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Helping sensitive, intelligent children

One of the most frequent questions I hear from people interested in my work is “do you work with children?”
I don’t – at the moment – but I do have some things to say about sensitive, intelligent kids. Actually, I have some things to say about you with regard to your sensitive, intelligent kids. Namely:

Get the foundations right!

Secure attachment is the foundation for an enormous range of physical, emotional and mental capabilities and experiences. Secure attachment builds through the the natural bonding instinct and process between humans. Usually it refers to the infant – nurturer bond, but it can also form between adults later on.

The security your child finds in you, when you’re a a reliable, available, and generally positive person that they can attach to – an attachment figure – gives them the foundation they need to venture confidently out into the rest of the world, and a safe haven to come back to when they need it. These are essential for building, for example, emotional processing skills, self-regulation, and their own sense of self-regard as they grow independent of you.

An insecurely attached child generally has lots of difficulties in different spheres, as a child, and as an adult. Insecure attachment is linked to higher incidence of unhappy relationships as an adult, anxiety, withdrawal, depression, addictions, vulnerability to stress, and more. It’s a mess.

Before I carry on, I’ll say this first: adults, who were insecurely attached as children, are almost certainly insecurely attached as adults. All is not lost – there are ways to recover and readjust to it. But know that life’s a heck of a great deal more straightforward if you start off securely attached: what you do as a parent/caregiver has long-reaching effects and can save – or cause – your child a lot of hassle further down the line.

Sensitive kids are more affected by poor quality relationships than non-highly sensitive kids. An insecurely attached child who is also sensitive/intelligent will be more affected by the poor attachment relationship than a non-highly sensitive/intelligent child, they’ll have more going on with regard to their sensitivity and/or intelligence, and they will therefore be more affected by the absence of a secure foundation on which to stand when processing the intensity and enormity of their highly sensitive/intelligent experience of themselves and the world. One plus one does not equal two here.

The attachment bond has four aspects to it:

Secure base
The attachment figure is a secure base from which the child can go out to explore the world.

Safe haven
The attachment figure is emotionally available to the child, and provides help and comfort when required by the child, in the way that the child needs it. The attachment figure does not abuse the child, whether physically, emotionally, verbally, sexually, or in any other mode.

Availability / proximity maintenance
The attachment figure is physically available to the child and the child acts to stay close (enough) to them.

Separation distress / separation anxiety
The child becomes upset, stressed, anxious or otherwise distressed when separated from the attachment figure. This will show in different ways at different ages.

Help your sensitive kids to feel safe enough that they can bond securely enough with you. You know your kids: you know what makes the smile and shine, you know what makes them wither and retreat, you know what makes them explode with joy, sorrow, frustration, excitement. Be – or become – aware of them and how they tick. Aim for the good in them and you.

Be physically available to them. Make time for them – they need you. Not you on your smartphone -they need you, all of you, on the sofa, or surfboard, or swamp-walking with them. (Is swamp walking even a thing? I seriously hope so.)

Be emotionally available to them – if this is not your forte, find a counsellor who can help you become more aware of your own emotional experiences, and better able to manage your emotional life (n.b. shutting off your emotions does not count as managing them well!!) and your kids will benefit from your new skill too. Be honest and appropriate – don’t burden them with the stresses of your day, but also don’t try to mask it when you’re stressed as fuck and need a minute to lie on the floor to gather your remaining ounce of cool so you can handle the rest of your family time together (trust me, it helps). Help them to understand that emotions are a normal and essential part of being human, that managing emotions is a skill that can be learned through theory and practice, and that some people have smaller emotional amplitudes, while others have humungous emotional amplitudes that need a heck of a lot more patience, skill and courage in handling. (I’m looking at you, Mrs Quiet-but-so-intense-inside-it’s-almost-thermonuclear-in-there).

Be mentally available to them. Learn about sensitivity, intelligence, and how to handle them (Great that you’re here! Keep reading!) so you have the mental models at your disposal to understand your child’s experience and to help them to understand themselves – or find them someone who can understand them. Know that sensitivity can go way beyond the five standard senses and emotions into the realms of the intuitive, empath, psychic, medium, energy sensitive, and others. Know that science knows what science has so far been able to measure and analyse, and that the tendency of the scientific community can be driven by the fundamentalists (in the sense of those who are fundamentally skeptic, rather than open-mindedly skeptic and ‘we don’t know yet’). Be interested in what they’re interested in. You’ll learn from them.

If you think you’ve totally fucked up and missed the boat on helping your kids to bond securely with you: find a counsellor or therapist who specialises in attachment therapy! Seriously, this is one of the quickest methods, with the right therapist for you and your situation. The slower routes will involve you reading lots of books, going to occasional workshops, piecing together your own roadmap, observing your kids lots, observing yourself and other key adults, learning how to deeply self-reflect (which is quite a thing if you’re not already self-reflective at this level), changing your behaviours in small and/or large ways, et cetera, et cetera. It will require more effort, more time, more money, more everything.

If your parents/caregivers fucked you up (quite probably unwittingly, in many cases) in the attachment department, get some therapy. Attachment therapy, or other therapy/ies that can help you to create a sense of safety, reliability and availability in yourself, to yourself. Go at it on all fronts, so to speak. Physically: run, cycle, dance, do yoga, tai chi, sail, surf, whatever – be in your body and move. Physical therapy/ies: massage, cranio-sacral, whatever floats your boat. Floatation tanks. Saunas, steam rooms, long hot baths. Emotional nurturing. Mental nurturing. Read books that nourish you. Spiritual nurturing. Meet the needs now that didn’t get met then. Talk to me – this is one of my specialties.

If you fucked up and your kids are now adults – kudos to you for reading this. Read more about it. Educate yourself. Grieve the childhood you didn’t give them, grieve the parenting you didn’t experience. Get yourself a counsellor who can hold space for you to navigate your own experiences, and help you find better ways to connect with your adult children.

If you’re in a long-standing family pattern of crappy attachment – your parents, their parents, you, your kids, and so on – ancestral healing would be worth a go, to help you disentangle from generations-old patterns and focus your efforts more on the here and now, rather than be affected by the there and then that was.

And breathe. There’s a lot on this page that, if it’s pertinent to you, will touch you. It may move you – now or later. Allow yourself time to digest, reflect, ponder. And nurture yourself. We all need a lot more of that going on.

The information contained above is provided for information purposes only. The contents of this webpage are not intended to amount to advice and you should not rely on any of the contents of this webpage. Professional advice should be obtained before taking or refraining from taking any action as a result of the contents of this webpage. Sue Mahony PhD disclaims all liability and responsibility arising from any reliance placed on any of the contents of this webpage.

Sue Mahony PhD is gifted, autistic, and ADHD. She provides 1:1 specialist support for brains similar to her own, giftedness group programmes, speaking and bespoke support for organisations, and a wealth of articles on this website.

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