- Highly sensitive children are wired to experience their feelings and experiences more deeply. They are not "overreacting" on purpose.
- HS kids can be very inflexible. They come up with rigid rules to organize a world that can feel very overwhelming.
- HS kids are amazing and also exhausting. Their outsized reactions can be very triggering and hard for parents to understand and manage.
Almost all of the families who reach out to me for help have highly sensitive children (HSC.) These children are wired to process and react to their experiences in the world more deeply than other children, and they are often misunderstood. They are amazing kids who tend to be fierce and feisty, persistent and passionate. They are incredibly insightful and empathetic. But because of their intensity, they are also prone to having more challenges in adapting to life’s expectations and limits. Some of the most common, that parents in my practice struggle to understand, are detailed below. When they understand the root cause of these often confusing and triggering behaviors, they are able to provide the love and support that nurture their HSC's incredible strengths while helping them cope with everyday challenges.
10 habits of highly sensitive children
1. They experience emotional extremes. HS children are wired to register their feelings and experiences in the world more deeply than other children. Parents often describe their HS children as being either ecstatic or enraged (“slaughterhouse screams” has been used by several parents to describe their children’s rage)—with no middle register. They live at the extremes, making irrational exclamations, such as, “I NEVER get to sit on mommy’s lap”, when in reality, nine out of ten times this child occupies that coveted space while his easy-going sibling accepts the sidelines.
2. They have bigger reactions to sensory input. Children who are highly sensitive, emotionally, are also likely to be more sensitive to sensory input. They experience sights, sounds, tastes, smells and/or textures more intensely. They may become afraid of public bathrooms because the flusher is too jarring and loud. They may reject foods that have strong tastes and smells. They may throw a huge fit if their favorite, comfy sweatpants aren’t available. They are often highly tuned in to the way things look and get uncomfortable when they don’t appear as expected. For example a little girl I am working with now insists that her mom only wear her hair down and gets very upset when she puts it in a hair clip. They feel bombarded with sensations they can't manage effectively which can amplify their emotional reactions.
3. They are more prone to meltdowns. Because of their sensitivity, HS children are triggered to experience stress more quickly. They get overwhelmed by their big emotions and outsized reactions to sensory input which naturally results in more frequent and intense meltdowns.
4. They are keenly tuned in to everyone and everything. HS children are “processors.” Their brains never turn off. They keenly focus on and analyze everything. As one parent explains: “Sasha notices the second the tone changes between me and Mitchell (my husband) and will try to intervene. She gets between us and commands: ‘Stop this right now! No more talking! Daddy you need to kiss mommy.’”
It’s like they don’t have an internal filter. This makes them extremely insightful and empathetic. But it also means they get overwhelmed more easily as they are absorbing more than they can handle.
5. They have a more intense need for control and can be rigid and inflexible. To try to gain control of a world that can feel overwhelming, HS kids come up with fixed ideas and expectations about how things should be to make daily life more manageable. Dictating where people will sit, how they wear their hair, what color bowl their cereal should come in, what clothes they will and will not wear, or how close the chicken can be to the carrots on their dinner plate—seemingly irrational demands—are all coping mechanisms HS children use to control an environment that otherwise feels out of control. The more out of control kids feel on the inside, the more controlling they become on the outside.
6. They are more fearful and cautious in new situations. When HS children enter a new situation—be it a classroom, a birthday party, or swim class—their wheels are turning. They wonder: What is this place? What will happen here? Who are these people? What can I expect from them? Will they like me? Will I be safe? Will I be good at whatever is expected of me here? This constant analysis of their environment makes HS children extremely bright and insightful. But it can also be overwhelming and make them more prone to anxiety, especially in new situations. To cope, they fiercely cling to their comfort zone, which means they often resist anything new. They tend to have a harder time separating from their parents. It takes them longer to adapt when they start childcare or preschool. They refuse to go to soccer or swimming, even when they love these activities.
7. They tend to have a lower tolerance for frustration. HS children tend to experience more distress and give up more easily when they confront a challenging task. The natural discomfort we all experience, when in that space where we are working on but haven’t yet mastered a new skill, is intolerable to them. This makes it hard for them to muscle through these moments, for example, when learning to ride a bike or think through how to keep their block tower from falling.
8. They are prone to perfectionism and have a very hard time losing. Highly sensitive (HS) children have a tendency to be perfectionists. When they can’t do something exactly as their brain is telling them it should be, they experience it as a loss of control which is very uncomfortable and hard to tolerate. They also are triggered to feel shame more easily—to feel like a “failure.” This is also why losing is so hard for HS kids.
9. They have a hard time tolerating being corrected. Even seemingly benign directions are perceived as personal indictments, not as helpful guidance you are offering. Their shame may result in laughing, averting their gaze, getting angry, or running away. These are all coping mechanisms that provide protection and relief from a flood of difficult emotions.
10. They are more self-conscious and easily slighted. HS children have a tendency to become preoccupied with how others see them. They get very uncomfortable when any attention is called to them, even when parents or other adults are saying complimentary things. They are sensitive to feeling scrutinized or assessed. That’s why they are particularly uncomfortable with praise—as counterintuitive as that may seem. They know this means they are being evaluated and absorb and react to the pressure.
HS children tend to take things more personally. They are also inclined to misinterpret other’s actions. They filter their experiences through a victim mindset, as if they are primed and sometimes on a hair trigger to be hurt in some way. This can make peer and sibling interactions challenging.
Of course, not all HS children are going to have all of these traits, and many kids who aren’t highly sensitive will struggle to some degree with these challenges.
To learn about ways to sensitively support HSC's check out these blogs on Psychology Today.
Because of their sensitivity, HS kids are more prone to anxiety and other mental health challenges. If your child's behaviors are interfering in her ability to engage in healthy relationships with others or to function effectively at home and school, it is important to seek professional help.
Facebook image: LightField Studios/Shutterstock
Lerner, C. (2021). Why is my child in charge?: A roadmap to end power struggles, increase cooperation, and find joy in parenting young children. Rowman & Littlefield.