by Jan Kristal
Originally published in Comfort Zone Newsletter: May 2007.
Parents and teachers are often concerned about children who are aggressive or present other challenging behaviors in school settings. Children identified as inhibited or “slow-to-warm-up” on the other end of the spectrum have the temperament characteristics of withdrawal, high sensitivity, and low intensity. They are quiet and subdued in social situations, offer fewer spontaneous comments, smile less, and interact less with peers. Teachers may perceive them as anxious, frightened, or aloof. These children are often overlooked. They do not cause disruptions, are quiet and unassuming, yet they can need our support just as much as active, intense and aggressive children.
Withdrawing, sensitive or slow-to-warm-up children initially respond to beginning school or child care with hesitation and unease. Adjustment for these children can take anywhere from two weeks to two months or more, depending on their level of withdrawal and sensitivity. The more often the sensitive child attends school, the more quickly he becomes familiar, and familiarity with the school, teachers, and children is the key to his getting settled. Illness or vacation, or a substitute teacher, however, may start the process again.
These children are less likely to explore and experiment, though they are acutely aware of their surroundings. They try to avoid any reaction that they perceive as too loud, too frightening, too overwhelming. Sensitive, withdrawing children prefer a quiet corner over exploring new territory because it limits their encounters with overwhelming stimuli. Many prefer solitary play. They tend to keep to themselves, to stand back and watch rather than join in play. Often, the more uninhibited children dominate them socially.
Research shows that caregivers who continually protect these children from minor stresses or are overly solicitous make it more difficult for the child to engage in social interactions or unfamiliar situations. A kindly firm approach without overreacting to fretting and crying, and making age appropriate demands helps “shy” or sensitive children become less fearful.
Mollie had a hard time making friends at preschool. The teacher suggested that her mother arrange a play date with Aidry who was slightly more outgoing. Soon Aidry and Mollie became friends. Aidry’s friend Deanna also joined in their play at school. Establishing a friendship outside of child care or preschool much like Mollie did can help foster a confidence that carries over into the larger group. One positive social interaction can encourage the development of another.
Children who are highly sensitive and withdrawing often have difficulties establishing peer relationships and are often perceived as unfriendly and socially awkward. They experience social anxiety, and withdraw if faced with social challenges. The more difficulty they have interacting, the harder it becomes to be successful with peers. Boys can have more problems appearing sensitive than girls. Because it is generally considered more acceptable for girls to be sensitive than for boys, peers may call sensitive boys “sissies” or “cry-babies.” With highly sensitive and withdrawing boys or girls, it is important to approach social fears one at a time in order not to overwhelm the child. Because the sensitive child often expands on a fear and carries it to extremes, parents and teachers can help the child break the fear into smaller parts and determine which aspects are real and which have been exaggerated.
Richard feared starting fourth grade at his new school. He told his parents that he did not want to go because he did not know anyone. His anxiety increased as the first day approached and they asked him what he was afraid of. He said that he was afraid that at recess that he wouldn’t know how to play the games, and all the children would laugh at him. His parents helped him break down the parts of the first day at school: going into the classroom, meeting the teacher, and finding his desk. They planned how to make each step comfortable. When they discussed recess they listed all the games he had played successfully at his old school. He agreed that if he did not know a game he would ask to watch before he joined in. Planning for each part of the day and discussing ways to handle his fear of recess helped to decrease Richard’s anxiety.
Rachel had been invited to birthday sleep-overs from the time she was in first grade but was too afraid to ever go. Her parents respected her feelings but were concerned that she did not participate in these “normal” social events. Finally in fifth grade, after much deliberation and anxiety, she decided to go. She took her favorite stuffed animal and pajamas with her and her parents told her that if she decided not to stay, they would pick her up. On the way to the party she burst into tears, worrying “What if I can’t fall asleep?” “Don’t worry,” her mother replied. “No one sleeps at slumber parties.” This assuaged her worry and Rachel made it through the night. Knowing that she did not have to sleep, and that she could go home if she wanted, Rachel was in fact the first to fall asleep! Getting through that first slumber party made the next one easier and more enjoyable.
Taking Care of Sensitivity
Sensitive children need to decompress after the stimulation of the school day. A favorite quiet, calming and easy activity such as reading, building Legos, doing an art project, or listening to music can become a good daily routine to help the child recover from “overwhelm.” This is especially necessary if something upsetting has happened at school. Providing breaks for sensitive children during frustrating tasks such as homework also helps the afternoon go more smoothly.
