The Highly Sensitive Child
Is your child highly sensitive?
Posted June 1, 2011 | Reviewed by Matt Huston
- Fifteen to 20 percent of children can be considered highly sensitive.
- Highly sensitive children are very responsive to their environment, are intensely perceptive, and can get overwhelmed easily.
- Parenting a highly sensitive child begins with seeing sensitivity as a gift.
"... 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 one. She states that a "highly sensitive child is one of the 15 to 20 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.
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 4-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, age 8, came home from school after seeing a bullying episode and broke down crying. Criticism, defeat, and the distress of others are things 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 "upsides" 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, and 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," such as:
- Seeing 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 various ways. Some of our great thinkers, like Carl Jung, Joseph Campbell, Abraham Lincoln, and Eleanor Roosevelt are believed to have been highly sensitive.
- Partnering with the child - Sensitive children respond far better to being asked to do something and partnering with the adults in their life than they do to 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 me can also be helpful in this process.
- Focusing 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—such as 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. Instead, you can accept your child's sensitivity as part of your shared journey—whether you yourself are highly sensitive or not.
- 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 a 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 it's 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 8 p.m. bedtime, and it's 8 p.m.—please start getting ready for bed."
- Connecting - Highly sensitive children are drawn to "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 a parent's behalf to help a child make playdates and find other kids who play well with your highly sensitive child.
Being a highly sensitive adult may be helpful in understanding your child's temperament and particular needs. It is especially helpful if a highly sensitive child is born to a well-adjusted, healthy, sensitive adult who can steer them in the right emotional direction. Of course, that can be true of any child—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 its inherent worth.