Parenting Resource

Emotional Intensity and Reactivity

Mar 5, 2009

Children vary in their emotional intensity. Some children are less intense and reactive.

Children vary in their emotional intensity. Some children are less intense and reactive. They tend to be quiet and rarely fuss; sleep more than average and possibly get on a “schedule” sooner than others; show their emotions with only slight changes in facial expression, tone of voice, or body posture; and need a high level of stimulation to get interested/engaged.

For the “low reactors” in your care, try the following strategies:

  • Create interactive games. Try activities, such as rolling a ball or passing a rattle back and forth, that involve taking turns so that the child remains engaged.
  • Get her attention. Play music with a dynamic beat and dance together. Go to the park and try some safe, rough-and-tumble play. Use a dramatic voice while you read together.

On the other hand are children who are “big reactors.” They tell the world how they feel in voices and actions that are loud and clear. They tend to express their feelings with great intensity (e.g., showing happiness by squealing with delight and expressing anger by shouting, throwing things, hitting, or biting) and react to physical stimulation intensely (e.g., they cannot tolerate an itchy tag on a T-shirt or an unpleasant smell or taste).

For the “big reactors” in your care, try the following strategies:

  • Use softer music and lighting. Keep playtime fun, but not overwhelming. Let the child decide whether he wants to participate in sensory activities like finger painting or playing with shaving cream.
  • Offer physical comfort when the child is distressed. Hold her close, massage her back, rock her. Show that you understand her by naming her feelings: “I know it’s hard for you to be in crowded, noisy places.” Or, “I know you get s-o-o-o sad sometimes.” Don’t punish the child for her strong reactions—that is just who she is. Do help her to calm down and feel safe and secure. Then show her ways she can express her feelings.

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