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Sensitive Kids

Andrea Ramsay Speers - Tuesday, September 24, 2013

I've run into a few people in my practice lately who are what author Elaine Aron would describe as highly sensitive.  These are people who share a list of common traits (some of which I'll share in a moment) and who are more affected by sensory input of all kinds.  Aron argues that this isn't a diagnosis or a form of pathology that needs to be corrected, more of a temperament, a fixed part of personality, that needs to be worked with (not against) in order for the person to function at their maximum potential.

Here are some of the traits she describes -- does it sound like anyone you know (including yourself)?:

  • startles easily
  • sensitive to things like scratchy clothes, tags, or seams
  • doesn't usually enjoy big surprises
  • vulnerable to overstimulation
  • deep inner reactions to people and situations
  • heightened awareness of others (can sometimes be seen as shyness)
  • caution before proceeding
  • easily bothered by things like odours, wet clothing, or noisy places

Aron has a 23 item true-or-false checklist in her book The Highly Sensitive Person to help you determine whether or not you or your child would qualify for her description of being highly sensitive. 

Heightened sensitivity isn't always a bad thing.  It makes people very attuned to what’s going on with other people, so they make great friends and counsellors (ahem) .  But it can be overwhelming at times, too – something as minor as clutter can make it impossible for a highly sensitive person to think clearly, and perfectionistic and cautious tendencies can make decision-making tedious at times.

So how can you help a sensitive child make the most of his or her nature?  Start by making reasonable accommodations.  Teach your kids to recognize and respect their own boundaries -- don't go to a sleep over and watch a horror movie if you know it's going to keep you awake for the rest of the week.  (I learned that one the hard way.) 

Don't be overly protective in keeping your child from getting hurt.  The more overprotective the parent, the more disruptive the sensitivity is in the child.  Talk with your child or teen about ways to cope in uncomfortable situations, and help him recognize his own boundaries.  Walk him through specific situations, including what could go wrong, and ask, "If that happened, what could you do?" 

And finally, stay positive.  While the sensitivity might make you want to scream and pull your hair out at times, it comes with lots of great qualities, too.  This is part of who your child is, so trying to change it or deny it won't get you very far.  As with all kids, play up the strengths and prepare in advance for the more challenging times.

Handling Pet Peeves

Andrea Ramsay Speers - Tuesday, September 17, 2013

What do you do when your usually charming and adorable kids display less than appealing habits?  Perhaps they crack their knuckles, or leave the tv on after they've finished watching it, or insist on reliving the most hysterical parts of the movie they just watched? 

As much as you love them, kids can be annoying.  These little petty problems are great things to bring up at a family meeting, where you can voice your...aggravation, and put it on the table for some joint problem solving.  It models how to express your feelings in a respectful (for both of you) way, and how to ask for what you need within a spirit of compromise.  Your child might take this opportunity to point out a few annoying habits of your own.  And if she does, this is a great opportunity to demonstrate how to compromise and work at meeting each other's needs.  In a family, no one person's feelings or requests take precedence over anyone else's (unless it comes to matters of physical or moral danger, of course -- but I'm sure you've figured that out already).

But in the meantime, scrap the nagging.  They're not listening anyway, so direct your energy to activities that are more likely to net you results.  And remember that although these issues may be relatively minor, you're setting the stage for discussion about those bigger issues.  If you show your kids now that you're the type of person who handles conflict and problems with respect and an eye to discovering solutions instead of blaming and putting your foot down, they may just take you up on it later when the stakes are higher.

What Order Are They?

