Ultra-sensitive preschooler who fears change? Talk amongst yourselves.

Christy, contributor of many hacks, needs our help. Read on:

I have an ultra-sensitive type-A 3 year old who’s about to be 4 and a 1 going on 2 year old. We live in a semi-rural community, with a Walmart and a McDonalds, and both the Walmart and McD’s are in the process of breaking ground on a new bigger, better site about a 1/2 mile away from the old one. My nearly 4 year old loves that there is construction going on, but when she asked what they were building and I told her a McDonalds, she grew really *REALLY* concerned about what would happen to the old one. Not picking up on the warning signs from the back seat I told her quite frankly that they were going to close it, which set her off on a 20 minute crying spree about missing the old McDonald’s and what are they going to do with all the food and chairs and tables and boxes, blah blah blah, wah wah wah.

Her reaction was akin to being told that Dora took the long walk in the woods. Now I’m faced with a pre-schooler who reacts as though the world is ending whenever we drive down Main street. This is like dealing with a death in the family, which brings me to my request, because I didn’t see anything in the archive about how to talk to kids about death. Comically, I have to parlay that into the death of McDonald’s, but her emotional response is the same. There has got to be some sort of parent hack about talking to young children about changes like this.

On top of that, the next day we were exposed to the first few scenes of the Peter Pan sequel and I have been trying to truthfully answer questions about bomb raids, WWI/II, pirates and kidnapping without traumatizing her ever since. No, we don’t get out much. Yes, this is my first child. No, I haven’t got a clue what I’m doing.

So how do you hack the sensitive kid?

First, none of us knows what we’re doing.

Second, fear and preschool age seem to go together developmentally.

Third, your daughter is obviously very smart in addition to being sensitive. The "problem" with lots of smarts is that she can intellectually go places she’s not yet ready to go emotionally.

What has helped us: a little bit of info AND a very set routine response each time they head out into imaginary anxiety land. My kids both hate change, so we take pictures of everything we’re worried about. (Thank you camera phone.) We’ve taken pictures of cars we’ve sold, furniture we’ve moved to different rooms, special rocks that "may" get stolen before someone gets home from school, etc. The act of taking the picture and "saving" a bit of the thing in question seems to solve it. (Not the underlying issue, but that momentary crisis.)

We also try to respect the feelings of anxiety but not dwell on them. Acknowledge, sympathize, provide a bit of info, move on. Repeat if necessary. It’s an ongoing process that’s slowly improving as my kids get older.

What say you, Parenthackers?

Related: Dr. Parker on dealing with childhood fears

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  1. says

    This one really hits home. I have a 4 year old who worries about EVERYTHING. One thing that has really helped him (I can’t take credit for it – his preschool teacher suggested it) was to remind him when he was worrying about things the the grownups are supposed to worry/take care of. He worries a lot about fire alarms and keeping safe – so we constantly remind him that it is our job, as the grownups, to make sure he is safe and we will take care of checking the fire alarms and making sure there are no fires. Could you talk with your daughter about the grownups who are responsible for taking care of the old McDonald’s furniture, etc. and remind her that is it their JOB to do that?

  2. Greg says

    My 4 year old has high-functioning autism. He does not always adapt to change well and worries a lot. These are things that work well for us:

    Prep time: I give as much prep time as possible for anything out of the ordinary. And I make him repeat it back. Lots of times. When two houses we drove by every day were going to be razed to make room for a sub development, we discussed the progress every day. It winds up the houses were moved, which made for even more interesting discussion.

    Minimize exposure to the news: Mainstream news it not about journalism, it is about ratings, mostly by instilling fear. My son was concerned about our house falling down in a storm…he must have seen a news story about it. When we would talk about it, I explained that it was news because it was so rare for a house to fall down due to a storm.

    Tell only as much as needed: I only give the information that can be processed. For example, “Where do babies come from?” I answer with “Babies grow in their mother’s tummy after a man and woman get married.” As the questions get more focused, I will explain more. But no need to dump everything at once.

    It is ok to grieve: When my son has one of his heartbreaking crying spells (not tantrum, but really grieving), I sit with him and let him work it out…even if it is something like his little brother knocked down a tower of blocks. It is a big deal to him.

  3. says

    You may want to consider a microscopic example for your child to learn from. In other words, consider sitting down with your child and changing something incredibly unimportant to them. Discuss with them the change, tell them it’s going to happen, then make the change and talk to them about their feelings. It’s quite possible that they won’t care about the change (for example, try switching the location of the plates and the bowls in your cupboards).

