The Smart, Sensitive, Picky Child

Copyright © 2011 Tina Feigal

“She opposes everything we say!”

“He is so cranky about what he wears, we’re exhausted from trying to get him dressed.”

“She doesn’t seem to have friends.  We think she would be happier if she did, but she wants to control everything, so kids lose their patience with her.”

“Our home is controlled by his every whim!”

If these statements sound familiar, you might be dealing with a sensitive, smart, picky child.  These kids, whom we’ll call SSPs, seem to challenge everything we say and do.  They are vigilant about being in control, and often have a great deal of anxiety (defined as “fear where there’s no real threat.”)  The trick is, seeing these kids as anxious vs. manipulative, bossy, controlling brats.

As the mom of a formerly anxious child, I can tell you that it’s a challenge to stop and think about the organism, child, and how anxiety might be fueling negative behavior.  Our automatic reaction is, “She’s controlling me, and as the parent, I can’t allow this.”

How Anxiety Feels to the Child

But anxiety is the real culprit, not the child’s will to win.  Anxiety is like a cloud of dread that hangs over the child and causes low-level, and sometimes high-level fear to “run the show” inside the child.  He will insist on buckling his seat belt in exactly his way, and have a complete screaming tantrum until it’s done that way.  He will feel certain that finishing his project takes priority over bedtime, and will have a total meltdown when you suggest otherwise.  These kids are not being unreasonable bullies.  Without realizing it, they are anxious that if they don’t control the situation, there will NO control.  They have temporarily forgotten that there’s a schedule, there are parents who care and can guide them, and that things can happen more than one way and be totally fine.

How to Effectively Deal with The SSP

Rather than deal with the anxious child with firmness and directives to “just behave”, we need to approach him with compassion and strategies that don’t trigger further anxiety.

  1. Stop and think.  Maybe this out-of-control fit has nothing to do with what you are asking the child to do.  She has likely created an unrealistic story in her mind that foretells disaster if she doesn’t get her way.  She needs reassurance, not punishment. “It looks as if you lost your hope that we will ever get to play at this playground again. Of COURSE we are going to play here again.  Let’s think about when we can come back.  I think there’s time on Saturday.”
  2. Listen deeply.  Say, “You feel as if you need that cookie right NOW!!!  Then let her respond, or not. Just allow her to realize that her message really registered with you. Being heard is often what the child is asking for, even more than the desired object.
  3. Plan ahead.  When you are entering a situation where you know your child might lose her composure, review how you will proceed:

“We are going into the store right now.  Remember how we act when we get there?  Tell me what we need to do.”

“We need to stay together, not beg for things, and not cry.”

“Excellent. You are the best rule person I know!  I am so impressed with how well you know these things.  And thanks for holding my hand. Now should we go in this door or that one?”

  1. Give heartfelt appreciation (when you … I feel … because) as often as you can during your outing.  This helps the SSP stay tuned into her own successes rather than what she might not get or be able to do. Watch her rise to the occasion and be particularly cooperative.  Take credit for causing this.
  2. As in number 3 above, give appropriate choices, so the child feels she has some control.  (She is grabbing for control because she needs some, and you can decide which areas will work for you.)
  3. Use the child’s talents. If you have one who’s interested in the route to the store, engage him in the process.  Ask, “Which way now?”  If you have one that’s learning to read, ask, “What does that sign say?”  Be ‘blown away’ when he guesses correctly, or even close. If you have one that is learning about trees, have her identify them as you walk along. Say you never knew that stuff, and you’re so glad she’s there to teach you. She’ll learn pride in her own power as a result!

Remember that it’s all about reducing that floaty, uncertain feeling that so many SSPs carry around, simply because they are not old enough to know that there’s no real danger.  Commanding that they get over it and do as they are told will not work.  Gaining cooperation by engaging the bright, creative child in the process of life will work beautifully.

Tina Feigal is a parent coach and former school psychologist who places behavioral healing in the hands of parents, where she says it belongs.  She coaches parents on the phone nationwide or in person locally in St. Paul, Minnesota.  For help with communicating with your anxious child, call Tina at 651-453-0123

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