Small children who have extra big feelings and extra low thresholds experience the world profoundly…and they let you know it. They can be engaged, social, perceptive, and smart as a whip. They can also be really intense and more persistent than any human should be. As a result, they require (demand?) much more interaction and help and soothing from their parents all the time…all day…around the clock.
As a rule, parents of these firecrackers are tired, tired, tired…and they can’t possibly be as consistent as they’d like—or as patient, or as coherent. And nothing seems to work the way it does with more easygoing kids. Parents can feel like they’re doing a really terrible job.
I recently conducted a large-scale survey to find out more about parents’ experiences with their child’s intense/sensitive temperament. Overall, these parents reported a surprisingly high level of self-doubt. One parent admitted,
“I often wonder if what I experience is ‘normal’ and if I’m just not very good at parenting since I seem to struggle so much more than other parents I know.”
Another parent acknowledged how the intensity of the experience challenged her sense of self:
“I’m both amazed and exhausted by how much my child, knows, feels, and does. I question all the time if I’m good enough to handle her.”
Parents in this survey were significantly more exhausted and felt less competent than the parents of mellower children.
As a sleep consultant working with these “spirited” kiddos and parent of two (now grown) ones of my own, I know that having a child who is “outside the box” can really knock parents off their center and cause them to question themselves, as well as wonder why their experience is so qualitatively different from (what seems like) every other parent in the world.
Here’s the good news…
You didn’t cause this. Your child’s big feelings are not a result of anything you’ve done (or not done). This is how your child is wired. Chances are, there were signs even in the first few days or months.
Was she incredibly alert right out of the gate (“Her eyes were like little laser beams”)?
Did his eyes pop open the second you laid him down even though he was completely out?
Did she seem to constantly fight sleep like she was afraid of missing something?
Did she seem to need continuous interaction or connection with you (versus lying contentedly on the floor)?
Did the rocking chair sit unused in the nursery because you had to bounce like a crazy person on a yoga ball to get him to sleep?
In my survey, parents reported that they could tell practically from birth that something was up. Dr. Thomas Boyce, a researcher on the biological foundations of temperament, has found that these children are indeed wired differently. They respond more dramatically to input from the get-go. He even found that these children were more reactive to things like loud noises in utero. This means that the only way you “caused” this is if you, too, are sensitive/intense/alert.
Advice books weren’t written for you. Advice books virtually never take temperament into account. They generally focus on the majority of children who are more easygoing and adaptable. Parents of sensitive/intense little ones may try what the books suggest — and may try them for longer without the promised success. This is because these “extra” kids react more strongly to change and are also much more persistent. Instead of the “15 minutes of fussing” promised in the sleep books, these children will scream for hours without relenting. Parents often feel defeated because the experience just doesn’t map to the advice. Parents, it really isn’t your fault. You haven’t “done it wrong.” They’re just not writing about your unique child.
You are stepping up. Research has theorized that intense/sensitive children actually receive (because they demand) a higher level of parenting skill from their parents. Research also shows that these children respond even more strongly than their mellower peers to good parenting. So, the investment is a good one, even if it takes a toll.
There are silver linings. Alert, sensitive little ones have abilities that may be challenging when they’re small, but these can become tremendous strengths in the long run. In my survey, children who were rated as having a “highly difficult temperament” also scored higher on perceptiveness, persistence, and elements of emotional intelligence. It’s possible that the sensitivity that causes so many challenges in the early years are just abilities that need time to settle in. Some traits (like persistence) that will be a huge plus in adolescence are just so much harder when they manifest in a toddler.
To you parents, I say: Give yourself a break.
You are doing an amazing job at something that is so much harder and less straightforward than you expected. Your child is different…in the most amazing, exhausting ways.
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.