Does Your Overly Sensitive Kid Have a Hair Trigger Temper?

by Janet Lehman, MSW
Does Your Overly Sensitive Kid Have a Hair Trigger Temper?

When you have an oversensitive child with a hair trigger temper, it really puts you—and other family members—on edge. You begin to tip toe around him or her; you feel like you can’t be direct for fear of causing an angry, explosive response. You also start to feel responsible for your kid’s behavior and “take the blame.” Parents often begin to do more enabling behaviors like giving in and making things easier on touchy, easily-angered kids. But in the long run, it’s important to realize that this response isn’t helpful to them or you.

It wonít help you or your child to give them more attention for their behavior. Donít give them an audience or validate their overreaction.

Related: How to manage explosive anger in kids.

It’s natural to feel very alone and full of shame about your child’s over-sensitive, reactive behavior—especially if this behavior is displayed in front of others. It can be embarrassing if other extended family members or friends become critical. Ultimately this can be isolating to a parent, but it’s important to understand that you are not alone. Do not underestimate the need for some kind of a support system—a partner, friend, parent or group—a place where you can get the support you need for this situation.

Why are some kids more sensitive than others? Some kids respond with oversensitivity to different stages in life, especially adolescence. When children go through different stages of development, they may become touchy and moody even though they weren’t this way previously. It can come as a shock if you’re not prepared for that change. Other children face environmental factors that are making them more sensitive—a death, loss or change in living situation, for example. Still other children are simply wired to be more sensitive – and while you can’t change this fact about them, you can help them manage their emotions more effectively. No matter what the reason for your child’s touchy behavior, you still need to use the same kind of parenting techniques to help them.

Related: Does your child twist your words and start fights?

Here are 5 real techniques that can help you parent your oversensitive, reactive child more effectively.

1. Stay neutral—even when your child overreacts: When your child’s response is completely over the top (even when they’re just experiencing what you might consider a normal bump in the road), resist being drawn into an argument with them. So when your teen daughter throws a full-blown tantrum and starts screaming at you because “she has no clothes to wear” (even though she has a closet full) or your son gets in your face and insists that you “hate” him when you tell him that he can’t go out on a school night, it can feel upsetting, not to mention absurd and irrational, for us as parents. In the heat of the moment, there’s a temptation to be sarcastic, short or even angry with your child when he overreacts or loses control of his temper. But understand that none of that helps. To him, the feelings are very real—and he’s definitely not seeing it as absurd at that point in time. Try not to react in front of your child; work to keep your tone and expression neutral. You don’t need to agree with what he’s saying, but by making fun of him or arguing with him, you will enter into a power struggle that you can’t win.

2. Take away the audience. It won’t help you or your child to give them more attention for their behavior. Don’t give them an audience or validate their overreaction. Even though you might feel like you should, you don’t have to stand there and try to “fix” whatever the problem is, feed into your child’s emotions or validate their excessive reaction. This is an important point because it’s very important for you to understand that you can’t argue your child out of it. And you’re probably not going to be able to reason with him and convince him to see things differently, either. You want to just plant a seed about how the reaction doesn’t seem to match what’s going on, and then walk away. You can talk about it later when your child is calm; at that time you can work with them to come up with a better way to respond next time.

Related: Learn how to help your child to behave differently next time.

If things have started to get heated and emotional, do what you can to remove yourself from the area. Speak in a calm voice. You don’t have to over-respond or overreact just because your child does. If what you’re doing now isn’t working, try doing the opposite of what you usually do. When things are calm, you may even say to the child, “We’re going to do things differently from now on. In the past, when I have tried to talk with you about cleaning your room, you tend to overreact. Instead, I’m going to make a list of what needs to be done. You can just follow the list so that I don’t have to speak to you about this over and over.” You can also say, “When you act this way, it’s hard for others to be around you. I’m going to help you respond more appropriately and learn how to deal differently with things.”

3. Be aware of what triggers your child. You need to “parent the child you have and not the one you wish you had.” Part of doing this is noticing your child’s triggers and trying to avoid them. If they’re set off by getting dressed for school in the morning, for example, start having them pick out what they’re going to wear at night. Sometimes triggers, even for teens, have to do with not getting enough sleep, or being hungry. Do your best to remove or avoid all of your child’s usual triggers. This can greatly cut down on the number of tantrums or explosive rages they experience during the week.

Along these same lines, remove your child from embarrassing situations like the grocery store when they act out—and try to avoid taking them back their until they’ve shown you they can behave. Set limits around their behavior and follow through with consequences. If you take your 13-year-old daughter shopping for a dress and she says she hates everything and then is rude to you and the clerk, that’s the end of dress shopping for the time being. You can say, “Okay, we’re leaving. Let’s try this again another time when you’re ready.” For whatever reason, she’s not able to handle it at this time. Removing her from this embarrassing situations is not only good for you as a parent, but good for your child as well.

