What Is A Highly Sensitive Child?
A highly sensitive child is a child that is more sensitive and often also more reactive to environmental influences. Such children are acutely aware of the outside world, and they’re quick to react to subtle changes in everything around them. They are hyper-aware of the sounds, smells, and temperature around them. A highly emotional child can also be intensely affected by the emotions of others1.
According to the psychologist who coined the term “the highly sensitive child”, Dr. Elaine Aron, high sensitivity is quite common, occurring in approximately 15 to 20% of the population2.
Is high sensitivity bad
High sensitivity has been studied in infants and children for more than fifty years, but it is often described in other terms, such as having a low sensory threshold, shy, introverted, fearful, inhibited, negative, or timid.
Highly sensitive children are often misunderstood and misjudged by the world around them. While high sensitivity may look similar to these personality traits and illness, it is none of these things.
A shy child is an anxious child. They are more likely to feel inhibited in unfamiliar social situations. They have a tendency to feel nervous, and they prefer to watch and observe the goings-on from the sidelines–joining in is rarely a consideration.
On the other hand, an overly sensitive child will also observe from the sidelines, but in this case, it’s simply a factor of the child taking time to process what’s going on around them. The child is not avoiding the situation per se, they’re just taking a bit more time to take in and process the new sensory input.
Introversion is a personality trait. Introverts are more reserved and reflective. They tend to enjoy a quiet activity3.
While introverts tend to keep to themselves and are less likely to engage in social situations, they can change their mind with a little encouragement. Social situations are particularly draining on introverts, and they’re often followed by a period of time where the person recharges by spending time alone.
A highly sensitive child, on the other hand, is not necessarily reluctant to engage; they just take a little more time to join in because they need more processing time.
In general, neuroticism is defined by adjectives such as anxious, moody, and depressed.
While high sensitivity is often mistaken for neurosis—it is not.
Neurosis is a mental illness that is characterized by obsessive behavior, anxiety, depression, and even hypochondria4. These traits are not associated with high sensitivity. High sensitivity is not a symptom or a result of a disorder, nor is it dysfunction or neurosis.
Sensory processing disorder
Sensory processing sensitivity is not a disorder and it is not the same as sensory processing disorder.
Sensory processing disorder is characterized by under- or over-responsiveness to sensory stimulations in the environment and a disorder is an impairment that severely affects one’s daily functioning. Sensory processing sensitivity is neither of them.
However, in adverse childhood environments, highly sensitive children may have a higher risk for behavioral and mental problems (as explained below).
Signs Of A Highly Sensitive Child
Highly sensitive people tend to share some key characteristics. If your child is one, they may be:
- Easily startled and overwhelmed by loud noises, strong smells, or bright lights
- Bothered by things like tags on clothing and seams in socks
- Dislike big surprises, whether positive or negative
- Hyper-aware of the slightest changes to their environment such as color, odor, temperature
- Empathetic and attuned to the emotional distress of others
- Deeply intuitive and perceptive5
- Ask deep and thoughtful questions
- Reflect on everything before acting
- More conscientious
- Easily upset and have big feelings
- Tend to be acutely sensitive to pain, medication and allergens
Why is my child so sensitive
Sensitive children are commonly born with sensory processing sensitivity (SPS). It is an inheritable child’s temperament trait6 that is inextricably tied to the structure of the nervous system.
Sensitive people’s brains process information more thoroughly. It is a good thing and considered to be one of two strategies that evolved to ensure the survival of the human species. By being more sensitive to their environment, these individuals are better able to detect opportunities (e.g., food) and threats (e.g., predators, danger)7.
In addition to having a more thorough brain, highly sensitive people also have a more sensitive nervous system. Their reflexes are faster, and they are more affected by pain, medications, and allergens. In essence, their body is designed to detect and understand more precisely anything that comes into contact with it.
So, sensory processing sensitivity is not an illness or a disease.
The importance of parenting to highly sensitive kids
Parenting a child with sensory processing sensitivity comes with unique challenges. Day to day, the small details of life loom large.
While parents of sensitive children often wish their kids were less fussy or overly sensitive, big challenges often lead to big rewards because having high sensitivity is not a shortcoming. In fact, high sensitivity is one of the characteristics of gifted children.
Parenting is of crucial importance to highly sensitive kids because they are differentially susceptible to their environment and upbringing. In studies, sensitive children thrive more than non-sensitive kids when they have positive childhood experiences, but they also suffer more health risks if they have negative childhood experiences8.
How To Parent A Highly Sensitive Child
Here are some simple strategies parents can use to support their highly-sensitive kids and help them thrive in this not-so-sensitive society.
Accept and believe them
As with any child, parenting a highly sensitive child requires a “goodness of fit”. When parents accept their children for who they are, that is always a good fit.
