Psychology

Highly sensitive kids

They become tearful when they sense your stress. They sulk for days after a little playful teasing. They know what you are feeling before you do. Meet the highly sensitive child

Published

These children are both a challenge and a joy. They are like sponges when it comes to emotions and can absorb the moods of everyone around them. How do they cope with the challenges that such raw nerves bring? And how do parents bring out the best in such children?

Born with a nervous system that is extremely reactive to their environment, highly sensitive children are easily aroused and easily distressed by their environment. It’s not an illness, but an inborn trait which may be found in up to 1 in 5 children.

‘The 15-20 per cent of children who are born highly sensitive have a very special gift’

WHAT TO LOOK OUT FOR

Suspect that your child is highly sensitive if she

  • Startles easily.
  • Complains about clothing 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.

Brain imaging studies show that highly sensitive children are more reactive to their environment because of how their brains are wired. If you’ve 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.

There are two types of highly sensitive children:

* Children who actively express their sensitivity. They tend to be loud, intense, and persistent.

* Children who internalise their sensitivity. They tend to be calm, quiet, and thoughtful.

Whether your child is outspoken or reserved, all highly sensitive children feel the full force of their emotional and physical environment. They need time to process the constant stream of sensory information around them. One psychiatrist described it as like feeling something with 50 fingers rather than 10. But the 15-20 per cent of children who are born highly sensitive have a very special gift.

HOW PARENTS CAN HELP

Experts tend to agree that it’s parenting that generally decides whether sensitivity will be an advantage or a source of anxiety. Some parents and even professionals perceive high sensitivity negatively, as being shy, fearful or fussy. But research shows many advantages to being highly sensitive.

With a heightened sense of awareness, these children are often extremely intelligent and creative. It is a trait frequently found in artists and innovators. Their ability to sense emotion means that many of them demonstrate genuine compassion and empathy towards other children from an early age.

Importantly, just as negative emotions are experienced with full force, so are positive emotions. This means highly sensitive children can enjoy the positive aspects of the small things that others often miss.

Despite the many rewards of parenting a highly sensitive child, there are also many challenges. Highly sensitive children are at risk of developing anxiety and depression both in childhood and adulthood. They are also prone to withdraw from experiences to protect themselves from bad emotions. But raising a happy and healthy sensitive child is perfectly possible with sensitive parenting.

Highly sensitive children do need sensitive handling to prevent feelings of intense anxiety or fear of failure. They need to be raised with understanding and empathy, which can be harder if you are not highly sensitive yourself.

How to be a sensitive parent

Accept your child’s sensitivity Rather than trying to change them, help them to harness their gift. Messages to ‘toughen up’ can lead to low self-esteem and further withdrawal from a world they find overwhelming.

Partner with your child This involves working with them to learn ways of coping with heightened emotions. Learn their triggers and help them to develop tools for coping with overwhelming feelings, such as deep breathing. This can bring you closer, and prevent your child from repressing emotions that need to be expressed.

Focus on your child’s strengths See strengths (such as creativity) before weaknesses (such as heightened negative emotions). This helps you accept the challenges of raising a highly sensitive child, while staying focused on the rewards.

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 over-stimulate their senses.

Use sensitive discipline All children need discipline, but you might need to approach discipline in a gentler manner with your highly sensitive child. Provide 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.

‘With a heightened sense of awareness, these children are often extremely intelligent and creative’

CASE STUDY

One mum describes how it feels to have a highly sensitive child:

‘From six-months old we couldn't argue near Daniel. If anyone gets heated, even if we aren't raising our voices, he quickly becomes very upset. At eight months, he started having nightmares. Certain things on TV really get him going– like people crying.. We have to be careful what he sees.

On the other hand he can be a joy. At pre-school, when Daniel was seven months, he saw a little girl about the same age sitting alone and looking sad. He was busy playing but after a while he approached her and held out his hand. She ignored him. He crawled nearer and gently touched his forehead to hers. Finally, she looked up and smiled at him. I was amazed that he could be so gentle at such a young age.’

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