When I was a child and a teen, I despised sleepovers. Whether it was a group of girls getting together to watch movies and eat popcorn or sleeping over at a babysitter’s house, I missed the comfort of my own bed, going to sleep as soon as I got tired, and knowing how to get to the bathroom in the dark.
Looking back, I now know that my discomfort towards sleepovers was due to my highly sensitive trait.
American psychologist Elaine N. Aron, Ph.D. in 1991, coined the term “highly sensitive person” to identify the 20% of the population born with a tendency to notice more in their environments and feel deeper.
In both children and adults, highly sensitive individuals tend to be more empathetic, smart, creative, and conscientious.
Highly sensitive people (HSPs) tend to become overwhelmed and overstimulated much sooner than a non-sensitive person, i.e., a non-HSP; not to be confused with being insensitive.
So what exactly does it mean to have a highly sensitive child?
This article provides insights into what it means to be highly sensitive and some tips on how to parent a highly sensitive child.
What does it mean to be a highly sensitive child?
“High sensitivity” refers to individuals born with the ability to notice subtitles in their environment. They also tend to think and feel much deeper than non-sensitive individuals.
Most parents know sooner than later they have a sensitive child. Though any newborn can have sleeping problems or be colicky, sensitive babies get overwhelmed when too much is happening for too long.
Sensitive people are born with the trait. However, how understood a child is by their parents, as well as teachers, influences whether or not an HSC will develop a strong sense of self-worth or low self-esteem.
Understanding highly sensitive children traits
Before we dive into the different facets of a sensitive child, there’s one crucial thing to note:
There is no such thing as “overly sensitive” and sensitivity found in a child is not a problem or a disorder that should be cured.
Additionally, high sensitivity doesn’t put all sensitive kids into one category. Though your child might be highly sensitive, they are still unique to their sensitive peers.
Let’s say you have two children that are sensitive. You might find that one child has sensitive tendencies towards wearing clothing that is “too tight.” Your other child might wear anything you buy them, but they might require much more time to recharge after doing a highly stimulating activity.
Overall, a common trait amongst all sensitive children is how easy it is for them to feel overwhelmed and overstimulated. What overwhelms them, however, varies.
Especially in the U.S., sensitivity is often misunderstood. To debunk a few misconceptions, here are some facts:
- High sensitivity is gender neutral – studies have shown that there is absolutely no indication that sensitivity is much more common in females than males (if you have a sensitive boy, read this!).
- 30% of HSPs are extroverted – one of the most common myths about HSPs is they are all introverted. Extroverted HSPs enjoy social interaction and are sensation-seekers, but they also value their time alone and need reflection. Also, introverted HSPs (70% of HSPs) don’t “dislike” people, but they do benefit from interacting with others in less stimulating environments.
- Sensitivity is not the same as being shy or fearful – Children can be born with the highly sensitive trait, but shyness, timidness, and fear are emotions that arise from bad experiences and are not genetic.
What makes high sensitivity hard to identify in a child is that it’s often confused with hyperactivity or autism (please see an autistic expert if you suspect your child is autistic). Though it’s always recommended to talk to a professional, here are some signs that your child is most likely not an HSC:
- They are sensitive about one thing, especially if that one thing is expected of their age. For instance, most children have a fear towards strangers in the second half of the first year.
- They didn’t show any sense of sensitivity until a major stress of change influenced their environment, such as a divorce, a new sibling, or a big move.
- Been diagnosed with attention deficit disorder (ADD). ADD is, in a lot of ways, the opposite of HSCs. Though HSCs can get distracted because they notice so much, they also have the ability to make decisions, focus, and reflect when their environment allows.
If you think your child is highly sensitive, I recommend referring to Aron’s questionnaire designed to identify a highly sensitive child. But please note that a proper diagnosis will take weeks, not hours. So be sure to speak with your child’s teachers, childcare providers, and other professionals who have gotten to know your child.
Strategies to help raise an empowered highly sensitive child
There are five common facets (or signs) of a highly sensitive child. After taking the questionnaire, you will find that one facet might be more present in your child than another.
