking about flowers? Bear with me.

Dandelions, as plants, do pretty well in a wide variety of lawns…um, environments. They really will do pretty well anywhere they pop up (Really. Anywhere.) Individuals who have a dandelion-type temperament system tend to go with the flow and bounce back fairly well from disruptions.

If you’ve ever tried to grow an orchid, on the other hand, you know that they need a very specific kind of caregiving environment—juuust the right amount of water and food, not too much light, just enough humidity. It’s really easy for them to wilt; but when they get what they need, they are stunning.

An orchid temperament is similar in that it can require much, much more from parents in terms of patience, stamina, and skill, but the qualities that are so challenging when they’re little can be amazing talents when they’re older.

How to know if your child is a livewire

Temperament researchers Thomas and Chess (1977) identified a list of traits that are still largely used as measures of temperamental traits. It’s important to know that not every child is going to be “more” on all of these. Just make notes of where you say, “Good grief, YES.”

  1. Activity Level – How busy, moving, on the go are they? Are they hitting motor milestones before they have any business doing so?

  2. Alertness/Perceptiveness – How much do they seem to notice? How visually alert are they? Do you ever say that your child “doesn’t miss a thing”?

  3. Regularity – Do they have predictable patterns of eating or sleeping? Or is every day different?

  4. Persistence – Can they be distracted from something they want? Or do they dig in their heels and refuse to give up?

  5. Sensory Sensitivity – Do they react to certain sensory inputs like texture, temperature, sound, movement? Are they overwhelmed by busy places, loud noises? Do they need vigorous input (bouncing on a ball) to downshift?

  6. Emotional Sensitivity —Do they pick up on others’ moods or attend to social dynamics? Do they seem bothered by unfairness or deeply affected by sad things?

  7. Intensity/Big feelings – How big and rapid are their reactions, positive or negative? How easy is it to calm them down? (Intensity doesn’t have to mean “negative.” It also doesn’t have to translate into meltdowns. Highly sensitive children are intense, they just direct the intensity inward. For a child who is intense, everything is a big deal: positive or negative.)

  8. Adaptability – Do they have difficulty with transitions like those between awake/asleep, playing/eating, leaving the house. How well do they deal with frustration or interruption?

  9. Approach – Are they very outgoing and social (extroverted) or more cautious, needing time to warm up (introverted)?

What parents will say that tells me they have a livewire...

Parents in construction gear with their hands on their heads in disbelief

It’s a little like a secret code. Parents will often say a few things that instantly set off a little bell—bing! They’ve got a livewire!

Bouncers, not rockers. These babies need to be bounced on a yoga ball instead of a rocking chair to go to sleep. (This tells me the baby needs BIG input to downshift.)

Fear of missing out (FOMO). Parents routinely will say that it’s like their baby has FOMO and feels like sleep is just a waste of precious time. (These are sometimes newborns who can go five and six hours without a nap.)

Eyes wide open at birth. Parents will also say that their baby lacked that fuzzy newborn gaze, but instead that their baby’s “eyes were wide open, staring like laser beams. Even the nurses noticed it.”

Their eyes pop open the minute they hit the crib. These sensitive kiddos don’t seem to ever fully conk out. Parents will say that they work and work to get this baby asleep and once a false move makes the baby wake and they have to start over.

Will only nap for 30 minutes no matter what. Naps are just a struggle across the board for livewires. Often, despite parents’ full-court press, naps are just ridiculously short.

A few other “odd” common characteristics of an alert baby

  • Early milestones – These on-the-go livewires tend to hit motor milestones early and all at once.

  • Early reflux, colic, eczema – We don’t know why, but these physical conditions are common. It’s almost like livewires are physiologically sensitive.

  • Challenging labor and/or birth – Also an unknown. In my survey of 850 parents, I found that difficult labor and/or difficult birth was associated with children with a more intense, livewire temperament.

(You can click here to get a copy of my temperament checklist and get an even better picture.)

The good news/bad news…

You are probably very aware of the challenging parts of having a livewire. The amount of work and worry and stress is no joke. And you probably feel like you’re the only one struggling like this.

Parents in construction gear looking happy against a gold background

Here’s some good news: YOU ARE NOT ALONE. There are lots of parents in the same boat and they have the same feelings: Am I doing this right? Why isn’t this working? Do I actually just stink at being a parent? No. You are a Rockstar. You just have a very challenging (and brilliant) child to manage. (Remember: big brain, little body).

Here’s some more good news: YOU didn’t cause your child’s behavior. If they are fussy or sensitive and/or they’re not sleeping…it’s not you. This is just how they are wired.

This is the best news: every challenging trait has a silver lining. Orchids require a ton of work, but they produce amazing flowers. Same with livewires. You may have an incredibly fussy, non-sleeping baby who is also incredibly social and verbal. You may have a toddler who comes up with every reason in the book for why they can’t go to sleep at bedtime who is also hilariously funny and creative and can name every species of dinosaur. Researcher Jay Belsky[i] calls these strengths the “bright sides” of temperament.

My parent survey found that, sure enough, a more intense, sensitive temperament was related to tons of sleep problems (like all of them), as well as some impressive strengths like higher levels of empathy, perceptiveness, and engagement/sociability.

If you have been really struggling for a while, it may feel like you’re living full-time in the hard, dark side, and you’re struggling to detect the possibility that a bright side even exists. I know that feeling. There can be long stretches where the upsides are hard to locate. I promise the silver linings are in there. They really are. They just masquerade as a lot of unsettled crying and upset at first, before your livewire has the ability to drive their brain. It’s like putting a new driver in a Ferrari. They just don’t have the skill to manage that amount of horsepower… But eventually, they will. And then stand back. They are going to really take off.

Macall Gordon, M.A. has a B.S. from Stanford in Human Biology and an M.A. from Antioch University, Seattle in Applied Psychology, where she is currently a Sr. Lecturer. She researches and writes about temperament, sleep, and the gap between research and advice. She is also a certified pediatric sleep consultant working with parents of alert, non-sleeping children. She comes to this work because she had two sensitive, intense children and she didn’t sleep for 18 years.
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