Highly sensitive children: This is what you need to know

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. Thankfully there will be days when you will feel overcome with joy in a way that words fail to capture. What if you are parenting a highly sensitive child though?

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 a role we seem least prepared for. Yet, it is pivotal for the 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 like those around them, the 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’ because it understands the variety of temperaments that exist.

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

A child’s temperament describes the way in which they approach and react to the world. It is their personal ‘style’. Temperament influences a child’s behaviour and the way they interacts with others.

Temperament does not clearly define or predict behaviour. However, 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.

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

It is not a disorder. High Sensitivity is a biological, genetic difference in up to 20 per cent 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. They deeply reflect on everything before acting, compared to those children who notice less and act quickly or 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.)

Highly sensitive children 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, highly sensitive children do not necessarily have better eyes, ears, sense of smell or taste buds. Yet 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. 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.

The challenges of parenting a highly sensitive child

Does your kid get overwhelmed by sights and sounds? Do seemingly small things, like sock seams or clothing tags, really bug them? You might have a highly sensitive child. And if you can relate to examples like these, chances are you find parenting your child to be dynamic and, at times, exhausting.

Highly sensitive 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.

In her book The Highly Sensitive Child, Elaine Aron says high sensitivity reactions are fairly typical from birth. Although often only noticed as children mature. Children tend to talk and walk at normal times although slight delays are common in toilet training or giving up a pacifier. That’s okay. Children are also responsive to people and their environment and eager to communicate with those they know well. They are relaxed in familiar surroundings.

These children tend to notice more and process information from their environment more deeply and thoroughly. Highly sensitive children will have stronger emotional reactions than other children — they have high highs and low lows.

How do you know your child is highly sensitive?

In short, children who are highly sensitive tend to:

  • be very intuitive
  • notice when others are bothered or upset
  • feel emotions deeply
  • pick up on subtle changes (such as the “slightest unusual odour”)
  • ask lots of questions
  • learn better with gentle correction rather than harsh punishment
  • be very sensitive to pain.

Highly sensitive children require patience and consideration. Raising a highly sensitive child presents with a unique set of challenged. But their temperament gives them the innate capacity to become compassionate and meaningful leaders. The key is to work with their personality while increasing cooperation.

This means the adults in their lives must work with them instead of against them. It’s important to be clear with their expectations, but gentle with their discipline. Act as their advocate where appropriate. In doing so, you will be able to guide your child in a way that celebrates who they are. These factors will allow your child to become the person they are meant to be.