Understanding where your child is struggling the most with their sensitive trait can help you find ways to support them.
Here are the five facets and a few strategies to help support and empower your highly sensitive child. For more strategies, I highly recommend checking out Aron’s book, The Highly Sensitive Child.
1. They are highly aware of subtleties
An HSC who is highly aware of their environment and changes within it can be challenging at first. They might not eat a meal the second time if it looks or taste slightly difference. Or they might think their room stinks even if you don’t smell anything.
They also have a tendency to pick up on someone else’s “vibe.” For instance, if your child is coming home claiming a peer is mistreating them, but the teacher doesn’t seem to be aware of anything, it could be a sign that your child is picking up on passive-aggressive behavior.
HSCs often pick up on things that you might not (unless you’re an HSP yourself!). This might cause frustration at first, but there are ways to cope.
Here are some strategies:
- Make sure your child knows you believe them, even if they sense something you don’t.
- Put limits on what you can be expected to do. For instance, if your child is sensitive to shoes, let them know ahead of time that you will try three times to tie them to their comfort with their instruction before giving up.
- When possible, put your child in charge of the solution. Have them pick out their own clothing, decorate their own room, etc.
2. They are easily overwhelmed
Since HSCs are deeply aware of subtleties, they tend to become overwhelmed easier. For a child especially, the overwhelm can come from their external environment but also their inner world.
Many sensitive children have a deep inner world — in which they tend to hold on to for the rest of their lives, therefore, their inner world can cause them to feel “too much” even if their environment doesn’t seem overwhelming to you. Your child might also space out if their thoughts are causing them to feel a strong emotion (maybe they thought of “spooky” creatures that crawl in the night and it made them feel worried).
Signs that your child is easily overwhelmed might also come from perceived performance anxiety. If your child is great at hitting the ball at home, they might trip up and do poorly during a game. In a lot of cases, performance anxiety can be the product of an overstimulating environment, but that doesn’t mean your child isn’t eager to perform — what a conundrum!
The good news is that your HSC is less likely to get bored. And when it comes to performing, they do very well in activities that require strategy, care, and deeper thought.
Here are some strategies:
- Find at least one area of competence your child shows interest in. Whether it’s the arts or sports, once they show interest, make an effort to help them prepare and practice often. By reaching a level of competence sooner than later enables your child to manage external stimulation much easier.
- Ensure that your child gets downtime after a performance, game, or other stimulating activity.
- Along with an area of competence, also introduce noncompetitive activities, such as singing in the car, keeping a diary, or painting for fun. This allows your child to enjoy activities without the pressures of becoming a “pro.”
3. They have strong emotional reactions
HSCs feel deeply, which means they might show stronger emotional reactions to situations. In my opinion, this is the most challenging since HSCs, depending on the age, might not have the skills yet to identify, label, and manage deep emotions.
The upside is your child will experience incredible moments of joy and happiness, but at the same time, when they feel sad they feel miserable.
This can be the most challenging facet of raising a highly sensitive child, however, it does get easier as your child grows older — as long as you take the time to teach your child emotional intelligence best practices.
Here are some strategies:
- Learn the power of emotional intelligence and encourage your child to express their emotions, good and bad. Additionally, think about how you want your child to handle different types of emotions and lead by example the best you can.
- Be attuned to your child’s positive emotions as much as the negative. For instance, do not squash a child’s happy mood by responding like, “If you’re so happy, how about you clean your room?” which will discourage your child’s enthusiasm.
- If your child is expressing a strong emotion for several days, it’s recommended to seek some help.
(Note: To learn more about emotional intelligence and how it impacts kids, I recommend Marc Brackett’s Permission to Feel.)
4. They show empathy
Since HSCs feel deeply and pick up on subtleties much easier than non-HSCs, it’s no wonder that your child might also have a strong sense of empathy. Though an HSC can be sensitive without being considered an “empath,” it is still highly common correlation.
