The thin-skinned child

2008-08-13 00:00

“My hope for this book is that people who read it will enjoy being parents to their sensitive children more, enjoy those children more and trust themselves more,” says Rob Pluke, author of a new book of guidelines and practices for parenting emotionally sensitive children.

A counselling and educational psychologist in private practice in Pietermaritzburg, Pluke stresses that parents of emotionally sensitive children do not need to be cleverer. Rather, they need to trust their own parenting skills more and be more aware, both of their children and themselves. “They don’t need to be more logical, but more relational, more ‘in the moment’. They need to keep not only their children’s emotions and responses in focus, but also themselves: their own emotions and parenting style. Part of our parental responsibility is to help our children learn to manage their emotions. We can’t do that without being aware of our own.

“I believe in life-long learning and our children are wonderful barometers of our own learning. As they grow we have opportunities to learn too. I suspect that our children’s difficulties are there for us to grow too. We need to relax and engage with these difficulties rather than try to fix them in a detached and rigid way. Parenting gives us a chance to learn response-flexibility and to become wiser. It is an opportunity to understand our own emotional terrain and reflect on our own growth and selfhood.”

Pluke is quick to admit that it can be challenging to be a parent of an emotionally sensitive child because they can make huge demands on their parents, forcing them to confront issues within themselves and to dig deep into their own resources to cope. “Children are also excellent barometers of what’s going on in society. Modern life is stressful. There are lots of pressures and many things to make people anxious. Children are not immune to those factors and life in school can also be very stressful, especially for sensitive children. This can force parents to confront the issues in wider society as well as those within themselves and the family.”

Pluke wrote the book because of the number of parents coming to see him with similar concerns about their children. “I was doing and saying the same things so often with different parents, I realised I needed to put it into an accessible form. Reading a book like this can help make parents aware of issues with their children, but it can never replace dialogue and relationship. A safe forum, in which to discuss and work through those issues and our own need to grow, is irreplaceable.”

Pluke’s interest in the topic was also sparked by developments in medical technology that have allowed scientists to look at how the brain functions in relation to emotions. “For example, research by Jerome Kagan, a retired professor of research psychology at Harvard University in the U.S., showed that emotional sensitivity is common: one in five children is likely to be sensitive. This is based on the finding that 20% to 25% of children have a high reactive amygdala. This is the region of the brain located in the medial temporal lobe, believed to play a key role in emotions such as fear and pleasure. A high reactive amygdala is linked to qualities like strong reactions to newness and novelty and a fear of being left alone — both characteristics of sensitive children.”

Pluke says researching and writing the book has allowed him to reflect on himself both as a parent and as a professional. “The two cannot be separated because they are both ‘heart’ experiences — feelings are central to both. The book has helped me to think through many issues related to parent-child relationships and sharpen my focus. Part of the joy has been that my roles as a father and as a counsellor dovetail so well, they keep feeding each other.

“Working on the book has also made me aware of a need among fathers for help with parenting generally, but with being a father to sensitive children particularly. Talks I have given seem to have struck a chord with many dads — they need help with understanding and managing their own emotions and their children’s. I have become aware of a common experience I call ‘disappointed dads’. These are men who are disappointed that fatherhood and their children have not turned out the way they hoped, but aren’t sure how to cope with this.”

This will probably be the future direction of Pluke’s research, and will perhaps lead to another book.

Who Is Rob Pluke?

Married with three children, Rob Pluke began his career as an English teacher and school counsellor before returning to university to complete a masters degree in educational psychology. He then served as a school psychologist at St Christopher’s school, a local school for children with special needs. During that time, he completed a second internship as a counselling psychologist and was appointed deputy principal of the school. He has been in full-time private practice since 1999. He writes regularly for parenting magazines and gives talks on a range of topics related to parent-child relationships, families and child development.

A keen sportsman, he completed the Dusi Canoe Marathon four times in his younger days and has a self-confessed weakness for TV sport of all varieties.

What is a sensitive child?

Counselling psychologist Rob Pluke stresses that this is not a book about “unwell children”.

“To call a child ‘sensitive’ is not a diagnosis of ‘something that needs to be fixed’. It is a very intimate part of who a child is and how he or she functions. There is nothing wrong with sensitive children. The term ‘sensitive’ is just a description of a particular temperament or disposition. There is no ‘bad’ temperament, just different temperaments. Understanding their child’s temperament can help parents understand and relate to that child.”

How can you tell if you have a sensitive child? Here are some of the characteristics that a sensitive child could display:

• dislikes change or new things

• strong emotional reactions to environment

• inner peace easily upset

• timid, anxious, withdrawn

• sometimes “prickly” and “difficult”

• highly strung

• worries a lot

• physically awkward or tense

• sensitive to discipline

• lacks confidence.

The book is available from Bookworld at Cascades shopping centre for R140 or directly from the author at

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