    Getting your child comfortable with change is hair-tearing difficult. But if you teach them about change in a way that is comfortable for them, they may open themselves up to larger changes.

    …just an idea…

  4. says

    I think I’d start with what I started with when talking about death: Mother Nature and everything around us. Flowers grow, bud, bloom and die. They change and that change is simple and visible to us in a short time. Babies grow quickly and we can look in our photo albums to see how our child looked a year ago or three years ago. A book about construction might be useful to show how buildings grow and change. We can hasten that change by picking the flower or tearing down the building but from each of those actions comes both good and bad. The flower will die sooner, but we can enjoy it up close. The building is now gone, but a new one will get built.

    Good luck! And being a sensitive person is sometimes a great trait. See the book: The Highly Sensitive Person by Elaine N. Aron

  5. meggiemoo says

    I second the suggestion to miminize exposure to news, but I would expand that to all media. Our 2-year-old son is extremely sensitive and cannot watch the typical Disney movies most children his age watch without getting scared or upset. (He cried at daycare when they put the Care Bears on…no idea what’s scary in Care Bears!)

    We limit his viewing to very soothing, almost boring movies, like the Kipper series. I don’t allow him to watch any typical TV. As he gets older, I can see that we’ll have to be very vigilant about the types of things he watches in movies and TV.

  6. hedra says

    Also be aware that this age has a lot of sensitivity to change and death issues IN GENERAL, so you’re kind of hitting the jackpot of reaction. At least it wasn’t a favorite pet!

    Also, as a geographer, I’m keenly aware that place has meaning for many people. This is important to note about her, because it will play a role in her rootedness and her ability to ‘settle’ in a place. She has a strong affinity for ‘place’, IMHO, which is a GOOD THING. And that also means that she’s likely to treat the loss of McD’s as you’d expect her to treat a move 1000 miles away.

    She may be excited by the new things coming, but she’s going to MISS the old stuff. And the old places, and the times and feelings associated, were important to her. Something as simple as taking some pictures and putting them in your family album (should you have such a thing – ours is really just boxes, SIGH) could make all the difference.

    Impermanence (dang, you’d think I could spell that!), transitory, ephemeral things are very hard for the concretness of this age. So, the flowers break my preschoolers hearts by dying, butterflies by flying away, etc. Having a name for the fact that the world is not static but ever-changing is relatively important. It gives a box to put these things in. Temporary is a reasonably good one.

    Any book about moving would also apply, really – the McDonalds is MOVING. The building won’t be there anymore, and they have to take the parts of the building down. BUT, the things in the McD’s will be – they’ll take the supplies, the cups and lids and straws, the toys, whatever – to the new McD’s and they’ll have nice homes there, too. They might miss their old homes, but they’ll really like their new home, too.

    Acknowledge the loss and pain side, but treat it gently enough that you’re not enhancing it by making it seem worse (stay calm, basically). AND acknowledge the joyfulness that comes with a nice new place to go, with so many of the old things we loved all there – fries included. ;)

    Good luck! It’s an interesting age, no? (Try the book The Highly Sensitive Child for more ideas)

  7. Jean says

    I third the suggestion to limit (eliminate, really) exposure to media. I will never forget the day that I put on the AM station in order to get a traffic report on the way to work (and preschool), and my then-3-yr-old got a horrible dose of news headlines. Unfortunately it included the story of a young woman who had been shot by the police during an after-sports riot. It was only on for a few seconds – but it was too late. She was full of anxious questions, and we didn’t hear the end of them for another couple of weeks at least.

    In my opinion, a screen-free and media-free childhood is one of the greatest gifts we can give our children. There will be plenty of time for them to catch up on their cartoon characters AFTER they’ve gotten comfortable and capable playing in the real, tangible world.

  8. says

    Thanks Dylan for the vote of confidence!

    I must say, everything that has been said above to Mom Christy about her daughter is *Right On*. I couldn’t do better. Symathize with the little ones; they have strong feelings, and it’s easy for us to forget how intense and confusing those feelings can be. Help them see that everything will be OK when things change: the preschooler lives much of the time in the “Magic World” of imagination and fantasy. Their sense of objective reality is not established; not even close. Giving them concrete reassurances, somtimes over and over, is helpful.

    I do also appreciate the discussion about media. A good distinction to be made here: CONTENT MATTERS. Radio/TV news is really never appropriate for young children. But an episode of The Backyardigans? That’s a whole different thing.

    C’mon over to BabyShrink if you’re interested in exploring the TV issue…we’ve had some fireworks over there recently!