Related: How to manage your child’s triggers—and stop letting them rule your life.

4. Stop lecturing—it doesn’t work. Remember, you can’t lecture your child into changing her behavior. Try to be brief, clear and direct when you talk with her. As parents, we tend to say things over and over. For oversensitive kids that’s probably not helpful, because it’s often connected to their triggers. Generally, these kids tend to be pretty sensitive to information. So a minimal amount of discussion or message about something is probably going to work better for them. You’re going to avoid triggers and you’re going to get your point across. As a parent, it’s important to learn how to say things differently. Look at it this way: if you have to repeat yourself constantly what you’re saying is obviously not effective.

5. Have conversations about managing emotions: With older teens, you can try talking to them about what’s going on. The older adolescent is probably starting to see this touchy, angry behavior get in the way of having friends. While you can’t make the behavior or emotions go away by talking about it, you might be able to find ways to help your teen cope better. Try reinforcing times when they’ve really done a good job of handling things. Let’s say the coach yelled at your teen but he didn’t lose his cool. You might say, “I noticed that you really kept it together with the coach today. What happened during that situation that made you able to do that?” He might say, “My best friend was there with me and they said not to let it bother me,” or “I knew the coach was mad at everyone and not just me.” Reinforce that by saying, “Great, remember that next time. He might be mad at everyone and not just you.” I would keep it short and really focused on that situation.

Related: How to get through to your teen.

Here’s another example. Let’s say your family is playing a game. Your 11-year-old perceives something to be unfair and flips the board over, sending all the pieces flying. You might give a consequence for that behavior, and then when things are calm you would have a problem-solving conversation where you ask, “What can you do differently the next time you feel like something’s not fair?” †That’s what teaches your child how to learn to cope. After all, you want them to be successful; you want them to be able to play games with others. Again, keep the conversation short. “I know you were upset that you were losing the game. I know your sister rubbed it in. But it’s just a game and you need to keep it together. What can you do next time you feel that way that won’t ruin it for everyone and get you in trouble?” And then you would help your child come up with some ideas.

You might feel frustrated with your oversensitive child, but remember, it has a silver lining because there are some positive aspects to this, too. In itself, being sensitive is not a bad thing. Your child might be more intuitive and really aware of things. It’s good to remember that beyond the oversensitivity, what’s left is sensitivity—which is a really positive trait. And once your child is mature and learns how to cope better, he’s going to be able to really use this skill in life.

The goal for you is to help your child accept himself, but that doesn’t mean he doesn’t have to change or behave appropriately. Your job as a parent is to help him learn how to understand his own makeup, and respond to situations differently. You want to teach him how to cope so that his oversensitivity doesn’t get in the way as he grows older. The ultimate goal is for him to learn how to function in the world so his temper doesn’t prevent him from making and keeping friends, doing well in school, getting a job, and sustaining meaningful relationships.

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Janet Lehman, MSW has worked with troubled children and teens for over 30 years and is the co-creator of The Total Transformation Program. She is a social worker who has held a variety of positions during her career, including juvenile probation officer, case manager, therapist and program director for 22 years in traditional residential care and in group homes for difficult children.


Thsnks, the article is really helpful.

Comment By : Rabia naikauen

Our daughter is one of those innately over-sensitive children, plus we're heading into adolescence. Thanks for the great suggestions and conversation starters!

Comment By : Connie

I am a Grandmother of a oversensitive child. I only see her on Wednesday's and a short period every other weekend. She is 13 years old and these outburst are becoming frequent. I appreciate your ideas on how to best react to her tantrums.

Comment By : Gran

I want parents to know that IF they stand their ground; ie. don't cave in to teen bullying or the appeasing of other adults, the kids WILL GET IT and respect and appreciate you for holding onto high standards on their behalf. My son TORMENTED ME for two+ years while his Dad appeased him, which only hurt my son in the long run. Son just left for college this fall and now his good manners even extend to me(MOST of the time)! As does his needing my attention, advice, assistance. They crave independence and then can be crushed by adult responsibility. Keep preparing them even when they reject everything you're trying to teach them. It's YOUR JOB, no matter how hard. This site was my ONLY ALLY throughout those painful, tormented times. Thank God for these newsletters reminding me I wasn't wrong.

Comment By : Survived it!

My 18 year old is has been hypersensitive and the whole family experiences his anger outburst over very small things. I have managed not to feed into it but try to tell that to his siblings that really do not have that clarity and understanding I have after a life of experience.

