Parenting a highly sensitive child

Parenting can at times be hard work no matter who you are. There will be days when you will be challenged to the depth of your being and thankfully there will be days when you will feel overcome with joy in a way that words fail to capture. but what if you are parenting a highly sensitive child?

We can feel pushed and pulled in many directions. It can be complicated trying to find the space to think, to be calm, to find some quiet to work out how to parent well. Parenting is often the role for which it seems we are least prepared yet ironically is pivotal for the sound emotional and social development of our children.

Society tends to cater to the majority. That makes sense for efficiency reasons. However, when a child doesn’t seem to behave ‘normally’ our default thinking tends to be that something is wrong. Could it be that your child has a minority temperament and with a few tweaks in the child’s environment this ‘abnormal’ behaviour could settle. Or better still, what if society could tolerate and even appreciate a greater range of ‘normal behaviour’ when we understand the variety of temperaments that exist.

Let’s talk the same language. What is temperament?

A child’s temperament describes the way in which she approaches and reacts to the world. It is their personal ‘style’. Temperament influences a child’s behaviour and the way they interacts with others. While temperament does not clearly define or predict behaviour, understanding a child’s temperament can help providers and families better understand how young children react and relate to the world around them. Information about temperament can also guide parents and caregivers to identify children’s strengths and the supports they need to succeed in their relationships and environments. Reference –

There are a number of different classifications within the study of temperament but the one with quite a substantial pool of research is ‘High Sensitivity’. Firstly, let’s look at the definition without negative judgement.

It is not a disorder. It is a biological, genetic difference in 15-20% of the population. That’s quite a large percentage of children.

What is a highly sensitive child?

A highly sensitive child is born with a tendency to notice more in their environment and deeply reflect on everything before acting as compared to those who notice less and act quickly, impulsively. As a result, sensitive children tend to be empathetic, smart, intuitive, creative, careful and conscientious (they are aware of the effects of a misdeed, and so are less likely to commit one). They are also more easily overwhelmed by high volume or large quantities of input arriving at once. They try to avoid this and thus seem shy or timid or ‘party poopers’. When they cannot avoid stimulation they seem easily upset and too sensitive.

Although they notice more, they do not necessarily have better eyes, ears, sense of smell or taste buds, although some do report at least one sense that is very keen. Their brains process information more thoroughly. This processing is not just in the brain however, since highly sensitive children have faster reflexes (a reaction usually from the spinal cord) are more affected by pain, medications and stimulants and have more reactive immune systems and more allergies. In a sense their entire body is designed to detect and understand more precisely whatever comes in.

These children are not overly inherently timid or fearful but they quickly learn from experience what to fear. High sensitivity can appear as a range of behaviours and reactions. This is where careful observation of your own child over a period of time will give clear clues.

  • HSC reactions are fairly typical from birth. Although often only noticed as they mature.
  • They tend to talk and walk at normal times although slight delays are common in toilet training or giving up a pacifier. That’s ok.
  • They are responsive to people and their environment and eager to communicate with those they know well. They are relaxed in familiar surroundings. Reference: The Highly Sensitive Child (Elaine Aron)

These children tend to:

  • Notice more
  • Process information from the environment more deeply and thoroughly
  • Therefore experience stronger emotional reactions. High highs and low lows.
  • Are more affected by their environment than their peers.


For more on parenting and anxiety, try Overcoming separation anxiety and Anxiousness in children – should you be concerned?