  9. STL Mom says

    I wish I could tell you that kids grow out of this quickly, but my eight-year-old still sometimes sobs hysterically over things that seem incredibly trivial to me.
    I think the advice about acknowledging your child’s emotions while remaining calm yourself, and only then help them deal with it a little more rationally, are very useful.
    We’ll be moving 500 miles away in a few weeks. My daughter’s been anxious about it for months. Now we’re taking lots of photos of our house and yard, and we are making plans for hiding some kind of a personal picture or letter for the new owners to find after we move out. Rituals are good!

  10. stacy says

    I was sensitive like this when I was little (sobbed for ages when my grandparents got a new recliner) and to an extent still am (often tearful my first night in a new place, prefer to buy multiple pairs of my favorite jeans/sneakers to avoid having to find something I like just as much).

    What worked for me was having lots of time to talk it over, being provided with reasons why the new item is preferable (“see, this recliner doesn’t have holes in it!”), and having space to reminisce about positive memories relating to the old place–talking about it, writing/drawing pictures, etc.

    Also, now that I’m older it’s helpful for me to be able to remember that I often respond to change in a certain way, so my reaction doesn’t freak me out. If I move to a new place and realize I might cry when I go to sleep the first night, it’s not as worrying (and if I don’t cry, even better!) Perhaps there’s a way you can help your child prepare for the emotions she might feel when encountering the new place–of course, in a way that doesn’t dictate how she responds (I realize this could be difficult!)

    Finally, a blogger I read recently reviewed a DVD about helping kids adapt to change: http://www.karianna.us/reviews/2008/04/changing_it_up_without_the_whi.html

  11. kara says

    Your daughter sounds a lot like my son. I try really hard to validate his feelings when he’s upset. (even if it’s with me) Here’s my script: (courtesy Getting the Love You Want by Harville Hendrix)
    1. So, what I hear you saying is that you feel really worried about McDonalds moving.
    2. I get that. I understand that. I can see why you feel that way. (choose one)
    3. I’m sure that makes you feel scared and worried. Is that right?
    4. Is there anything else?

    It may sound a bit patronizing but it really works for us. I’ve found explaining,reasoning, or trying to find a solution doesn’t always help that much. This just tells him that what he is feeling is okay.

    This TOTALLY works on grown ups too.

  12. Christy says

    Thanks everyone for your comments.

    The camera tip helped a bit (thanks Asha) and we’ve been back to the old McDonald’s a few times since it initially happened and there are actually some very nice employees there that flirt with her and they’ve been really helpful. They’re not moving until August, so I think we’ll have enough time to adjust to the transition. She’s also really excited about the bigger McDonald’s now that the walls are starting to go up. We’ll see if she adjusts the same to the Super Walmart.

    Comically enough, I just went through this thing with a potty doll with her. We had the Little Mommy Potty Baby as a prop for toilet training, and it became less a prop and more a favorite doll, so much so that when her little sister dropped it on its head almost a year ago now, and the neck cracked off (talk about trauma), whenever she gets upset about anything it reverts to “I miss potty baby”. (Potty baby is no longer available retail). I assume this will be replaced by “I miss the old McDonald’s” sooner or later.

    Ironically I think I can probably count on one hand the number of times we’ve actually eaten there, which is why this is even more confusing to us.

    PS to potty baby, she finally appeared at a reasonable price on ebay and we’ve replaced her, courtesy a visit to the doctor’s office to get her neck brace removed. I really thought that a $15 doll would be easier to replace when it happened, so (as a hack) my three year old has been sending her get well soon cards at the doll hospital every time she gets upset. I thought for sure in March that we were over it since it’d been a few months since I’d heard anything, but Potty baby reared her ugly head again so I figured I’d try locating her one more time. Thank you Ebay.

    FYI Fisher Price Customer Service, though very sympathetic, totally unhelpful.

  13. gila boucher says

    I have a 7-year-old and a 3-year-old. The youngest takes pretty much everything in her stride and the eldest is very much like your 3-year-old.

    So nature/nurture? Argue amongst yourselves!

