Does your toddler or preschooler ever have the “everything’s too noisy, too spicy, too soft, too scratchy, I HATE EVERYTHING” tantrum? Or, do they have the, “NO! I don’t need you! I’ll do it myself!” tantrum?

If you’re raising a highly sensitive or strong-willed child, you know there are some unique challenges that come with raising children with these specific traits.

Our sensitive children often struggle with challenging behaviour the most. They are often the kids that get in the most trouble and are seen as bad by others, and it can be hard for parents to know how to respond to their tantrums!

This blog takes a closer look at highly sensitive kids. You’ll walk away with a deeper understanding of this temperament, you’ll understand why your sensitive child appears strong-willed, and we will give you practical tools you can use to support your child during their tantrums! 

Understanding the Highly Sensitive and Strong-Willed Child

Your highly sensitive child experiences their world in a unique way. They are more sensitive to textures in food, the feeling of their bedsheets, or the way that their clothes fit. They might get easily overwhelmed when your house is really noisy. They might ask you for the volume on the TV to be lower (or they may love it super loud). Your highly sensitive child might have a strong sense of justice. They are going to stand up for what they believe is right. 

Your highly sensitive child might also be deeply empathetic and compassionate. If someone else in your home is upset, they might take on their emotions. These kids are very observant. They notice when something feels off, and their behaviour might change when they can sense you are upset.

Highly sensitive kids often have a deeper appreciation for music, art, and food. They have an incredible ability to understand the world around them. 

Because our highly sensitive kids experience their senses at a deeper level, they are most susceptible to having big tantrums! When they don’t feel understood, when the lights, tastes, or touch is too much, they need a way to release this feeling of “too muchness” from their body. 

We also see more tantrums from highly sensitive kids when the trusted adults in their lives are having a difficult time regulating their own emotions. You’ll notice that if you are having an off day, your child might also struggle more with their emotions.

Our sensitive kids are the ones who appear the most strong-willed, and this is for a good reason! Imagine your sensitive child who feels the world in such a deep way. They often feel a need to control their environment because whether or not they are consciously aware of it, they need to protect themselves!

If they are “strong-willed” about the temperature of their food, what clothes they wear, or how quickly they get ready for school – underneath this might be a child simply trying to protect themselves from these intense sensations!

At Nurtured First, we love our sensitive and strong kids and believe that with some simple tools, we can partner with these kids and see fewer tantrums and power struggles! 

The Experience of Tantrums for Highly Sensitive Children

As we mentioned, highly sensitive kids may experience tantrums differently than other kids simply because they experience the world in a different way. While tantrums are common for toddlers and preschoolers, the way highly sensitive kids react to and recover from tantrums can differ significantly from their peers.

Highly sensitive kids may experience tantrums more intensely than other children because they are deeply impacted by others’ emotions. Here’s an example of how your sensitive kids might experience a tantrum:

Tommy, a highly sensitive preschooler, is having a tantrum because his brother is repeatedly blowing a loud whistle in the playroom. The sound of the whistle is physically painful for Tommy, but he doesn’t know how to explain that to his brother. To get the noise to stop and relieve the pain, Tommy hits the whistle out of his brother’s mouth. His brother is hurt and begins to cry. Tommy’s caregivers come into the playroom, visibly upset with his behaviour. 

Here’s what Tommy might be experiencing during this tantrum: 

  • Overstimulated by the whistle. 
  • Deep sense of shame for hurting his brother.
  • Overwhelmed by his caregiver’s anger at him.

Here’s what Tommy might do during his tantrum:

  • Hit the whistle out of his brother’s hand.
  • Be so full of shame that he runs away.
  • Be unable to listen to his caregiver because he is so overwhelmed with emotion.

Highly sensitive kids may take longer to recover emotionally, so they may need more time to process their feelings and return to a state of calm compared to other children. 

In this example, Tommy’s brother was able to “bounce back” and continue playing after the incident. But, Tommy needed some time and space to decompress and process the experience. Tommy’s parents noticed that he appeared “off” for the rest of the day. This tantrum, like many others, made his body tired, and his heart feel heavy. 

Highly sensitive kids can appear very strong-willed during a tantrum. They may seem non-compliant, assertive, or independent, and they often don’t like being told what to do. Due to their determination, your sensitive child’s tantrums may last longer compared to other kids who move on more quickly.

Here’s another example of what this can look like: 

Ava is a sensitive toddler. She is fiercely determined. When her caregiver tells her it’s time for bed and tries to rush her through brushing her teeth, she feels a loss of control and independence. This feeling is incredibly threatening for her, so she pushes back by screaming, kicking, and wiggling her way out of their arms. 

Here’s what Ava might be thinking during this tantrum:

  • I’m not tired yet, and I want to play with my toys on my own, my own way, without my siblings interrupting.
  • I’m overwhelmed by being rushed. 
  • My mom doesn’t read the story the way I like; I can’t trust her to do it right.
  • My dad doesn’t set up my bed the way I need it to for sleep; I can’t go to bed because I can’t trust him to let me do this on my own.

