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How Should I Discipline My Highly Sensitive Child?

How Should I Discipline My Highly Sensitive Child?

Ask Dr. Meg

Dear Dr. Meg,
     I have 3 children: a six-year-old boy, and identical twin daughters who are three. My question involves one of the three-year-olds who appears to be a "highly sensitive" child.

My husband and I struggle with finding the right line between being understanding of her sensitivities and knowing when she needs more discipline.   For example, she frequently will be excited to come to the dinner table, but as soon as she sees her food, whether or not she likes it, she will drop her head and be silent, unable to eat for 20 minutes.

After a lot of coaxing, and after the other two children have mostly finished their meals, she may crawl into one of our laps and then eat normally. This type of incident doesn't just revolve around food.

We want to be considerate of her sensitivities while not giving into her unduly, nor being unfair to her siblings. Any thoughts you have are appreciated.

                    --Parenting a Sensitive Child

Dear Parenting a Sensitive Child,
I can relate to you because my daughter has twin 3-year-old girls and I babysit a lot. While I empathize with you letting her sit at the table and then crawl into your lap to eat, this is not a good habit.

It feels good to you (it would to me) but it isn’t healthy. Sensitive children need understanding and extra empathy but the rules don’t change for them. When you and your husband show her special treatment because she’s sensitive, you communicate that the world around her will adapt to her needs/desires. It won’t.

So you need to keep the same rules for her that you have for the other kids.

Here’s what I recommend (and I know this is hard).

1. Do NOT coerce her to eat. Food battles never turn out well. When she comes to the table, let her hang her head and keep the conversation going between the others. She’s gotten used to getting attention by doing this.

2. Don’t let her stay at the table longer than everyone else. It may be 10 minutes now but will eventually turn into 30.

3. If she doesn’t eat, put her food in the refrigerator. If she says she is hungry later, bring the plate out.

4. Don’t let her climb onto your lap at the dinner table. There are many other hours in the day when you can cuddle, but, just like the other kids, make her sit in her seat. When everyone is done with dinner, you and your husband get up, too. If you want to cuddle right after dinner and then read a book to both girls, that’s fine.

Even at 3, kids can learn to manipulate parents.

She isn’t bad, she’s just doing what comes naturally. So whenever you find yourself changing the rules for her but not the other kids, stop.

You need to teach her to live with boundaries and rules even though she is sensitive. And remember--disciplining kids is not about being mean. It’s about teaching them how to live well.

You might want to go through my Discipline with Courage and Kindness and that will help you a lot.

Photo Credit: ©GettyImages/fizkes

Meg Meeker, MD is a best-selling author and pediatrician. To find her online parenting courses or listen to her podcast Parenting Great Kids, go to To send in questions of your own, email them to