Comment By : Annie

Holy cow! Reading this makes it seem like you have been sitting in my house watching what goes on every single day! That means I'm not alone in dealing with my daughter's behavior, right? Thanks for the helpful suggestions on how to deal with things in the heat of the moment. I do most of them but my sarcasm sometimes gets the best of me and makes things worse. I think the reason I end up being sarcastic about it is because it's just such a silly thing she's upset about and I'm trying to get her to see how silly it is. Unfortunately what generally happens is that makes her even more mad and things just get worse. It's difficult having a 12 year old with the emotional maturity of a 7 year old. Thanks again for the helpful tips!

Comment By : Jodee in WA

Your articles have been a life saver. I have felt very beaten down and feeling like this up/down roller coaster will never stop. We are still riding the ride...but its through your site to which I feel the empowerment to weather the storm.

Comment By : Still riding !

Great article. I want to point out that many gifted children are also emotionally sensitive. They actually have a heightened awareness and it's just part of who they are. Helping our son understand this has helped him learn to channel his emotions better as he now doesn't feel like the one who is 'oversensitive'. He realises that he is normal for kids like him. We have also found that finding and eliminating food intolerances has also made a huge difference in helping him become more emotionally stable. And we don't try to reason with him anymore if he is tired or hungry. We back off and fix the problem asap.

Comment By : A C Mum

What do you do when you ask the child what they can do differently and they respond that they have no intention of doing anything differently and that you need to learn to deal with it?

Comment By : wildone

The part which says 'Parent the child you have and not the one you wish you had' made me cry!! Parenting can be so difficult and challenging but I will not give up on doing my best and this site really helps mentor me through difficult times and guides me with how I can help the situation through changing my own behaviour. thank you.

Comment By : mum of a 6 and 4 year old

Learning to effectively manage different behaviors with two very different teenage daughters has at times been exhausting. You know what your trying to teach them is too important to ignore but the confrontations aren't working for either of us. Thank you for so much helpful, constructive guidance. I feel like I am back in the game.

Comment By : Marnie

This helped me a great deal. Thanks. Especially the part about parenting the child you have.

Comment By : Melpub

I just wanted to add that I've been trying the, "I'm going to go to my room until you cool off" idea and it's been really helpful. I used to try to send her to her room but she's 8 and I can't force her or carry her (:0). Now I just go in my room and lock the door. She hates not having an audience and it has completely turned the tables. Thanks!

Comment By : Kim

we have a 141/2 year old son adopted at birth by us, and we told him when he was 6. He started asking questions that we could not answer, so after careful thought and lots of soul searching, we sat him down and told him the basics of it and why. We have been on an emotional roller coaster for years now.Our son hates,yes, hates me(mom)! I have tried everything I know from conjoling to consequences, and nothing work's!! He blows up at the slightest thing, like for instance,...I'll ask if his homework is done or if he put it in his binder for class? the reaction is scary! And that is just asking about homework!!!It doesn't include the thousands of other things that he has a fit about!!? We thought your plan was going to help too, but it hasn't! He won't even try to sit down and listen or watch!? I am taking him to see the Dr., maybe there is something that we can do there!?It seem's as though all else has failed,so we go back to square #1. He is constantly arguing with us, me(mom), especially,he breaks everything, slams doors, swear's at me all the time,flips me the bird and calls me a f*%king b*&%#, Steal's out of my purse...etc!!! I can't say anything to him anymore, not even "come eat dinner"! He won't eat what I cook anymore either? We don't know what each day will bring for our son or what he will do next to spite us? We HAVE taken things he enjoys away as consequences go, but he steals them back from where they are put...I'm running out of hiding places?!And forget locking anything he breaks into it anyway!!We are at the end of the rope here and slipping fast!!!! NEED INPUT.....NOW!

Comment By : stressedmom

Dear Stressed Mom! I feel deeply for you! Your heart is breaking, but I'm glad you haven't given up. I am praying that you find the help you need, whether it is with your doctor,implementing Total Transformation, a therapist for you and your son. or... My son had exhibited some of those behaviors and lashed out at me, too, only on a lighter scale. It is very difficult to experience that much anger and dislike coming from your own son. You will make it through, but not without some help. I hope you have some true friends and a good counselor for yourself! Hugs and prayers!

Comment By : A Smith

* To ďstressedmomĒ: Thank you for writing in and sharing your story. I can hear what a challenging spot you are in with your son. It can be difficult to know how to respond to a child who deals with his problems by acting out or destroying property. From what you have written, it sounds like you have the Total Transformation program. Because the Total Transformation program is a parenting program focused on helping parents become more empowered, it isnít necessary for the child to listen to the program. There are situations where having the child listen to the program can be counter-productive to becoming an empowered parent. Often we advise parents to listen to the program on their own and then decide whether or not it will be effective for the child to listen to it. We would like to offer you a courtesy call to The Parental Support Line to help you come up with a plan of action to address some of the behaviors you are seeing. You can find the number to the Parental Support Line in your Total Transformation workbook. You might also want to check out a couple Empowering Parents articles that discuss how to handle destructive behavior in teens, such as these ones: Is Your Defiant Child Damaging or Destroying Property?, Child Rage: Explosive Anger in Kids and Teens & ODD Kids: How to Manage Violent Behavior in Children and Teens. We look forward to hearing from you and working with you to develop an action plan to address your sonís behavior. Take care.