Andrea Ramsay Speers - Tuesday, September 10, 2013

We never really know what goes on inside our children’s minds. We may make educated guesses, and then do the best we can with that information. Well, here’s another tool to add to your toolbox of guesses. Understanding birth order can give us a bit of insight into what our kids are thinking and deciding about the world and their role in it. I’m going to outline here some of the common traits among birth order cohorts, and I’ll include some thoughts on how to use this information to better relate to your kids. And you just might learn something interesting about yourself, too…

First of all, there are two types of birth order: psychological and chronological.  Chronological is obvious – it is literally what order your kids were born in. But many factors can influence our behaviour, and that’s where psychological birth order comes in. If there are more than four years between children, typically we consider that to be a “new” family, for example. So if you have a family with kids who are 13, 10, and four, although that younger child is chronologically a baby or the third of three children, psychologically she may behave more like an only child. Sometimes, due to illness or other outside influences, a child moves away from his chronological position, even if all the children were born close together. Let’s say the eldest child in the family has some sort of health issue that requires a lot of care and attention. In that family, it wouldn’t be uncommon for the next child in line to behave more like an eldest, because she is the one taking on the responsibilities and roles of a typical eldest child, even though she is the second. So remember, as you’re reading the descriptions, that “everything can be different”, as Adler would say.

Let’s start at the beginning with eldest children. They are probably the most consistent group when talking about birth order. You can probably come up with a few descriptors for oldest children yourself: responsible, goal-oriented, perfectionistic, competitive, leaders, conservative, organized… Because these kids do everything first in their families, they often develop the mistaken belief that in order to matter or be important they must be the first or the best at everything. These kids are generally cautious to some degree, and like to consider all of their options before making a decision, regardless of how minor. Eldest children generally respond the best to authority, so the mere threat of getting in trouble is often enough to get them back on the straight-and-narrow. Because of this sensitivity to authority and getting in trouble, eldest children can sometimes be pleasers, choosing to placate the people around them rather than run the risk of being scolded or punished. And on a final note, all eldest children were at one point only children. So there is an element of being “dethroned” from their privileged position of being the only, and the first, in the family, which many then try to recapture by being the first and the best, as their siblings race up behind them.

As a parent, it’s important to recognize that too much support for your child’s desire to do well and be the best may backfire dramatically. Encourage your child to try new things and run the risk of being bad at them, instead of allowing him to focus only on what he knows he can already do. And don’t place a disproportionate amount of expectations or responsibilities on him. While his natural leading abilities might make it easy for you to rely on him that way, his recognition that he is doing more than his siblings may make for some tension and dislike for his brothers and sisters.

There are lots of kinds of middle children. You might have a middle of three kids, or a middle of seven, so the middle children sometimes find their positions differently in each family. However, there are some general characteristics that seem to apply to many middle kids. They tend to have some level of resentment, in that they don’t have the privileges of the oldest, or the benefits of the baby. Sometimes kids in the middle will adopt the mistaken interpretation that they need to stand out in some way in order to belong or matter. When they see that their elder sibling is excelling in school (which is typical of first borns), the middle child often makes an unconscious decision not to compete with his big sis, and instead chooses to make his mark by standing out in a different way. Often this is in a social context, by having lots of friends, by being the peacemaker or mediator, or perhaps by excelling in sports. These kids are generally more easygoing than their older siblings, and can empathize with the underdog, because they see themselves that way, too.

Encourage middle children to speak up for themselves and not just work at keeping the peace. Recognize their efforts at creating their own path and their own uniqueness within the family. And don’t, for Heaven’s sake, say, “Why can’t you be more like your big brother?” All that does is encourage your child to feel as though you really do like the big brother better, that you don’t understand the middle child and how hard it is being after this brother, and it fosters incredible animosity between siblings. All in all, there’s no up-side to it, because it won’t motivate a middle child in any way.