Empathy is a wonderful trait for your child to have. The downside is your child will be highly attuned to your feelings and your level of care. If your family is going through a difficult time, this child will be more likely to pick up on your feelings more so than your non-sensitive child. In other words, it’s hard to emotionally hide from an HSC.
The worst you can do is try to pretend everything is okay or tell them everything is fine. Your highly sensitive child will know better, and they might turn inward and start doubting heir empathic abilities.
Here are some strategies:
- Be honest with your child about how you feel. This will help your child learn the power of their empathy, as well as their intuitiveness.
- Teach your child how they can help others. Share ideas like donating, volunteering, or what clubs or organizations they can join that help support others. And allow them to choose how they want to help.
- Teach by example the importance of taking care of themselves first and creating boundaries by doing it for yourself. For example, you can explain to your child why you need time alone too or need space to work on a project — your HSC will understand.
5. They are highly cautious
Think about your favorite story in literature or in film. A bold protagonist will forge forward without sometimes thinking.
Fortunately, there is often a mentor archetype guiding the protagonist away from making a big mistake. How many bad decisions would Aladdin have made if Genie didn’t feel empowered to advise him of his questionable decision-making?
Sensitive children notice potential danger sooner and they often work well with non-sensitive kids to help develop strategies and a plan of action when working on projects. Having a group of both sensitive and non-sensitive kids working together is a wonderful combination.
However, being cautious is not always valued, and at the same time, being overly cautious can hold your child back from experiencing new things (or even expressing new ideas).
Here are some strategies:
- Think of your child’s viewpoint. You might have experienced the situation plenty of times, but they might not have.
- Point out what is familiar and remind them of what they’ve already mastered. If your child is worried about performing in front of a crowd, remind them of the time they performed in front of a small group of family members and how well it went.
- Just like you would if you were teaching them to swim, take it one step at a time. Have them experience small wins before diving right in.
6. Their differences attract unwanted attention
Unless your child tends to hide their sensitivity well, they will be known as someone who feels and notices much more than their peers.
Aron’s has a motto for raising HSCs: to have an exceptional child you have to be willing to have an exceptional child. This means embracing the fact that your child might be considered “different,” and that’s okay.
Some teachers, peers, and family members will think your sensitive child’s differences are wonderful, and it’s being surrounded by these people that your child will gain self-esteem. As they grow older, they will be more likely to show confidence, despite their differences if they feel empowered by their sensitivity as a child.
With a world that continues to suffer due to an ongoing pandemic, climate change, and racism (plus a plethora of other challenges), sensitivity is what’s helped our society move towards positive change through activism, empathy, and awareness of the world’s suffering.
That’s why spreading awareness around sensitivity is important, so why not start with educating and empowering your sensitive child?
Here are some strategies:
- Be aware of how often your child is around those who might make them feel inferior, and how your child responds. Coach your child in understanding why this might be.
- Examine your own attitude towards the trait. If you don’t value it, your child will struggle to value it.
- When the child is old enough, talk openly about what it means to be sensitive — the benefits and its challenges — and don’t sugarcoat anything.
Why the world needs more highly sensitive children
Sensitive children, when empowered and seen, are more likely to strive in a multitude of meaningful careers, from scientists to teachers, to psychologists to historians, lawyers, and doctors, as well as artists and creatives.
It’s safe to say the world is not limited for the sensitive child.
Understanding your sensitive child not only helps them feel more confident, but you’re also doing a wonderful service for the 20% of the population that identify as being highly sensitive. The more we understand the power of sensitivity, the more we can positively influence the next generation of parents, activists, careerists, mentors, and leaders.
Today, I still feel the same way about sleepovers. Fortunately, sleepovers died out by the age of 13 (phew!). But as an adult, the challenges show up in different ways: open-space work environments, overstimulated when traveling, multiple deadlines, etc.
But the more I’ve learned about the power of sensitivity, the more fulfilled I’ve become. If only I understood my sensitive trait before the age of 30 …
By empowering our highly sensitive children to be who they are, we can help strengthen our communities, families, as well as the workplace by encouraging them to share their gifts with the world.