Comment By : D. Rowden, Parental Support Advisor

I have a 25 year old "child" who gets very angry whenever I ask him to do something to help me. Because that means he has to stop what he is doing, which is usually reading, and do something he doesn't want to do. It is a real struggle to get him to help me with pretty much anything. He act s like I should do this myself and just leave him alone. Plus he is not working and has a lot of free time. Just not time to help me.

Comment By : liontamer01

* To ďwildoneĒ: How frustrating it can be as a parent to hear your child say things like this! A parent can be hard pressed to know how to respond effectively. One thing you might consider implementing is loss of a privilege until youíre able to have a problem-solving conversation your child takes an active part in. For example, if your son is reluctant to problem solve with you, you can say something like ďI can see youíre not ready to talk about this right now. Let me know when you are. Until then, no cell phone.Ē James Lehman gives other suggestions on how to get your child to talk to you in his article Does Your Child Give You the Silent Treatment? 6 Rules for Getting Kids to Talk. It also might help to think about what your responsible for in these situations and what your child is responsible for, or, as Debbie Pincus suggests, being mindful of what is in your box ( Irresponsible Children: Why Nagging and Lecturing Don't Work). Your part in this interaction is helping him develop the problem-solving skills he needs to make better choices and holding him accountable for the choices he makes. You canít actually make him use the tools; you can hold him accountable if he continues to make the same choices heís making now. Here is another article I think you might find helpful: 5 Secrets for Communicating with Teenagers. We hope this information has been useful for your situation. We wish you and your family luck as you continue to address this problematic behavior. Take care.

Comment By : D. Rowden, Parental Support Advisor

Keeping them feed and rested definitely helps this type of child speaking as a parent of one. It was a long haul with my daughter and the unexpected temper tantrums. Its like we never left the terrible threes and now she's 15. Try therapy and meds for years on and off then finally a year ago we found a really good counselor that specialized in teens that my daughter loves. I do give her consquences if you want this then you have to do that and most importantly we put her on antidepressants and anti-anxiety meds. Once we got the right ones and dosage 9 out of 10 days are great! She still has her bad days but they are infrequent next to what it use to be. She feels better I feel better. Her grades are better in school. Not one thing is going to do it for these type of children a combination of involved parents, counseling and if needed meds.

Comment By : Citygirl

What can you do when your husband always undermines the conequences you set while he(dad) is at work, after our son has a rage or gets angry??!! I keep trying to tell my husband that he can't let him get away with that kind of behaviour, just because your "tired" and don't want to listen to it?! It took a lot of talking to get him to get the "Total Transformation"!!! He (my husband) has an aversion to any and all kinds of THERAPY.....!! So I'm stuck as the "bad" parent in all this. All because I want our son to be responsible and respectful to us (his parents)! I do not think this is to much to ask? Just so you will know our son goes to Church, plays in the church band and helps with anything that the church needs help with!!!??? While he spews explatives at home, refuses to do anything to help here and is failing in school because he refuses to do the assignments and turn them in!! I am and have been working with his teachers to get him where he needs to be, but he will not cooperate unless he gets something in return... that's where Dad comes in! Because he(DAD) doesn't want to rock the boat( he says that boys are different)and be the "HEAVY" here!!!I'm being stopped dead in my tracks everywhere I turn? What can be done then????

Comment By : stressedmom

* To Stressedmom: Itís very frustrating when you try to set consequences in place for certain behavior, only to have little follow-through from the other parent. Itís not uncommon for kids to ďtrainĒ their parents with tantrums and outbursts in order to get their way. Unfortunately, you cannot control what your son does, and you cannot control what his dad does. It sounds like you have been putting in a lot of effort to address your sonís behaviors both at home and at school. Keep in mind that itís pretty common for most kids to only change when there is some sort of external reward in place, not because of some internal desire to do or be better. It might be helpful to talk with your husband in private during a calm time to come to a common understanding. This might be something as simple as wanting your son to be responsible and respectful to both of you. From there, try to find a compromise as to how you can achieve that goal. You can find more information about this type of conversation in the article Differences in Parenting? How Your Child May Be Using it Against You We wish you the best as you continue to work on this; we know this isnít easy.

Comment By : Rebecca Wolfenden, Parental Support Advisor

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oversensitive kid, hair trigger temper, over acting child, knee-jerk reaction, reactive

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