My son, Carson, is a pretty normal five-year-old. He loves SpongeBob SquarePants, anything sporty and he thinks fart jokes are the epitome of humour. But my sweet little ball of energy can go from happy as a clam to tortured soul in less than a second. Tickle him and he’ll erupt into contagious giggles but when he stubs his toe (at least a dozen times a day) he shrieks so loudly I’m convinced we’ll have to amputate.
Life with a drama king is an emotional roller coaster — the highs are hilarious and the lows are dreadful. What do you do with a kid who can fall on the floor in a thundercloud of tears one minute (we’re having rice for lunch? Oh, no!) and then cheerfully play with his airplane the next? At five, he’s sensitive and empathetic beyond his years. He can’t stand to see anyone cry and he’s a world-class cuddle bug. But I’m exhausted by 8:00 p.m. and more often than not, at the end of my rope.
So what’s going on?
According to Nikki Taylor, parent education manager at the Oakville Parent-Child Centre in Oakville, Ont., I’ve got a sensitive and intense child. Translation: Carson has powerful responses to, well, everything. “Whatever he puts out there is going to be bigger, whether he’s upset or happy.” she says. “It’s not that he’s in so much more pain than any other child, it’s just that his way of responding is bigger.”
Sound familiar? Chances are if you have a drama king you know it. According to Taylor, many parents take comfort in knowing the roller coaster ride is reserved for them — and personally, knowing my kid isn’t really the emotional wreck he seems is salve for my frazzled nerves. But what helps even more, is knowing I’m not alone.
Toronto writer Sydney Loney says she can relate to my drama king conundrum. When her son, Charlie, was 18-months-old she started baking cookies and muffins for him and he always had to have one for each hand. Had to. And heaven forbid one broke! “From day one, I’ve had other people tell me he’s sensitive (our doctor, his JK teacher) and I agree,” she says. “He thinks about things a lot and is a bit of a worrier.”
Worrying is a common trait among sensitive kids and not only do they feel it for themselves, they’re also more empathic at an earlier age. Unfortunately, they lack the emotional maturity to deal with all these feelings, so they become stressed out and anxious trying to make everyone happy. And guess who bears the brunt of that pent up emotion? Siblings and parents, that’s who.
How to help
The best way to help a drama king unwind comes before the explosion, by letting him talk it out. Sensitive kids need more connection time and Taylor suggests building that into your daily routine with a bedtime chat. Don’t be surprised if he talks about something that happened a few days ago though, sometimes it’ll take him a that long to realize his feelings. Limiting extra-curricular activities also helps because time to play gives him more time to work things out.
If you can’t stop the explosion before it begins, try to remember mid-meltdown is not the time to teach or rationalize. Taylor likens sensitive kids to a bucket. “When they’re losing it, the bucket is overflowing, they simply can’t handle any more information or feelings.”
In Loney’s experience, that bucket analogy holds water. Her current tactic for dealing with a tantrum is simply to walk away, she says. “He’ll stop screaming pretty quickly and will follow me, and then I can usually distract him by pointing something out that’s going on nearby or picking him up and twirling him.”
What not to do
So now that I know what to do with Carson, I asked Taylor if she had any tips about what not to do, here’s what she had to say:
• Try not to put a negative label on it (Hee. Like drama king?) He’s not “just looking for attention”; some kids don’t have the impulse control or maturity to put the kibosh on their own reactions.
• Don’t feed into it. When he stubs his toe you can say “Oh, that really must have hurt” but don’t go over the top with sympathy.
• Just say no to time outs. It’s easy to get frustrated but Taylor warns that time outs can be quite devastating for a sensitive child; to them, it feels like you’re pushing them away.
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