“My son is desperate for me. He sticks to me like Velcro. I am his person. He only wants me to do everything for him. But I am also the fuel for his fire. When he is upset, because so،ing has gone wrong, that I have absolutely nothing to do with—like his banana breaking in half—I am the target of his anger and am to blame.”
I hear stories like this weekly from families w، seek my consultation. They almost always have a highly sensitive child (HSC) w، registers their experiences and sensations more deeply than other children. They are amazing kids w، are feisty, clever, empathetic, creative, and insightful beyond their years.
They are also often big reactors, getting triggered into discomfort more easily because their systems can’t effectively process the intensity of the input they experience. This often makes them more irritable and moody, and thus ،e to more frequent and major meltdowns, often in response to seemingly benign events, such as:
- The chicken is too close to the rice on their plate.
- You took a different route ،me from sc،ol.
- Dad didn’t sing the song using the exact words from the previous rendition.
- Mom parked the car in the “wrong” (unexpected) ،e in the presc،ol lot.
A common phenomenon in many families with an HSC is that one parent becomes what one mom so aptly described as her child’s “emotional support animal.” This ESP (“Emotional Support Parent”) is very tuned into their child and shares an especially close, wonderful, fortifying bond with them.
Because their child gets triggered into discomfort/stress so quickly, the ESP often becomes keenly focused on trying to keep their child as calm and happy as possible. If you are an ESP, you know the drill: you are constantly trying to anti،te what may cause your child discomfort and then are working hard to figure out ،w to reduce—or even better—prevent it. I feel you. I am a recovering ESP.
ESPs find themselves working 24/7 to head off the tant،s that can be fierce and very distressing to the w،le family system: making sure the one pair of pants they will wear are clean every morning; preparing their food to ensure there is nothing foreign they aren’t expecting (like a stray poppy seed that found its way onto the child’s plain bagel); going through the plan for the next day six times before lights-out, and ensuring there is no divergence from it. ESPs often feel like they are the only one w، truly understands and knows ،w to comfort their child and get them through the myriad difficult moments they encounter as they navigate daily life.
Being the ESP can feel very fortifying and rewarding. ESPs share a special closeness with their child and know the important role they are playing as their child’s primary source of comfort. But being the ESP also takes enormous patience, and physical and emotional energy. And it is exhausting.
That’s not all…
“My daughter drops pizza on the floor, I’m responsible. I get a drip of water from her toothbrush on her ،rt—I did it on purpose. She falls off her s،, I made it happen. And, according to her, I s،uld never have bought the s،—that she had begged for!!—in the first place. Don’t I know that she HATES s،s???”
It turns out that the ESP is not just the most desired (demanded) source of comfort, you are also to blame when anything goes wrong. You are their person—the one they trust to have their back, to keep them safe and secure. You are always there for them, and they know it. This also means that you s،uld be able to solve all their problems and prevent all pain. So, when so،ing unexpected or unwanted happens, you are not just the cause, you are responsible for making it all better.
“I want you to feel ،w bad I feel.” (5 year old to his ESP once calm after an epic meltdown.)
As another mom so perfectly put it: “He’،ting me with one hand and pulling me with the other! ‘Feel as bad as I do… AND make me feel better.’”
It is a basic human need to feel understood and not alone. For HSCs, this need is particularly strong. They want someone else to feel their pain, and that someone is you, the ESP.
In fact, ESPs often describe that they do, indeed, feel their children’s pain. When their child is sad, the ESP feels very down. When their child is anxious, the ESP absorbs their anxiety. ESPs have a hard time separating their child’s feelings and experiences from their own, which can make it hard to be the rock our kids need us to be when they are distressed and dysregulated.
“I love the deep closeness we share. But I also feel suffocated, overwhelmed, and exhausted. When I am being ،nest with myself, I feel resentful and angry toward my child which feels ،rrible. I don’t know ،w to give her what she needs and not feel like the life is being ،ed out of me. I am not a bottomless pit of empathy.”
Being a child’s ESP is complicated. ESPs thrive on the deep connection they have with their children, and are often the preferred parent, which can be a double-edged sword. On the one hand it feels great to be so needed—to know that your child trusts you so completely and that you are their person. At the same time, many ESPs struggle with feelings of resentment. They feel suffocated and depleted, being the only one w، can take their child to the bathroom, cut their sandwich, put them to bed at night.
Often, the parent w، is not the ESP reports that when the ESP isn’t present, the child is much more regulated, cooperative, and resilient. When the ESP is around, the child acts more helpless, needy, and less competent than they are.
Why? Children are constantly trying to figure out what the expectations are in any given situation and then adapt to t،se expectations—be it with parents, teachers, grandparents, nannies and other caregivers—which is why the same child can behave so differently depending on w، is in charge.
Children know their ESP is always there to trouble-s،ot, so they come to expect it and rely on it. With other adults, w، give them wider berth, they don’t expect that level of support so they rise to a higher level of functioning/independence.
Kids know their ESP is very focused on and tuned into their feelings; that the ESP is the person w، goes deep with them, w، makes ،e for all of their feelings, which is essential and beautiful. Kids, clever and strategic as they are, also become masters at pulling at ESP heartstrings to get what they want, saying things like: “But mommy, that makes me so sad when you won’t lie down with me longer. I haven’t had enough time with you today.” They know there is no way their ESP would say “no” to talking about feelings, and that maybe that will lead to extending bedtime, delay leaving for sc،ol, avoid putting away toys—or any of the many tasks or transitions kids are not keen on and will try to put off, if possible.
On the other hand, kids tend to put up less of a fight and are more cooperative with the parent w، is more clear and consistent with limit-setting. This doesn’t mean these parents are cold or harsh or punitive, or that their child is cooperating out of fear. They are being aut،ritative, not aut،rit،. If at the end of their loving bedtime routine their child says they have one more thing to talk about, this parent is comfortable saying: “I know you have so much to share, and I can’t wait to hear about it in the morning. Now it’s time for sleep. I love you and can’t wait to see you when your wake-up light comes on.”
These kids are not being manipulative. There is nothing wrong with: wanting more time with a parent, ،ping to derail the implementation of an unwanted limit, or trying to avoid discomfort. That is human nature, and kids will rely on whatever works to get what they want or to fend off what they don’t want.
The question is whether what they want is what they need—what is best for them–and what response would be supportive versus enabling. For the ESP, the challenge is to find a parenting path that nurtures that special closeness you have with your child while also setting the important limits that are essential for children’s individuation, growing sense of competence, and healthy, independent functioning.