Because they are sensitive to their surroundings, these children react more to discomfort than their less sensitive peers. They require a comfortable place to do their homework. Caregivers should keep in mind the child’s particular sensitivities when choosing a spot for doing homework. Arnie was sensitive to noise, odors, and stiff and scratchy clothing. He chose to change into his comfortably soft sweat suit before beginning homework. He then spent a half hour in his room working on a lego project to help him relax. When it was time to begin homework he liked to work as far away from the kitchen as possible because he disliked cooking smells. His younger brother and sister could be noisy so his parents set up a comfortable and quiet work space for him in the basement. Sensitive children may also have difficulty attending to schoolwork in a classroom that is noisy or decorated with brightly colored art-work.
Slow-to-warm-up children have initial difficulties with each new experience and are often labeled “anxious” by teachers, but they adjust when given time and encouragement. Once teachers realize that these children need time to become familiar with new situations and people, they can help them gradually become comfortable with novel experiences. The withdrawing child may have problems staying on task with a teacher who is very approaching and insists on trying new projects. A curriculum that includes lessons with hands-on experiences for the outgoing child as well as observational tasks for the more hesitant child provides positive task orientation for children of different temperaments.
Communicating with Children About Their Sensitivity
It is ideal for parents, teachers, and caregivers to communicate with children about their typical responses and reactions. Validating how children feel from a young age is important in building self-concept and self esteem. For younger children, simple observations such as “I noticed that you like to know what to expect before we go somewhere new” or “You like all the food to be separate on your plate” give them ways to label and understand their feelings rather than simply reacting.
To help facilitate temperament understanding in younger children, parents and others working with children must initially:
- Learn about the child’s temperament traits and how these traits affect behavior and reactions
- Begin to manage the behaviors by working with the challenging traits, modifying the environment, and adjusting their responses to the child
- Give the child appropriate feedback about his or her temperament (“It’s hard for you to stop a project once you start”).
- Suggest a way to work with the difficulty (“I’ll give you a five minute warning before it’s time to stop.”)
Children who do not understand their temperaments may assume that their differences mean that there is something wrong with them: “Everyone likes that loud music and they laugh at me when I cover my ears,” “Sharon loves scary rides but I’m just a chicken,” “Everyone in class wears cool jeans, but I think they’re scratchy and they laugh at my sweat pants.” If other children point out these differences in a negative way, social self-esteem suffers. When children understand their temperaments, they learn how to enhance their strengths and work with their limitations.
Children can learn to reframe their temperament characteristics in a positive way. The statements above can be positively reframed as:
- “I’m shy in a crowd of new people, but after I get to know someone I have fun – it just take a little time.”
- “I’m more comfortable in my sweats. Besides, a lot of the pro-athletes wear sweats!”
- “I hate it when plans change, so I use schedules and keep track of plans ahead of time.”
- “When the music is too loud I go to a quieter area or get involved in another game. I don’t cover my ears anymore and the kids don’t laugh,”
- “Sharon loves scary rides and I don’t – we just like different things.”
Discipline With Sensitive Children
Researchers have found that sensitive, withdrawing children benefit most from gentle psychological discipline. Harsh words can create fear and anxiety reducing these children to tears. These children respond well to reasoning and to induction (learning the effects of their behavior on others). They are empathic and achieve internalization more quickly than active, strong-willed children. When sensitive, withdrawing children are alone they are less likely to do things they have been told not to do, than their more outgoing peers. This may be due to their tendency to avoid taking risks, and avoid criticism, but also because of their ability to inhibit behavior. Discussing a problem or a behavior at a neutral time, and planning together how the situation will be resolved with less difficulty is an effective way to work with sensitive, withdrawing or slow to warm up children.
Sometimes sensitivity and shyness is viewed as a detriment in our society, but sensitive, slow-to-warm-up children have much to offer. They are empathic, perceptive and in touch with their emotions and those of others. Parents and teachers may at times feel that they have to handle these children with “kid gloves” but over time, they will learn to focus on their strengths and help these children learn to work with any resulting challenges.
Adapted from The Temperament Perspective: Working with Children’s Behavioral Styles by Jan Kristal (2005, Brookes Publishing)