"... it is primarily parenting that decides whether the expression of sensitivity
will be an advantage or a source of anxiety."
Elaine Aron, PhD
Does your child want all the tags pulled out from her shirts? Or enjoy quiet play more than big and noisy groups? Does she seem to read your mind? Or ask lots of questions? Is she incredibly perceptive noticing all these minor details of life? Perhaps she has even been labeled as "shy" or "highly emotional" by someone close to her. If you answered yes to any of the above you may be raising a highly sensitive child - and yes, this is a great thing.
The Highly Sensitive Child
As a former highly sensitive child, I personally relate to Elaine Aron's description of the highly sensitive child. She states a "highly sensitive child is one of the fifteen to twenty percent of children born with a nervous system that is highly aware and quick to react to everything." Such children are incredibly responsive to their environments whether it is the lighting, sounds, smells or overall mood of the people in their situations - these kids pick it up. (Dr. Aron's test to "see" if you are raising a highly sensitive child is at: http://www.hsperson.com/pages/test_child.htm)
With a sharpened sense of awareness these children are often gifted intellectually, creatively and emotionally demonstrating genuine compassion at early ages. The downside is that these intensely perceptive kids can also get overwhelmed easily by crowds, noises, new situations, sudden changes and the emotional distress of others. Daniel, a four-year old client of mine, is a highly sensitive child and notoriously won't take naps because he is too "wound up" by his preschool peers. Another highly sensitive child, Lizzie at age eight, came home from school after seeing a bullying episode and just broke down crying. Criticism, defeat and the distress of others is something sensitive children feel deeply.
A huge number of my private child clients are highly sensitive children. Since my expertise is children's emotional health - these kids need extra care and feeding so that they can learn how to see their sensitivity as a strength and begin empowering themselves with tools to tap into the "upside" of their sensitivity such as insight, creativity and empathy while simultaneously learning how to manage their rich emotional lives.
Parenting a Highly Sensitive Child
Parenting a highly sensitive child can be extremely rewarding however some parents admittedly find it exhausting. For example, your son comes home from school with a scraped knee because he fell off the swings - the good news is he doesn't think much of it. But perhaps your other son, a highly sensitive child, fell off the swings and noticed someone laughed at him - now he won't stop crying because of it. See the difference? Raising a healthy, happy and well-adjusted sensitive child is possible however it takes "sensitive parenting skills" to succeed such as:
- See Sensitivity as a Gift - It's easy to get frustrated and angry with your son or daughter if they continually cry, withdraw and shy away from regular social situations. Instead of viewing your "sensitive" child as being inherently flawed it is more helpful to see your child as having a special gift. Sensitivity is typical of creative artists, innovators and children who are talented in varying ways. Some of our greatest thinkers like Carl Jung, Joseph Campbell, Abraham Lincoln and Eleanor Roosevelt are believed to have been highly sensitive.
- Partner with Child - Sensitive children respond far better to being requested to do something, and partnering with the adults in their life versus harsh discipline. Harsh discipline can elicit the exact behavior you are trying to avoid like emotional meltdowns and outbursts of energy (i.e. temper tantrums, crying, yelling). Partnering with your child includes learning their triggers like crowds, avoiding them and also giving them tools when they feel overwhelmed like breathing exercises. Professionals like myself can also be helpful in this process.
- Focus on Strengths - Learning how to remember that your highly sensitive child is an incredibly talented being is essential especially when he or she may be "acting out" because of feeling overwhelmed or emotionally upset. This is seeing the forest instead of the trees. Training yourself to see your child's strengths first like their incredible creativity, perceptiveness and keen intellect is important because it helps you accept their challenges (i.e. highly emotional, introverted at times, picky, shy or overly active).
- Acceptance - Embracing your child as a highly sensitive child is step one. Many parents bring me highly sensitive children to "change" them into less sensitive, more traditional kids and I cannot do that. You cannot do that either. Being able to see their sensitivity as a gift and accept it as part of your shared journey - whether you yourself are highly sensitive or not - this is the way it is.
- Creating Calmness - Since highly sensitive children are majorly impacted by their home and school environments it is worth taking the time to create spaces that match their type. Skye, one of friend's girls, is highly sensitive and loves her "Peace Corner" at home where she relaxes with her headphones, favorite plush toys and markers to feel calm. It is this type of serenity that highly sensitive children crave with just the right lighting, colors, sounds and surroundings.
- Gentle Discipline - Because your child is highly sensitive doesn't mean they don't need structure and limits in their life. They absolutely do. Being able to give your child gentle structure and clear limits with respect goes a long way. For example, if its Jenna's bedtime and she is resisting - you might say, "Sweetheart, I realize you want to play all night but it's time for bed. You need your rest and we have agreed to the 8pm bedtime and its 8pm - please start getting ready for bed." This is an example of gentle discipline versus spanking and yelling.
- Connect - Highly sensitive children are drawn to other "birds of a feather" and getting these kids together to nurture each other's strengths is a good thing. This may mean a little extra effort on parent's behalf to help a child make play-dates and find other kids that play well with your highly sensitive child.
Being a highly sensitive adult may be helpful in understanding your child's temperament and particular needs as to their sensitivities (lights, people, sounds, clothes, and preferences). It is especially helpful if a highly sensitive child is born to a well-adjusted, happy and healthy sensitive adult that can steer them in the right emotional direction. Of course that can be true of any child with good role models - sensitive children though need especially good role models because they are learning how to use their incredible gift in a world that sometimes doesn't value it's inherent worth.
Maureen Healy is an award-winning author, popular speaker and professional working with parents and their highly sensitive children. Her books include: Growing Happy Kids (HCI Books, 2012) and The Energetic Keys to Indigo Kids (New Page, 2013). In December, Maureen's next book focused on helping highly sensitive children will be available (2015).
Learn More: www.highlysensitivekids.com