HSP researcher Elaine Aron, Ph.D. has offered invaluable advice for parents and teachers of the highly sensitive children. She explains how they can help the HSC learn without harming him or her. In this post we also look beyond that to parenting styles and the highly sensitive child plus how those styles help or harm almost all children.
Never use harsh discipline on HSCs. They tend to be extremely rule-conscious and usually only require gentle, private reminders. For some, just knowing they made a mistake will reduce them to tears. If reprimanded, punished, or embarrassed, they are likely to remember only the distress and associate it with you and the subject matter, but have little memory of the information you wanted them to learn.
Other parenting researchers have described four main styles of parenting. Understanding the contrast between the styles can show you the way to a more positive approach for parenting your own sensitive child than you may have experienced when you were a child.
In this style of parenting, children are expected to follow the strict rules established by the parents. Failure to follow such rules usually results in punishment. Authoritarian parents fail to explain the reasoning behind these rules. If asked to explain, the parent might simply reply, “Because I said so.” These parents have high demands but are not responsive to their children.
The authoritarian parent provides an excess of structure and fails to balance it with communication, explanation, or discussion. They may degrade the child, ignore his or her experience, or violate their need to feel safe in their own home. This produces fear, resentment, low self-esteem, a risk of counter-aggression, and perhaps later rebellion against various forms of authority. The parents believe obedience equals love when actually it indicates submissiveness, not affection.
The negative impact of authoritarian parenting
The child equates approval with love and may hesitate to act for fear of more criticism. This produces children who may not learn to think on their own and don’t have enough experience making their own decisions. They may be socially inept and a poor judge of character.
The threat of punishment can create a kind of tunnel vision on the child’s part, where everything hinges on pleasing the parent. These children are often slow to internalize the larger reasons for being asked to cooperate.
At an extreme, this parent may see children as necessary evils or even enemies. They may make clear that the child is a burden and that they do not enjoy spending time with them. This style can deteriorate into physical or emotional abuse.
This type of parenting does not support positive parenting. In fact, research shows that children with authoritarian parents perform more poorly than kids with permissive parents. For a better parenting option, learn more about the authoritative type parenting style that allows children to be independent thinkers, self-regulate their emotions and are happy and successful. Authoritative parents show high levels of warmth and control.
All children, almost certainly including the highly sensitive child, typically have more positive outcomes and fewer negative ones when their parents use the authoritative style.
Authoritative parenting is widely regarded as the most effective and beneficial parenting style for normal children. Authoritative parents are easy to recognize, as they are marked by the high expectations that they have of their children, but temper these expectations with understanding and support for their children as well. This type of parenting creates the healthiest environment for a growing child, and helps to foster a productive relationship between parent and child.
Individuals who were raised with an authoritarian style may flip into a more permissive, less structured, and less punitive style when they become parents themselves. Other parents may use a permissive style because they want to be friends with their children or let them develop into their own unique person without undue interference.
A child who is raised without structure may have difficulty self-managing his behavior. Freedom without limits can be destructive to child development; without consequences, children don’t have a sense of boundaries.
As a result, the child from a permissive home will seek structure to help them feel valued, validated and secure. He may have problems with relationships, and lack the self-discipline necessary for social interaction with his peers.
His school work may suffer from lack of organization and motivation. This child often lacks responsibility, has difficulty with boundaries and commitment, and is unaware of the importance of significant consequences.
This form of lenient, non-confrontational, indulgent parenting is beneficial in that parents are nurturing and loving. But rules are often too flexible or are never articulated. Children may need to be bribed with outsized rewards to cooperate.
This produces children who may be self-absorbed and have difficulty sharing. In school their performance may be lackadaisical. They may be unwilling to conform to reasonable direction from teachers. As a teen and an adult, they may be surprised by the consequences life imposes on their ill-considered actions.
Uninvolved parenting, sometimes referred to as neglectful parenting, is a style characterized by a lack of responsiveness to a child's needs. Uninvolved parents make few to no demands of their children and they are often indifferent, dismissive or even completely neglectful.
These parents have little emotional involvement with their kids. While they provide for basic needs like food and shelter, they are uninvolved in their children's lives. The degree of involvement may vary considerably. Some uninvolved parents may be relatively hands-off with their kids, but may still have some basic limits such as curfews. Others may be downright neglectful or even reject their children outright.
This child is forced to take on responsibilities beyond their capability and to grow up too fast. Neglect can affect a child for years into the future. It lowers a sense of self-esteem and damages the ability to trust others and form lasting relationships.
Understanding the research
The original research on parenting styles was done by developmental psychologist Diana Baumrind in the United States during the 1960s. Many studies across a variety of cultures since then have shown that the most positive outcomes and the fewest negatives come from authoritative parenting. But, in the U.S., this correlation is strongest for European-American parents and is somewhat less strong for African-American and Asian-American families. Differences between countries are also evident.
Obviously, parenting styles do not account for all the differences in how children grow up. Also to be considered are genetics, prenatal conditions, and temperament. Later, education, family and neighborhood resources, cultural, religious, and peer pressures, as well as the levels of drugs and alcohol available come into play.
Neither is it always a disaster if parents have slightly different styles, as long as the child has at least one authoritative parent. Still, it is important to present a united front, and to find a wise therapist to help when the styles are too different.
Want to know more about parenting styles and the highly sensitive child?
Here’s a great infographic and a quiz to identify your style of parenting. If you want to know more about intersection of authoritarianism, racism, and policing, I would recommend this article.
If you are a highly sensitive person who carries the burden of harsh or neglectful parenting or you are raising a highly sensitive child and want some help adapting your style to the needs of your highly sensitive child, a therapist is the person to see.
I’m an instructor on the basics of being an HSP. Too many HSPs barely scratch the surface in learning about their trait, their sensitive strengths, and the value those strengths have. They often don’t fully understand how they can work around the pitfalls that might snare the HSP.