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  • Liz Nissim-Matheis, Ph.D.

Helping Your Empathic Child Manage Big Feelings

What is empathy, and how do I help my child manage it?


Sensitive Child Empathy

KEY POINTS

  • Children who are empaths often have big feelings that they don't know how to manage.

  • Parents need to be alert for certain signs that their child is high in empathy and struggling with it.

  • Parents can make life easier for their child by planning ahead a little and not overscheduling.

I don’t know about you, but in my house, my children and I have big feelings. As an empath who has three empathic children, our interactions and emotional experiences are a bit more intense than most. Dr. Judy Orloff defines an empathic person as one who is deeply in tune with the feelings of others in their environment. She further describes an empath as an “emotional sponge who absorbs both the positivity and the stress of people and the world.”


Empaths process the emotional tone and energy of those around them, whether they want to or not. This also means that the “energy battery” drains quickly, which can lead to overstimulation by one’s thoughts and environment. For example, a child or person who is at school or work may find that within an hour or a few hours, people’s voices and lights may feel like “too much.”


For our children who are empathic, their nervous systems are also wired a bit differently. Jean Decet and Yoshiya Moriguchi found that the limbic system, the part of the brain responsible for processing emotion, has more complex neuronal connections in the brains of people who are highly empathic (BioPsychoSocial Medicine, 2007). Jen Granneman and Andre Solo stated that the empathic brain connects emotion with action. Thus, if another person is observed to be in distress, the empathic person will feel compelled to help rather than observing alone.


According to “15 Signs You May Be An Empath”, the following is a list of traits that are associated with a child, teen, or young adult who is empathic:


  • Becoming easily overwhelmed

  • Having a strong intuition

  • Finding comfort and peace in being outside or in nature

  • Dislike of crowds

  • Having a strong sense of caring for other

  • Being a good problem solver

  • Needing to rest after being around people

  • Dislike of conflict

  • Difficulty with fitting in

Judy Orloff noted in her book, The Empath’s Survival Guide, that “empath children feel too much but don’t know how to manage the sensory overload. They see more, hear more, smell more, intuit more, and experience emotions more.”


Parent Strategies for an empathic child


As parents, what can we do to honor and help our empathic children to manage their abilities and their interactions with others and their environment?


Give the Feeling a Name.


One of the hardest things I’ve had to witness as a parent is when my child was dysregulated and overwhelmed but didn’t know why. A strategy that has been helpful for all three of my kids and for the many other children, teens, young adults, and adults with whom we work is giving the sensation or feeling a name. Name it. Call it anger. Call it overwhelm. Call it fatigue. Call it what it is.


As parents and as educators, it’s important that we recognize the behavioral signs of a child who is overwhelmed, and rather than treating it as a “behavioral” response that requires a consequence or a behavior plan, ask the question and then give the space and validation for the child to feel what they feel until that feeling passes. If it won’t pass on its own and a sensory break is needed, provide it. Create a plan in advance and set aside space within the classroom or school building to sit in silence with the lights turned off, run around the gymnasium, or take a walk. An Occupational Therapist, private or within the school, can help with finding the appropriate strategies for different physiological sensations at different times of the day.


The other thing to emphasize and help your child recognize is that feelings come in like big waves: They crash, and then they subside. That is, there is the build-up, the crash, and then the release and calm down. As a parent or professional, you will notice that the recovery time will decrease, and the child will be able to bounce back with greater ease. Again, I say child, but this applies to children, teens, young adults, and adults.


A parent can do the same at home. When my now-14-year-old daughter was in elementary school, she was very overwhelmed by the end of the day. I created a tent for her with sensory calming activities inside, such as coloring, water beads, fidgets, a pillow, and a blanket. She sat in this space, which was created just for her, whenever she felt overwhelmed or whenever I saw that she was feeling overwhelmed. It helped a great deal. It made her more available after her body and mind had calmed, to process what she was feeling and to think of other strategies that could help before she got to this heightened place.


Further, help your child to understand that sometimes they will feel other people’s energy and feelings and not know they are not their own. For example, your child can feel when another person is angry or can feel the tension between two people in a room. These feelings are absorbed into their body, and they may not know why they feel “off,” and they may not know how they got here. Ask your child the questions:


  • “Is this your feeling or someone else’s?”

  • “Were there people in the room with you who were feeling angry, sad, or mad with themselves or with another person?”

  • “If it’s not yours, how can you let it go?”

Avoid Overscheduling Your Child.


Empathic children struggle to transition from one activity or event to the next. This doesn’t give them time to decompress and get ready for the next thing. My policy has been, and continues to be, one activity per child per season. If you have therapies scheduled as well, be mindful of not scheduling an appointment right after school or scheduling too many nights in a row.


Avoid Rushing Your Child.


If your children are anything like mine, they can not be rushed. With that said, have a schedule or calendar that your child maintains and that you can update each week with therapies, activities, birthday parties, and family events. This allows your child to anticipate and be aware of what’s coming up instead of “springing” it on them the day before or the day of.


Our highly empathic children need time to wrap their minds around what’s happening next and go through their mental list of what they want to do before it’s time to go. Give notice of the time that you will need to leave your home and what time to start getting ready. Set alarms to guide the process so you’re not realizing the time, panicking and rushing to get out of the door. This will also create overwhelm and dysregulation for your child.


Raising an empathic child requires a great deal of awareness and creating a strategy around helping your child to give a name to their experience and to recognize the ability that they have.


Liz Nissim-Matheis, Ph.D. - website

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