Here’s what Ava might do during this tantrum:

  • Yell, “I’m NOT going to bed!”
  • Hit her mom when she rushes her. 
  • Tells her dad, “You are NOT the boss of me!” when he tries to put her to bed

4 Ways to Help Highly Sensitive Children

1. Nurture the Relationship

Above and beyond anything else, a sensitive or strong-willed child needs a strong relationship with their caregiver. Here are a few simple ways that you can nurture the relationship with your child:

  • Spend one-on-one time with them doing something they love! If they love certain music, a craft, or even playing unicorns – simply spending time engaging in something that matters to them makes a big difference. 
  • Repair. Your highly sensitive child will have a hard time moving forward in their day if you’ve had an argument or were angry with them and haven’t repaired. Make sure to come back to them and apologize if you’ve lost your cool.

2. Let Your Child Find the Answer

Instead of telling your child what to do, see if you can allow your child to come up with the answer of what they need to do next themselves. Here are a few examples of this tool in action:

  • “Before we go to bed, we need to brush our teeth, put on PJs, and read a book. What step is left for us to do?”
  • “The school bus is coming in 30 minutes. We need to pack your backpack, brush your teeth, and finish breakfast. What step do you want to take next?”

3. Acknowledge the Depth of Their Feeling

It can be easy to dismiss big feelings, especially when we don’t understand them! For example, if your sensitive child is crying about the way their brother whistled, it can be easy to dismiss it and tell them to just move on. Instead, acknowledging that their feelings are real to them can be very powerful! 

  • “The whistle feels really loud. I hear you. You don’t like that sound. Hmm, I wonder what would help?”
  • “You really don’t like these PJs! They are the worst! I hear you! I wonder why they are the worst?”

4. Set Clear and Reliable Boundaries 

Our strong-willed and sensitive kids may act like they need to be in control, but really they need your leadership in these tough moments. A strong leader is able to hold boundaries while staying curious with their child about why something is so tricky for them. 

Example: Your strong-willed toddler wants 10 books at bedtime. You set a boundary that you can read 3 books! They can choose which 3 books you read. 

Example: Your sensitive toddler is overtired and exhausted and starts hitting you. You tell them it’s bedtime, but they don’t want to go to bed. With warmth, you let them know you are going to help them go to bed and pick them up and carry them to bed. You validate their feelings as you go.

Self-Care for Parents of Highly Sensitive Children

Being a parent of a highly sensitive child can be really tiring. You are experiencing big feelings on a daily basis, and it can be really tough to stay calm. 

Here are some simple self-care practices that may be really helpful for you!  

Take a Mindful Shower

Try to use your shower as a time to reset yourself. 

  • Notice the way the water feels on your back. 
  • Notice the sound of the water hitting the ground. 
  • Notice the smell of the shampoo. 
  • Notice the calming feeling the shower can bring. 
  • Notice the worries of the day being washed off. 
  • Notice any thoughts and then bring yourself back to reality.

Practice Gratitude 

Daily gratitude practice can help change the way you think long term. This is a great practice to adopt, especially in those moments of parenthood where you feel overwhelmed. Start a journal or a list, and use this as a mindfulness practice to help manage stress. This might include:

  • I’m grateful that the sun is shining. 
  • I’m thankful for this cup of coffee. 
  • I’m thankful that my son has his own voice.
  • I’m grateful for the way my daughter turns to me when she’s sad. 

Highly Sensitive Kids Are Good

They also aren’t manipulative or need our punishment. In fact, it’s through curiosity, compassion, and working with our child’s sensitivity and strong will that we can truly help make a change! Highly sensitive children are beautiful humans deserving of love and respect.

For specific tools and strategies for tantrums, disciplining effectively, and reframing challenging behaviour, check out our online Parenting Little Kids course!

Key Takeaways

  • Highly sensitive children often feel emotions and sensations more deeply, which can lead to more intense and longer tantrums.
  • Nurture your relationship with your highly sensitive child by spending one-on-one time with them and engaging in activities they enjoy.
  • Encourage your child to make decisions for themselves by allowing them to choose the next step during a daily routine.
  • Validate your sensitive child’s emotions and help them to feel understood by acknowledging their feelings and experiences.
  • Set clear and reliable boundaries to provide the stability and reassurance they need while giving them opportunities to express themself.
  • Take time for self-care by practicing mindfulness, and gratitude, and nurturing your own well-being to support your child better.
  • See your sensitive child as a unique human deserving love and respect to make it easier to approach their tantrums with kindness and empathy.

WRITTEN BY

Jess VanderWier

Registered Psychotherapist & Mom of 3

Learn More About Jess
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WRITTEN BY

Shannon Wassenaar

Registered Psychotherapist & Mom of 1

Learn More About Shannon