Children come into the world with different levels of emotional and energetic intensity. Intense children are often seen as brilliant, precocious, creative, and sensitive, on one hand, and/or needy, oversensitive, dramatic, and quick to act out, on the other. Where they fall on this spectrum depends, in part, on how well their experiences are reflected in their important relationships. Mental health professionals use the terms empathic attunement to describe the quality and depth of the connection. Children who don't get the right level of attunement may feel unanchored and lonely.
This makes me think of my friend, Dr. Elizabeth Sylvester who runs Austin Child Therapy. When she comes to my house, she greets me and my husband, and even the dogs, in a calm, affectionate way. But when she greets the girls, her energy level and focus increases, her eyes open wider, her manner is more animated, and her attention is often on small, positive behaviors and efforts the girls are making. The children love her! They clearly feel seen and valued, and brighten up when she walks in the door. Elizabeth sees and matches their intensity level.
Wherever they fall on the intensity spectrum, children (and adults for that matter) need accurate mirroring from their adult relationships. What happens when high intensity children don't get the right kind of positive attention? That's when you start seeing an increase in acting out. All children need to have their feelings and experiences reflected back to them in a meaningful way. If they can't get the attention they crave in a positive way, they'll get it negatively.
So what does this mean for the parent of an intense child? I think of it in two ways. One way is about matching the child's emotional energy. This involves responding to the child using words, body language, and facial expressions that acknowlege and mirror what they're trying to communicate. When this is done well, the child will calm down. But if you try to ignore or minimize their experience, chances are they will escalate their behavior until they get what they need. So, for example, yesterday my intense child was crying because she missed her dad while he was taking the dogs for a walk. Typical dog walks last 20 minutes, but for whatever reason, my daughter really missed her Dad. I started off with, "He'll be right back." "He won't be gone for long." "He always comes home." Let me just say that none of this was helpful. When I earnestly sat with her and hugged her and talked to her about how sad she was, and how much she misses her Dad, she began calming down. I then praised her for being so brave and strong in the face of her sad feelings. This brings us to response number two, which I have learned from Dr Sylvester.
Response number two involves consistently articulating and praising the behavior you want to continue seeing, and ignoring (unless it's dangerous, or extreme) behavior that you don't want to encourage. Negative attention can be as reinforcing of behavior as positive attention. So on a good day, I might calmly ask my daugther to stop throwing the ball in my face. When she does it again, I might take the ball away and remind her that we don't throw balls at people's faces. If she manages to redirect her attention to something more positive, then I jump on the opportunity to praise how well she listens and how much I appreciate her response. If her father is there, I might tell him what a great listener she is as well. It ends up being a mini celebration that reinforces and teaches children how to get their need for attention met in a good way. If she picks something else up to throw, I would turn and walk away and let her know that I'd be happy to play ball with her when she stops throwing things at my face. Again, a mini-celebration when she cooperates.