Daddy’s Digest sits down IMPERFECT PARENTING with Dr. Dona Matthews

Some children are more sensitive and emotional than others. They feel things more deeply, and (at least when they’re younger) respond more openly, both positively and negatively. Although it can be challenging to parent such a child, there are parenting advantages, too.

You know when a highly sensitive child is happy, and you know when they feel unjustly treated or disappointed. They can be a source of unusual insight and creativity, and an exceptionally emotional child can grow into an adult who is vibrantly alive, able to respond in the moment to the joys and sorrows of life, fully engaged with the people and activities they encounter. The research shows that when difficult children are given the support and nurturing they need, they’re more likely than others to go on to live lives of exceptional achievement and success.  

Adapt your expectations

Highly emotional kids are more fragile, though, and the parenting challenges are real and persistent, especially for fathers, whose traditional roles have tended to be somewhat rigid and demanding. Depending on your own personality, personal history, and cultural background, it can be challenging to adapt your expectations to your child’s temperament. Your highly emotional child has a tender responsivity that causes them to absorb their circumstances, rendering them more susceptible to your criticism and judgement.

Some suggestions for parents of highly emotional children:

  1. If you can follow only one suggestion, this is the one: Be loving. Yes, most parents love their child, but that’s not the same thing as being loving with them. A sensitive child does best when treated with warm affection, and given kind, patient, and reliably thoughtful attention.   
  2. Take good enough care of yourself (sleep, nutrition, social connections, outdoor exercise, relaxation) that you’re able to be reasonably consistently loving with your child.
  3. Make sure your child’s basic needs (sleep, nutrition, social connections, outdoor exercise, playtime, relaxation) are well taken care of. Disruptions in any of those areas will make your already emotional child less able to manage their feelings.

Love the child you have, not the one you wish you had

  1. Love the child you have, not the one you wish you had. Do your best to love them the way they are, without trying to change them. Sensitivekids are sensitive to their parents’ judgements, and your child will know if you wish they were different. That will erode their self-confidence, making them more emotional and needy, not less.
  2. Show up and be present. Your highly emotional child needs more than just quality time (although that is important). They need quantity time, too.
  3. Do what you can to ensure a nurturing and supportive environment in your home. Highly emotional kids are stress-reactive. They thrive in positive environments, but do worse than others in cool, angry, or judgemental environments.
  4. Look for teachers and schools that are warm and accepting. Your highly emotional child will be at their best in an informal atmosphere, where each child feels welcome and valued. Even if your child is able to avoid the teacher’s criticism themself, they don’t do well with teachers who are authoritarian, cold, or critical with other children.


8. In my book Imperfect Parenting, I’ve written in more depth about the challenges involved in parenting highly emotional children, and what to do about it.

9. You might also find it helpful to read Mona Delahooke’s Beyond Behaviors or Brain-Body Parenting, Thomas Boyce’s The Orchid and the Dandelion, orMary Sheedy Kurcinka’s Raising Your Spirited Child. All of these authors have worked extensively with difficult (aka “spirited”) children, and provide helpful evidence-based recommendations for parents.

…and finally, ask for help!

10. If your child is easily distressed and hard to comfort, and you can’t find a way to make things better, you might want to talk to your family doctor or pediatrician about the situation. Sometimes what appears to be a difficult or emotional temperament is a medical or psychological problem that you and your child need professional help with.

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Written by Dr. Dona Matthews, PhD.

Dona Matthews, PhD, has worked with children, families, and schools since 1990, and is currently in private practice in Toronto, Canada. She was executive director, Millennium Dialogue on Early Child Development, University of Toronto, and founding director, Hunter College Center for Gifted Studies and Education, City University of New York. She has published widely on child and adolescent development, education, and supporting special needs. She frequently shares with parents ways to practice love and respect during each phase of their child’s development, learning, and growing alongside their children.Follow Dr. Matthews at her Psychology Today blog, “Going Beyond Intelligence.”