How Do I Help My Fearful or Sensitive Child?

As a mom of a sensitive child, you know the difficulty your child faces on a day-to-day basis. They may be feeling scared or stressed on any given day. Stressors, especially things that they don’t understand, can cause children to act more clingy than usual or act out. 

There’s nothing wrong with you or your parenting if your child is being too clingy. They are afraid and regressing, which is what can happen when children are stressed.[1] They are seeking connection, which can be done through attunement and empathy. 

During this time of international crisis with the COVID-19 pandemic and the current national climate that includes riots and violence, your highly sensitive child is probably experiencing stress and is afraid. This is where I can help you through dance/movement therapy learn to use movement and breath to connect with your child and calm them down. That’s what we do at Rachael’s Moving HeARTS, LLC.

The stress response

Everyone handles stress differently, but one thing we all have in common is that when we become stressed and afraid, our sympathetic nervous system kicks in. This is the part of the brain that goes into fight, flight, or freeze.[2] When our sympathetic nervous system is in control, we are not.

When your child is in this state, rational thinking and words are not easily accessible. In order to be able to communicate with your child so they can better understand what is happening in the world, you need to help them activate their parasympathetic nervous system.

Calming down

The parasympathetic nervous system is the part of the nervous system that calms the body down.[3] There are a few things you can do to activate this part of your child’s brain.

The first thing that can stop the sympathetic nervous system from taking over is one of the most important. You need to connect with your child. Get down on their level, make eye contact, and breathe with them.

As a dance/movement therapist I spend a lot of time with highly sensitive children meeting them where they are. I mirror their movements, I give them space to explore movements that evoke an emotional release as well as bring awareness to their other senses.

A great way for you to connect with your child and activate the parasympathetic nervous system is to tap into their senses. Use things such as pressure, touch, essential oils, calming smells or tactile things such as playdough or putty. 

Once they are calmer, you can explain in terms they can understand what is happening and what the adults are doing to make it better. Information can be calming to a child and help them understand and be less afraid. Let them know they can look to you for guidance.

Put your mask on first before helping your child

It’s important when trying to help your fearful child that you tend to your own emotions and remain calm. This is kind of like when flight attendants tell you to put your oxygen mask on first before helping others. You want to keep your child safe and calm but you have to feel safe and calm first.

Children look to their mothers to see how to handle stressful situations. If your parasympathetic nervous system is activated and you are taking care of yourself, you can take care of your scared child.

What to do when your child is feeling scared or angry?

One of the best ways to connect with your child is through attunement and empathy.

Attunement means that you are “in tune” with your child’s emotional state. You demonstrate that you are with them and that you understand their fears. [4] You can attune to your child’s movements or breath to show that they are seen and understood. This is what I do as a dance/movement therapist, and it’s great for moms of children who are afraid.

One of the most important things you need as a mom of a highly sensitive and fearful child is empathy. Empathy is different from sympathy because when you demonstrate empathy, you don’t just recognize that your child is having a hard time, you understand and feel it with them. Empathy means you find a way to understand how they are feeling and see it through their eyes. [5]

Using breath to attune and connect with your child

A great way to attune and connect with your child is to get down on their level and breathe together. When your breathing and physical movements match each other you are demonstrating attunement. You are more physically and emotionally connected and you are more attuned to your child’s emotions through the physical act of breathing and being together.

Another way to reach attunement is something I do in dance/movement therapy all the time, and that is mirroring your child’s movements. This demonstrates what is called “kinesthetic empathy,” which means that you are meeting your child where they are in the moment and feeling with them through movement. [6] You are both breathing and moving together, and that connection forms a bond between the two of you that your child needs in order to feel safe.

 How can dance/movement therapy help my child who is afraid?

Dance/movement therapy is a therapeutic process that helps children work through their emotions nonverbally. By moving with a trained professional, they feel seen and heard by the way the dance/movement therapist mirrors their movements and dances and moves with them.

Highly sensitive and afraid children can explore their fear and stress in a safe space without having to find the words for it. Movement gets the child out of their head and into their body.

Dance/movement therapy helps regulate a child’s stress response and activates the parasympathetic nervous system, getting them out of fight/flight/freeze and into a calmer state. Movement is a great stress reliever and helps regulate emotions and calm your child down. 

How can you help your child who is afraid? 

Get on your child’s level. Hug them, breathe with them, let them know that they are safe. And also let them know that it’s ok if they don’t feel ok.

Allow them to run around or dance or play or safely hit and kick pillows when they are afraid and stressed. Do calming activities together such as playing, yoga, deep breathing, coloring, listening, and dancing to music. These are things that you can learn from working with me and that we can do together with your child at Rachael’s Moving HeARTS, LLC.

Regulate your child’s environment through sensory input

There are many ways to use sensory input to calm a child. A few things are touch, pressure, essential oils, dimming the lights, changing a harsh light color to a softer one, playing calming music, chewing or drinking something, squeezing something like a stress ball, using playdough or putty, swing them around, go on a swing, jump on a trampoline, and using weighted blankets. You can activate the different senses, for you and your child, to manage fear. And you can do it together.

What would Rachael do?

When practicing dance/movement therapy with you and your child I support you both by meeting you where you are. If your child is feeling heightened I match their movements and eventually guide toward a more regulated way of moving. If they have low energy or are struggling to connect I might stay on the floor with them and breathe, eventually introducing more movement that regulates their energy to find a balance.

If they are in a stress response state I focus on breath and nonverbal communication. When a child is stressed and their sympathetic nervous system has kicked in, talking less and nonverbally attuning more is how you regulate them.

I do the same things I suggested that you do, such as get down on your child’s level, put some music on, and mirror their movements to bring them back to a calm, regulated state in their body. I also invite them to take a pretend shower to use touch and pressure on their bodies. I teach them about the brain and body as well. And I ask them what they need and let them know, using kinesthetic empathy and body language, that I understand them. I make your child feel seen, heard, and felt and give them tools to regulate themselves. 

To schedule an appointment with me at Rachael’s Moving HeARTS, LLC so that I can work with you and your sensitive and/or your fearful child, click here. I look forward to helping you and your child connect, attune, and express yourselves. 






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