The Highly Sensitive Child and Self-Esteem

Is self-esteem possible for the highly sensitive child?

Posted Nov 30, 2011

Earlier today, I read Deborah Ward's "High Sensitivity, Low Self-Esteem" blog post and found myself nodding in agreement. I also wanted to elaborate on one of her points. Her main thesis is that being a highly sensitive person (or child) doesn't equate to low self-esteem --- and I agree fully however what it does do is make you more susceptible to experiencing the world more deeply including feeling "bad about yourself" which is low self-esteem.

The Self Esteem Question

Hardly anyone I know is even clear on what self-esteem is. Self-esteem is how you feel about yourself in one discrete moment. Self-esteem is dynamic as you can feel fantastic as you leave the beauty salon and terrible when you fail your nursing exams (for the second time). It is also distinctly different than confidence, which I cover in my upcoming book, Growing Happy Kids: How to Foster Inner Confidence, Success and Happiness (HCI, April 2012). (I would say more here but due to agreements I cannot elaborate on it, except by saying in this book I share how self-esteem and confidence are developed in children). 

Most of us would agree that our "set point" of self-esteem was created during childhood especially in years one through eight. This is a pivotal point in the self-esteem story. It behooves us to realize that most children are creating a sense of their worth and self-esteem (how they usually feel about themselves) during those early years. So how does this really relate to raising a highly sensitive child? The reality is that highly sensitive children "need more help" to create a positive and enduring sense of self-esteem.

Avoiding the "Swiss Cheese Syndrome"

In Deborah Ward's blog post, she mentioned that "it's no wonder a highly sensitive person's self-esteem starts to resemble Swiss cheese" when they seek to please everyone else except themselves. This is true. This is especially true for the highly sensitive child since they are so attuned to what people around them are saying, feeling, thinking and the general atmosphere of their surroundings - that everything around them makes a deep impression on them (for better or worse).

If you are wondering if your son or daughter is a highly sensitive child, I suggest you reviewing my previous blog post titled "The Highly Sensitive Child" or contact me for an appointment where I can help you directly. In the meantime, here are some additional pointers to help you boost your highly sensitive child's sense of self-esteem:

  • More Encouragement - The Highly Sensitive Child needs more positive encouragement that they are talented and supported for who they are (for example, painter, musician and athlete) and accepted for who they are not (perhaps mathematician). This consistent and unwavering encouragement forms the basis of their positive self-esteem. For example, my neighbor's daughter is eight years of age, displays many qualities of the highly sensitive child and is an extraordinary painter. Her work has already been shown in Art Exhibits however she consistently fails her math exams. I've worked with her parents to celebrate Peyton for who she is, and not think there is anything "wrong with her" because math isn't her forte. The good news is Peyton is very happy with herself most days indicating the emergence of positive self-esteem.
  • Sensitivity as a Strength - The Highly Sensitive Child needs more messages that his or her sensitivity is a positive attribute versus a nuisance. For example, one of my clients named Owen is a highly sensitive child and he told me, "Moe, I knew not to go into the bathroom at lunch. Later I found out that one boy was being bullied in there - and it could have been me!" So I praised Owen for his ability to listen to himself, and honor his intuition. Highly sensitive children tend to be very intuitive, creative, compassionate, and intelligent so they need to be reminded of how valuable those qualities are and how such talents can help them navigate their world. Because too often, I hear of highly sensitive children getting the wrong messages like: Why are you so picky? Stop crying! Can't you be just like everyone else?
  • Developing Strengths - The Highly Sensitive Child needs to express him or herself and see their successful mastery of something. Sarah McLachLan, the well-known musician, has been quoted as saying she had a very insecure child and then music gave her something to feel good about. All children need to see themselves succeed but most importantly - the highly sensitive child because it is in their creative expression where they find their true north. Your highly sensitive child may be particularly adept at mathematics, writing short stories or tap dancing - the specifics aren't as important as them seeing themselves succeed at something, and feel good about who they are just as they are.


Being a highly sensitive adult or child doesn't equate to having low self-esteem, however it does predispose you to that experience. The antidote, of course, is to have more people, places and things surround you (and your child) that celebrate you exactly as you are - sensitivities and all.

By Maureen Healy

Maureen Healy is a practicing expert in the field of children's emotional health and parenting. Her upcoming book, Growing Happy Kids: How to Foster Inner Confidence, Success and Happiness (HCI, 2012) is available for pre-order now. More information: or twitter @mdhealy