Now we come to the baby. If you’re an eldest or a middle child, as soon as you heard that word, you probably thought “spoiled.” And there may be some truth to that. Parents who know that this will be their last child sometimes get nostalgic and unwilling to recognize their child’s true capabilities, and it’s easy to fall into the pampering trap. The mistaken belief of youngest kids is typically that they need to keep others in their service in order to belong and matter. Charming, amusing, fun, creative, and energetic are all words typically associated with the baby in the family. However, these kids can run into problems when they get to school, for instance, in that they can get so used to believing that they need others to do things for them, they essentially have an expectation that the teacher will do the learning for them, too. Tied in to this need for service can be a lack of belief in their own ability, which is crippling for a child (and extremely taxing for the parent!). But at the same time, sometimes the opposite is true. Some kids develop the notion that they need to work extra-hard to catch up to everyone, and in essence become overachievers.

It’s important that youngest kids have responsibilities in the house, too. Their abilities should be encouraged as early as possible, with things like setting the table and dressing themselves. Try to play up their other great qualities and achievements, other than, “She’s so cute!” Teach youngest children that they have something of value to contribute, and watch their self-perception soar.

And lastly we have only children. Often these kids appear more “adult” at younger ages than most of their peers, simply because they spend so much of their time with adults, who then become their formative role models. These kids typically have a keen sense of justice, and believe strongly that everyone should be treated equally. (Great for civil rights movements, not so great when Mom is cutting birthday cake and her only child is watching her every move to make sure that no one gets an even slightly bigger piece.) These kids are generally obedient, self-motivated, and content to do things on their own, and share a lot of characteristics with first borns. Only children are also typically very demonstrative with their emotions, and are prone to tantrums long past the “terrible two’s”.

Of course, not all families fit into neat categories. It’s important not to make assumptions or fail to recognize the individuality of all of our kids. Birth order isn’t meant to cram kids into little boxes, but to give us a glimpse into their thoughts and interpretations, so in those moments where we look dumbstruck at each other and say, “I don’t get it. Why would he do that?!” we have a way of understanding their behaviour. If we understand each other, it becomes easier and more joyful to meet each other’s needs. Which is a great gift we can give to our family.

Happiness At Home: Why Am I So Anxious?

Andrea Ramsay Speers - Monday, September 02, 2013

Every human feels anxiety on occasion; it is a part of life. All of us know what it is like to feel worry, nervousness, fear, and concern. We feel nervous when we have to give a speech, go for a job interview, or walk into our boss’s office for the annual performance appraisal. We know it’s normal to feel a surge of fear when we unexpectedly see a photo of a snake or look down from the top of a tall building. Most of us manage these kinds of anxious feelings fairly well and are able to carry on with our lives without much difficulty. These feelings don’t disrupt our lives.

But millions of people (an estimated 15% of the population) suffer from devastating and constant anxiety that severely affects their lives, sometimes resulting in living in highly restricted ways. These people experience panic attacks, phobias, extreme shyness, obsessive thoughts, and compulsive behaviors. The feeling of anxiety is a constant and dominating force that disrupts their lives. Some become prisoners in their own homes, unable to leave to work, drive, or visit the grocery store. For these people, anxiety is much more than just an occasional wave of apprehension.

Types of Anxiety Disorders

An anxiety disorder affects a person’s behavior, thoughts, feelings, and physical sensations. The most common anxiety disorders include the following:

Social anxiety or social phobia is a fear of being around other people. People who suffer from this disorder always feel self-conscious around others. They have the feeling that everyone is watching them and staring at them, being critical in some way. Because the anxiety is so painful, they learn to stay away from social situations and avoid other people. Some eventually need to be alone at all times, in a room with the door closed. The feeling is pervasive and constant and even happens with people they know.

People who have social anxiety know that their thoughts and fears are not rational. They are aware that others are not actually judging or evaluating them at every moment. But this knowledge does not make the feelings disappear.

Panic disorder is a condition where a person has panic attacks without warning. According to the National Institutes of Mental Health, about 5% of the adult American population suffers from panic attacks. Some experts say that this number is actually higher, since many people experience panic attacks but never receive treatment.