    No tips to offer exactly except to love, cuddle, love and love a bit more. My 7-year-old is sensitive, mature, and thoughtful but also….as I find easy to forget because of these traits, very young. She strongly needs and seeks the reassurance from those she trusts (me and daddy, and her grandparents) that we know what she’s going through, that we feel the same way, and again, that we love her and respect and wish to validate her existential ‘questions’ and needs, and that we are fully, as her parents (and grandparents) capable and able to do so.

    your post really struck a chord.

    best wishes,and good luck to your little one. and to all our ‘little ones’

  14. Shauna says

    My 4 year old (who will be 5 in a couple weeks *sniff*) is insanely mature and with that insanely sensitive. She started speaking at 4 months and currently uses many 4 syllable words. Having said that, she is ABSOLUTELY OBSESSED WITH DEATH in every form. She sings about it, she talks about it, her imaginary friends routinely die and we have to be cautious when we have our friend, a widower, over for dinner – she can really get on a roll. We are strong Christians and have taught her that death is for people/animals/goldfish/imaginary friends that are really old or sick. We have taught her that after someone dies, their heart gets to go live with Jesus – my parents are trained grief counsellors (sp?) by trade and they haven’t had any luck yet. CNN is our worst enemy. I really understand where this mom is coming from, because I really struggle with it as well.

    Kara – I really like your idea, and use that technique when she is having a meltdown/tantrum. I never, however, thought of using it in this format. Thanks for the suggestion.

    If anyone else has a budding Emily Dickenson, please let me know – how do you get past this? A macabre 4 year old is a tiny bit disturbing.

  15. Jessica says

    I am SO glad that I am not alone in having a sensitive child!! I have a very sensitive 2 year old girl who cries whenever we go somewhere new, when I rearrange the furniture, when new people are around. We had to get a new sitter (the old one got another job) and she cried for the first 15 minutes of each interview. I’m SO lucky I even found one! If there are “too many” people in a room, she feels overhwelmed. If we go to a party she clings to me for at least 30 minutes and I can not put her down for the hysterics. At home, in her routine, she is a “perfect child”, meaning, happy, polite, sweet, helpful. She is incredibly smart, just turned two and saying four and five word sentences. She comprehends a great deal. I have tried to talk to her calmly, explain the changes ahead of time…ex: “we are going to a birthday party for so and so today. There will be lots if fun things to do and you will know a lot of the people there…” etc and she seems to understand and answers me, “OK Mommy” and as soon as we get there, hysterics as soon as anyone says hello to her. She is fine until someone pays attention to her. Once she is the center of attention she loses it. Any ideas anyone?

  16. says

    Having a 13 year old now, who was once a highly sensitive baby, then toddler, then kid and now teenager…I think there are some things I could have done differently. I have been told by a psychologist that highly intelligent kids can tend to be highly sensitive as one post indicated. They have access to more information in their brains than they can process. I tried often to protect my son from these upsetting emotional times and I wonder if he could have benefited from just feeling the feelings, in a safe environment of course. I tended to try to prevent him from getting upset, but by doing so, kept him from learning about the real world and how it affects him emotionally. So, maybe sometimes let the chips fall where they may…if you anticipate that something will upset your sensitive child, let it happen once in a while. Maybe they will grow to learn more about their reactions and emotions? My son somehow turned out pretty ok :) He is still a bit sensitive, but very loving and super empathetic. I am proud of those qualities in him. Especially for a teenage boy!

  17. Jessica says

    Thanks to Bambinimommy, what you said makes a lot of sense. I look forward to having an empathetic if even a little more than sensitive teen. Sounds like you’ve done a great job raising your son so far. I appreciate your insight along with all the other parents who write. I am so thankful for this site, I always feel like i’m not the only one dealing with these issues. Kudos to all of us parents, we do the best we can and support each other along the way! :)

  18. Parent Hacks Editor says

    Thank you for all the wonderful comments. Bambinimommy — I needed to hear your reminder. Exposure to the world (with a little moderation, perhaps) is the only thing that will help them regulate themselves, and learn how strong they are.

  19. LAB says

    My 4-year-old son has Asperger’s Syndrome, and can become quite upset about change. In a case like this, with the McDonald’s, I’d probably explain to him that there are many McDonald’s restaurants all over the world (seems obvious, but kids don’t always understand this), and that new ones are popping up every day. I’d probably ask his help in listing all the good things about a new McDonald’s (maybe it will have a bigger and better play area! maybe it will look really cool inside!), and talk to him about how a building is not alive.

    My son is sensitive and anxious, so I have limited his exposure to upsetting videos. Even the movie “Cars” is too much for him, because he’s frightened by all the crashes (worries that we will crash our car that way, and wants to know what happens to someone if they’re in a car that crashes). I don’t want to shelter him from everything sad, and I do answer him honestly when he asks questions (this week he asked, “Do babies sometimes
    die?”). But I stick to movies like Lady & the Tramp and the Aristocats, where the emotional stuff is a little easier to deal with. When I was a kid, I only saw a few movies a year (this was before the days of the VCR!), and I see no reason why my son has to be confronted with strong emotional messages in movies all the time. It’s just not necessary.