Here are some of the key points taken from my recent article on Right Start magazine – Sense and Sensitivity: The Highly Sensitive Child.
What is a Highly Sensitive Child?
This is the term used to describe certain personality and character traits that have a biological basis. Highly sensitive children are born with a nervous system that is extremely reactive to environmental cues in their surroundings or from other people. The outcome is that these children are easily aroused and are prone to becoming distressed in response to the environment. It is not an illness, but an inborn trait found in 15-20% of children. If you have ever thought of your child as ‘too sensitive,’ ‘too shy,’ or ‘too intense’ or if you have ever told them to “toughen up” then it is likely that your child is one of those children born with a hyper-responsive nervous system.
Signs of a Highly Sensitive Child
Complains about clothes fabric being too rough
Seems able to read your mind
Finds it difficult to get to sleep after an exciting day
Finds change difficult
Is a perfectionist
Ask lots of questions
Prefers to play quietly
Notices subtle changes in the environment or your mood
Feels and thinks deeply
Dislikes loud noises
Sensitive Parenting for Sensitive Children
Accept your child’s sensitivity – The first step of sensitive parenting is to embrace your child as being highly sensitive. Rather than try to change them, help them to harness their gift of sensitivity. Messages to “toughen up” or change can create a sense of being unacceptable, which can lead to low self-esteem, lack of confidence, and further withdrawal from a world they find overwhelming.
Partner with your child – Partnering with your child involves working with them to learn ways of coping with heightened emotions. This can include learning their triggers and helping them develop tools for coping with overwhelming feelings (e.g. deep breathing). The team effort can bring you closer together and prevent your child from repressing emotions that need to be expressed.
Focus on your child’s strengths – Train yourself to see your child’s strengths (e.g. creativity) before seeing their weaknesses (e.g. heightened negative emotions). This helps you accept the challenges of raising a highly sensitive child, while also remaining focused on the rewards. Your child will sense this focus on their strengths and learn to utilise their strengths as opposed to becoming disabled by their high sensitivity.
Create a sense of calmness and stability – Highly sensitive children can be affected by lighting, colours, sounds, and surroundings. Make an effort to create an environment that doesn’t overstimulate their senses. Even if this can’t be achieved throughout the house, ensure you have at least one room where your child feels at ease. Paint their bedroom in soft colours and keep decoration simple.
Use ‘sensitive discipline’ – Highly sensitive or not, all children need discipline. However, you might need to approach discipline in a gentler manner with your highly sensitive child. This can be achieved by providing clear limits that have consequences rather than yelling at them. Harsh discipline can result in the very reaction you are trying to avoid, such as crying or tantrums, etc.
The Key Message:
The 15-20% of children who are born highly sensitive have a unique gift. The more you know about the highly sensitive child, the more equipped you will be as parents to nurture this gift. As stated by Dr Elaine Aron, author of ‘The Highly Sensitive Child: Helping our Children Thrive when the World Overwhelms them,’: “If you want to have an exceptional child, you must be willing to have an exceptional child.”