Common symptoms of panic include:

• Racing or pounding heart

• Trembling

• Sweaty palms

• Feelings of terror

• Chest pains or heaviness in the chest

• Dizziness and lightheadedness

• Fear of dying

• Fear of going crazy

• Fear of losing control

• Feeling unable to catch one’s breath

• Tingling in the hands, feet, legs, or arms

A panic attack typically lasts several minutes and is extremely upsetting and frightening. In some cases, panic attacks last longer than a few minutes or strike several times in a short time period.

A panic attack is often followed by feelings of depression and helplessness. Most people who have experienced panic say that the greatest fear is that the panic attack will happen again.

Many times, the person who has a panic attack doesn’t know what caused it. It seems to have come “out of the blue.” At other times, people report that they were feeling extreme stress or had encountered difficult times and weren’t surprised that they had a panic attack.

Generalized anxiety disorder is quite common, affecting an estimated 3 to 4% of the population. This disorder fills a person’s life with worry, anxiety, and fear. People who have this disorder are always thinking and dwelling on the “what ifs” of every situation. It feels like there is no way out of the vicious cycle of anxiety and worry. The person often becomes depressed about life and their inability to stop worrying.

People who have generalized anxiety usually do not avoid situations, and they don’t generally have panic attacks. They can become incapacitated by an inability to shut the mind off, and are overcome with feelings of worry, dread, fatigue, and a loss of interest in life. The person usually realizes these feelings are irrational, but the feelings are also very real. The person’s mood can change from day to day, or even hour to hour. Feelings of anxiety and mood swings become a pattern that severely disrupts the quality of life.

People with generalized anxiety disorder often have physical symptoms including headaches, irritability, frustration, trembling, inability to concentrate, and sleep disturbances. They may also have symptoms of social phobia and panic disorder.

Other types of anxiety disorders include:

Phobia, fearing a specific object or situation.

Obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), a system of ritualized behaviors or obsessions that are driven by anxious thoughts.

Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), severe anxiety that is triggered by memories of a past traumatic experience.

Agoraphobia, disabling fear that prevents one from leaving home or another safe place.

Treatment Options

Most people who suffer from anxiety disorders begin to feel better when they receive the proper treatment. It can be difficult to identify the correct treatment, however, because each person’s anxiety is caused by a unique set of factors. It can be frustrating for the client when treatment is not immediately successful or takes longer than hoped for. Some clients feel better after a few weeks or months of treatment, while others may need a year or more. If a person has an anxiety disorder in combination with another disorder (such as alcoholism and depression), treatment is more complicated and takes longer.

While a treatment plan must be specifically designed for each individual, there are a number of standard approaches. Mental health professionals who specialize in treating anxiety most often use a combination of the following treatments. There is no single correct approach.

Cognitive Therapy

The client learns how to identify and change unproductive thought patterns by observing his or her feelings and learning to separate realistic from unrealistic thoughts.

Behavior Therapy

This treatment helps the client alter and control unwanted behavior. Systematic desensitization, a type of behavior therapy, is often used to help people with phobias and OCD. The client is exposed to anxiety-producing stimuli one small step at a time, gradually increasing his or her tolerance to situations that have produced disabling anxiety.

Relaxation Training

Many people with anxiety disorders benefit from self-hypnosis, guided visualization, and biofeedback. Relaxation training is often part of psychotherapy.


Antidepressant and antianxiety medications can help restore chemical imbalances that cause symptoms of anxiety. This is an effective treatment for many people, especially in combination with psychotherapy.

The treatment for an anxiety disorder depends on the severity and length of the problem. The client’s willingness to actively participate in treatment is also an important factor. When a person with panic is motivated to try new behaviors and practice new skills and techniques, he or she can learn to change the way the brain responds to familiar thoughts and feelings that have previously caused anxiety.

Contact the Oakville Family Institute office at (905) 491-6949 to book an appointment
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Andrea Ramsay Speers • Psychotherapist & Parent Coach • Oakville Family Institute • 175 Glenashton Dr., Oakville ON • Tel.: 905-491-6949

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