Understanding highly sensitive childrenWritten by Catherine Wilson
What's inside this article
What’s it like to parent a child whom others simply “don’t get”? Ask the parent of a highly sensitive child.
Typically sweet natured and eager to please, these are easy kids to warm up to. They’ll quickly charm anyone who’s around long enough to witness their unusual empathy for others. If you’re feeling down, they can sense it, and their genuine concern is profoundly touching. It’s hard not to be impressed, too, by their intuition, insightful questions and creativity – proof of a deeply reflective mind.
But then, the clock strikes midnight. Something sets them off, and the impression of maturity – of “having it all together” – is suddenly swept away. A full-blown meltdown ensues. Bystanders draw back, perplexed.
The trigger could be one of many things: sand between the toes that’s “too itchy”; sudden cheering from the crowd that’s “too scary”; good-natured teasing that’s “too hurtful”; pressure from granddad to try a rope swing that’s “too risky.”
Parents of these highly sensitive kids are accustomed to a look of bewilderment on the faces of relatives, friends and complete strangers – a look that says, Surely he can't be upset over that! What's wrong with him? Some onlookers take it one step further, hinting the parents are to blame for being too indulgent, too molly-coddling of their kid.
It’s not that the criticism itself matters. What’s troubling, for these parents, is that the criticism underscores how few people understand their highly sensitive child.
Five traits of highly sensitive children
High sensitivity (also called Sensory-Processing Sensitivity) has been studied in kids and adults for over 60 years. It’s not a disorder; it’s simply a temperament type – one that’s shared by 20 per cent of the population, occurring equally among males and females.
Psychologist Elaine Aron’s secular book The Highly Sensitive Child has long been a go-to resource for parents. As Aron explains, five traits in particular are key to understanding why these kids are the way they are:
- They take in more sensory information from their environment than other kids. Highly sensitive children hear faint sounds, detect subtle smells and notice details in drawings and architecture that other kids ignore. They may find certain foods too flavourful, or can’t stand to wear certain fabrics.
- They process information more thoroughly. Their creativity and intuition spring from this rich, deeply-reflective inner life.
- They have a keen empathy for others. Highly sensitive kids take on the emotions of those around them, sharing in their highs and lows.
- They are easily overstimulated. Compared to other children, sensitive kids tire more rapidly and need more rest or down time.
- They are prone to sudden tantrums and meltdowns, often precipitated by information overload or emotional overload. Situations meant to be a treat for a child – an indoor playground, a birthday party or a day at a theme park – can quickly become an ordeal for sensitive kids.
Taken together, highly sensitive kids perceive more, ponder more and feel more. And they more quickly reach their limits.
“How could they not be bothered,” says Aron, “when they sense so much in every situation? But given the fact that HSCs are in the minority, their reactions and solutions often seem odd to others.”
The three Cs of highly sensitive children
Even when calm and happy, highly sensitive children tend to stand out from the group, if only because they don’t participate. They watch the action from the sidelines, are reluctant to speak up in class and eschew the pressure of team sports.
All in all these kids are far from gung ho about new experiences: they like predictability. And so they worry ahead of time about sleepovers, vacations away from home, the start of a new school year, school field trips and Christmas gatherings, any of which might precipitate headaches, stomach aches, nightmares or difficulty eating or sleeping.
Not surprisingly then, highly sensitive children are often labelled “shy,” “anxious” or “slow to adapt to change.” But these labels don’t fairly reflect what’s going on inside.
Highly sensitive children could be better described as having a strong sense of caution and consequences, and being highly conscientiousness.
1. A strong sense of caution
“One of the scientific models for the cause of sensitivity,” says Aron, “is that sensitive persons have a very active ‘behavioural inhibition system.’ . . . I prefer to call this system in the brain the ‘pause-to-check system’ because that is what it really does. It is designed to look at the situation you are in and see if it is similar to any past situations stored in your memory.”
Faced with an unfamiliar experience, says Aron, “[an] HSC wants to check it out, and if forced to proceed, may protest, not enjoy it, or refuse this ‘pleasure’ altogether.”
Remember, too, that any new experience means an intimidating flood of unfamiliar sensory experiences. “Most HSCs seem to be poor adapters,” says Aron, “but in reality they are being asked to adapt to too much. They are overwhelmed, or afraid of being overwhelmed, by all the new stimulation that must be processed before they can relax.”
