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Deeply feeling kids: Signs and strategies to empower a DFK

Experts share how to spot a deeply sensitive kid (DFK) and provide tips and advice to help them thrive.

Deeply feeling kids: Signs and strategies to empower a DFK

If you follow the wildly popular clinical psychologist Dr. Becky Kennedy — a.k.a. “Dr. Becky” — you’ve likely heard her talk about “deeply feeling kids,” or DFKs for short. While being a deeply feeling human is not a new concept, Dr. Becky has significantly contributed to raising awareness and normalizing the realities of life with DFKs.

Deeply feeling kids tend to have “larger than expected emotional reactions,” whether they’re expressing happiness, sadness, fear or anger, explains Becca Wallace, a pediatric psychologist with Children’s Hospital New Orleans.

Caring for a deeply feeling child can feel like an emotional rollercoaster, with high highs and low lows. However, there are a number of simple tactics parents and caregivers can employ to help these kids manage their intense feelings, simultaneously empowering them to confidently take control of their emotions.

Here, experts share insight on how to spot deeply feeling kids, how to help them build resilience and more. 

What is a deeply feeling kid?

One of the best ways to explain deeply feeling kids, Wallace says, is through the movie “Inside Out.”

“When Riley [in “Inside Out”] is a toddler, her ‘control panel’ was very simple and her emotions reacted quickly, but as she aged, her control panel grew and emotions worked together,” Wallace says. “For deeply feeling kids, their control panel grows at a slower rate.” 

The result? DFKs continue to express emotions intensely, even explosively, past the point when they “should” have them under control. 

Being a DFK isn’t the challenge, adds Allison Chase, senior clinical advisor at Pathlight Mood & Anxiety Center in Denver, but rather the challenge arises because “the child does not typically have the understanding or capacity, due to their age, to know how to manage or handle all of their big feelings.”  


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♬ original sound – Dr. Becky | Psychologist

What are the signs of a DFK?

Wallace and Chase, as well as Sara Loftin, a clinical therapist at Children’s Health in Dallas, all agree that the biggest sign of a deeply feeling kid is that they have intense reactions quickly. “They go from zero to 200 in five seconds,” Wallace says. “And they take a longer than expected time to come back to baseline.”

“They go from zero to 200 in five seconds.”

— Becca Wallace, pediatric psychologist

Other signs of deeply feeling kids may be:

  • Frequent tantrums and meltdowns, especially when hungry, tired and/or overstimulated.
  • Difficulty soothing tantrums (coming back to their baseline). 
  • Strong emotional reactions to others’ experiences (as they’re very empathetic).
  • Stubbornness. 
  • Difficulty handling emotions. 
  • Tendency to isolate. 

“It is important to note that in addition to the intense outward reactions, it is also common for DFKs to be withdrawn and isolate from others,” Chase explains. “For the DFK, the goal is to find some way to regulate their overstimulation of their world around them — sometimes it is externalizing or ‘acting out,’ and other times, it is removing themselves so that they can attempt to manage all the discomfort.”

“It is important to note that in addition to the intense outward reactions, it is also common for DFKs to be withdrawn and isolate from others.”

— Allison Chase, senior clinical advisor

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How to support deeply feeling kids

There are a number of things parents and caregivers should — and shouldn’t — do when their deeply feeling kid is both in the throes of big feelings, as well as on the front end; the latter strategy being key in preventing the former behavior. 

“On a daily basis, it’s important parents and caregivers support their child’s emotional development and help cultivate healthy behaviors,” Loftin says. “Parents and caregivers can model healthy responses to their own emotions. Kids learn so much by copying the adults around them.”

“On a daily basis, it’s important parents and caregivers support their child’s emotional development and help cultivate healthy behaviors.”

— Sara Loftin, clinical therapist

It’s also important to cultivate kindness, she adds. “Kindness is contagious, and kind kids share attributes of generosity, thoughtfulness, positive social behavior and empathy.”

