PARENTING: Is your child highly sensitive?

18 June 2019

Let’s talk temperament

Parenting can at times be hard work no matter who you are, how much money you have, where you live or how old 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 ecstatic and overcome with joy in a way that words fail to capture.

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. I understand these thought processes. In fact, I have entertained them myself however I urge everyone to pause before rushing off to the doctors for a referral and potential diagnosis. 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 her personal ‘style’. Temperament influences a child’s behaviour and the way she 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.

Highly sensitive children are those 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.

I saw a great quote. ‘When a flower doesn’t thrive we change the environment not the flower’. This theory works very well with all children especially the sensitive ones. A change in parental response can significantly reduce the child’s reaction. When we focus on goodness of fit between our parenting style and our child’s temperament and we take responsibility for making the changes often family tension can dramatically reduce. Research states that parenting style is one of the single biggest variables one can alter to effect the expression of sensitivity in your child’s day to day life. So take the initiative, view your child through a temperament lens, cease judging them, shift the expectation for change to yourself. Pause before you race off to the doctor. See what happens. More to come on what to do when next week.


Written by

Sally Gage / parent, teacher, counsellor, author

Sally Gage is a Gold Coaster, parent, teacher, counsellor and now author. She is an ordinary person who lived through and continues to live beyond an extraordinarily tragic life event. Her mentoring business, Highly Sensitive Kids, developed out of a distinct lack of support and understanding about temperament and the important role it plays in family relationships when her children were young. She has recently self-published a book called “High Sensitivity: What Our Son Ben Taught Me” and now provides evidence based and lived experience parental strategies face to face or via Skype for families caught up in the flurry of everyday life.


Please login to comment
  • No comments found

You may also like