2. A keen awareness of potential consequences
Because of their mature thinking skills, a highly sensitive child can well imagine the full impact of potential outcomes, and they typically want to mitigate risk. News reports of fires and break-ins will get them fretting about the safety measures in their own home. “One of the biggest tasks for a sensitive person,” says Aron, “is to live courageously with a full awareness of the unpleasant possibilities in life. HSCs cannot deny these as well as others can.”
3. Conscientiousness that trips them up
Highly sensitive children are conscientious almost to a fault. They want to “do the right thing,” and take personal slip ups and mistakes harder than most. Being so “mistake conscious” makes them self-conscious. It’s difficult for them to shrug off embarrassment over “putting a foot wrong” in public. They don’t think, That just proves I’m human; they think, That just proves I’m inadequate. Public speaking, music recitals, spelling bees, significant assignments and written exams can fill them with real dread; so much so that they may perform below their real level of ability.
Essentials for parenting highly sensitive children
Highly sensitive children are at risk of internalizing a lasting and highly damaging sense of shame – a sense that they’re somehow “lacking” compared to more outgoing siblings and peers. Parents and other significant adults in their life need to do all they can to prevent this unwarranted sense of shame from taking root.
If you have a highly sensitive child, the following points are likely just reminders for you. However, they may be helpful for others who are important to your child too.
Value your child
A highly sensitive child’s experience of the world may be different from yours, but it is real. He or she is not “faking” tantrums or frustration to get attention or manipulate you. Your child can’t adapt to “be like you” (if you are not highly sensitive yourself) and the sooner you can gratefully accept the child you have, the happier you will both be. “A key part of accepting your child is pinpointing all the things you like about a highly sensitive temperament,” says Aron.
Validate your child
All highly sensitive children eventually notice that they are different from other kids. Your child needs to know that you value them and that they are not an oddity. Remind them that many people are like them.
When they face their weaknesses or failings, they need you to counter their self-doubts with a more balanced perspective. “Bringing up a success to match a failure is important for wiring your child’s brain for self-esteem,” says Aron. Acknowledge their disappointment that they dropped the baton in the relay race, but remind them that they were their team’s tie-breaking runner last week. Or if sports really is a weakness, remind them of their unusual strengths in another area.
Protect your child
To build confidence in a new situation, your highly sensitive child will need to take smaller steps than other children, with lots of encouragement from you. Since much of your child’s confidence is built on having had highly positive experiences in the past that were similar, it’s extremely important not to force your child to go beyond what they’re comfortable with. Pushing this child to help them “get over their fear” will backfire terribly. Certainly don’t let others pressure your child to do something he or she is not ready to do.
Accept that a slower pace means peace
Highly sensitive kids thrive on predictability and routine, and they need much more down time in their schedule than “regular” kids. Any intense experience should be balanced by a quiet, restful “retreat” that allows them to regroup emotionally. After an errand with a youngster, stop at home and have story time or bath time. An elementary child may need to read in their room for a while after school.
Plan “instant retreats” to prevent overwhelm in the midst of experiences that can’t be interrupted. An iPod with soothing music, for example, can provide a calming retreat for a youngster in the middle of a movie in the theatre. Allow older kids to retreat to their room during a dinner party.
With a highly sensitive child, a simple trip to the toy aisle to choose a treat can take a long time. These kids want to ponder decisions and consider all their options carefully. Despite your annoyance in situations like this, you need to be careful how you show it. When discipline’s called for, always remember that even a stern talking to can be crushing to these kids. Generally they’re harsh self-critics, quick to condemn themselves as “bad” or “useless” when they mess up. It’s a good idea, says Aron, to conclude discipline with a reminder that everyone makes mistakes.
At times you will feel frustrated that your life is constrained by all the things your child can’t or won’t do. And you will worry that your child’s life is being limited too. Don’t fret about all the “fun things” your child seems to be missing out on, advises Aron. Your child doesn’t have to live the same childhood that you did. He or she has their own ideas about what is “fun.” Stay positive, be proud of your child and predict a great future for them, (which really is well within reach) and you’ll help your child stay positive too.
Reference to the individuals and organizations quoted does not constitute a blanket endorsement of either the individuals’ external work or their respective organizations.
Catherine Wilson is an associate editor at Focus on the Family Canada.
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