Other ways to support DFKs from the outset, per Loftin, Wallace and Chase include:

  • Avoiding possible activating situations.
  • Ensuring kids have good sleep hygiene and nutrition.
  • Avoiding last-minute surprises and changes, if possible. 
  • Having a “change routine” (timers, songs, items, sensory distractions) to help them when a change needs to happen. 
  • Recognizing positive efforts specifically. “You can say: ‘I’m proud that you helped your friend find his book. It was nice of you to take the time to help out,’ instead of just ‘I’m proud of you,’” notes Loftin.
  • Set limits and boundaries. “It’s very helpful for DFKs to feel ‘contained’ with consistent limits,” Chase says. “It creates a safer and predictable environment for them, which is key with their sensitive neurobiology.”

In the throws of a meltdown, Wallace recommends giving DFKs space and quietness for the first few minutes. “This will allow the emotion to ride its course and not add fuel,” she says. “Then, calmly talk to the child and label the emotion, all while staying calm yourself.” 

At all costs, Loftin notes, avoid using phrases like “big kids don’t cry” or “there’s nothing to be scared of,” as they can be invalidating, particularly for a deeply feeling child.

How to empower deeply feeling kids

Helping DFKs develop a personal “toolkit” of healthy responses to big emotions is a great way to empower them, according to Loftin. Together, work to figure out coping strategies for when their feelings are overwhelming.

“Some kids may prefer to talk about their feelings, but others may want to process their emotions through journaling, exercising or listening to music. Still, others might cope best by taking some time to be alone, reading a favorite book or seeking a creative outlet like a craft,” Loftin explains. “These are all healthy ways to cope with hard emotions. It is important to do this in moments of calm, so your child will build new neural pathways for coping in preparation for difficult moments.”

Another way to build resilience in deeply feeling kids is to expose them to a variety of new learning experiences and social interactions, as opposed to adhering to a strict routine or structure, as the former will help them grow emotionally.

One option Loftin recommends is giving DFKs the opportunity to explore their interests in clubs, sports and other activities, which also allows them to meet kids with similar interests. “These provide great learning moments,” she says. “For example, if your child joins a soccer team, emotionally processing their team’s first loss can be hard, but applying their ‘toolkit’ strategies and the support of their peers will help.”

And when you see your child struggling in these situations, resist the urge to intervene, Loftin says. “Allow them to learn from failure,” she says. “Although they’ll likely have a meltdown in response to failure initially, intervening to avoid this meltdown will condition your child to give up easily. This, in turn, does not result in resilience. Focus on a growth mindset, encouraging your child to continue to work hard and persevere.”

Are “deeply feeling kids” the same as the “highly sensitive child”?

In short, yes. Deeply feeling kids, thanks to Dr. Becky, is a more modern term, but it’s generally interchangeable with “highly sensitive kids,” according to Wallace. 

However, she adds: “Highly sensitive kids tend to also be sensitive to sensation input, such as sound, sight, taste, smell and touch, but that can also happen with DFKs.”

Loftin puts it another way: “The terms ‘deeply feeling’ and ‘highly sensitive’ both describe children who experience and feel more deeply than usual, and in turn, have very big emotions, which can translate to very big behaviors.”

Read more:

Is “deeply feeling” the same as “sensory processing disorder”?

While there is “definitely overlap” with sensory processing disorder, it’s not the same as being a DFK, notes Chase. “Sensory processing disorder is a diagnosed neurological disorder that impacts development and behavior,” she says. “And while there are some similarities in the biology and the behaviors that are seen in these kids, it is not the same thing.”

As Loftin explains it, sensory processing disorder (SPD) disrupts how information flows through a person’s brain, which in turn, disrupts daily life. “For instance, kids with SPD may feel that clothes are too scratchy, so getting dressed is difficult, or they may find that a light is too bright, so it’s hard to concentrate at school,” she says. “SPD focuses more on the senses and a child’s physical and emotional response to this sensory input. DFKs, on the other hand, involve emotions and response to triggers.”

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The bottom line

Deeply feeling kids experience and feel more than the typical child, resulting in big behaviors. That being said, being a DFK isn’t a bad thing, and there are a number of tactics parents and caregivers can employ to help kids manage their feelings. 

“The more parents learn about what’s happening with their DFK, the easier it will be to fully connect with them and validate their increased sensitivity,” Chase says. “This will also help the child feel understood, and as a result, they’ll be able to better manage and regulate their emotions.”