Acceptance is an important first step in supporting your highly sensitive child. Recognize that your child is not weak and doesn’t need to be “roughed up“. Accept and love them for who they are.
Not only do you accept that your child is sensitive, but also recognize that they experience the world in different ways. Believe your child when they say something hurts or scratches, it does, even if it doesn’t bother you.
Use positive parenting to discipline
Positive parenting is good for any child, but especially for sensitive ones. For highly sensitive kids, positive discipline strategies yield disproportionately positive results, while harsh discipline yields disproportionately negative results9.
Use gentle discipline instead of punishment (especially physical punishment), to teach. Strict discipline or tough love will not make a sensitive child tougher; it will only damage their self-esteem and increase their sense of shame.
Be aware of your “stern voice”
Loud sounds can be especially bothersome to sensitive children. They can become overwhelmed very quickly. Minor complaints can turn into temper tantrums or meltdowns if yelled at.
These kids are also more sensitive to criticism and mistakes of their own. Often, they don’t need punishment to know they’ve done something wrong. Sometimes, a simple comment is sufficient.
Having intense emotions when overwhelmed is a trait of high sensitivity. When it happens, sensitive children may take a long time to calm down. Give them time and emotional support.
They are also cautious and thoughtful. The details of an event or question often take them longer to process. When you ask a question, introduce new situations, or wait for them to decide, be patient. Practice will make them better over time.
Plenty Of Downtime
A full calendar seems to be the norm for kids in the 21st century. But overbooking, overscheduling, and overstimulation simply won’t work.
Keep your child’s involvement in extracurricular activities to a reasonable level so that they have enough downtime to decompress throughout the day.
Also, don’t feel rejected if your child wants some quiet time or a safe space to wind down.
Be flexible in accommodating your child’s sensory needs so that they can participate in family activities. If your child doesn’t want to be hugged or kissed, let other family members know ahead of time. You can also encourage them to express affection in other appropriate ways such as a fist bump or a thank-you note.
It’s okay to cut an activity short if your child becomes overstimulated and must leave.
Encourage, but do not force, them to try new things
While you shouldn’t push them too hard, don’t shelter them too much either. Expose them to enough new experiences and gently encourage them to try new things.
Initially, they may refuse, but with time and patience, they will eventually build confidence up enough and jump in.
Help them adapt
As your child gets older, they will have to adapt to the real world where most people are not sensitive.
At home, help them by giving them a voice. Speaking up and expressing themselves are not easy things for these kids. Encourage them to turn up their volume so when they are out in the world, they will be heard.
Teach the whole family about sensitivity
Help your family understand what sensitivity is. It’s important that family members don’t believe there is something wrong with this child and blame them for every disappointment (“We wouldn’t have had to leave if she didn’t cry.”)
High sensitivity is not a flaw in parent or child. Remind your child about their strengths and positive traits. Keep it positive.
Highly sensitive kids need plenty of encouragement to thrive. Praise your child’s effort, not ability, so that they believe they can improve with practice and are not limited by their current abilities10.
Final thoughts on highly sensitive child
Sometimes, family members may have a hard time understanding the child’s needs or knowing how to interact with them. The whole family can benefit from seeking the help of an experienced clinical psychologist.
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- 2.Aron E. The Highly Sensitive Person. Broadway Books; 1997.
- 3.Hills P, Argyle M. Happiness, introversion–extraversion and happy introverts. Personality and Individual Differences. Published online March 2001:595-608. doi:10.1016/s0191-8869(00)00058-1
- 4.Widiger TA, Oltmanns JR. Neuroticism is a fundamental domain of personality with enormous public health implications. World Psychiatry. Published online May 12, 2017:144-145. doi:10.1002/wps.20411
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- 7.Aron EN, Aron A. Sensory-processing sensitivity and its relation to introversion and emotionality. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. Published online 1997:345-368. doi:10.1037/0022-35126.96.36.1995
- 8.Greven CU, Lionetti F, Booth C, et al. Sensory Processing Sensitivity in the context of Environmental Sensitivity: A critical review and development of research agenda. Neuroscience & Biobehavioral Reviews. Published online March 2019:287-305. doi:10.1016/j.neubiorev.2019.01.009
- 9.Belsky J, Pluess M. Beyond diathesis stress: Differential susceptibility to environmental influences. Psychological Bulletin. Published online 2009:885-908. doi:10.1037/a0017376
- 10.Gunderson EA, Gripshover SJ, Romero C, Dweck CS, Goldin-Meadow S, Levine SC. Parent Praise to 1- to 3-Year-Olds Predicts Children’s Motivational Frameworks 5 Years Later. Child Dev. Published online February 11, 2013:1526-1541. doi:10.1111/cdev.12064