Noticing slight changes in temperature and high empathy are signs your child may be highly sensitive. Coping techniques, like emotional regulation, can help them manage and harness their big feelings.
Coined by psychologist and researcher Dr. Elaine Aron in the late 1990s, the term “highly sensitive child” describes a child who processes information and stimuli from their environment more intensely and deeply than others.
While this can pose some unique challenges for kids, and adults, it also comes with great strengths. And in the right environment, your child — and your relationship — can thrive.
Researchers believe only about 20% of the population is highly sensitive.
While highly sensitive children (HSC) share some common traits, no one description fits every child perfectly. Each HSC has unique characteristics based on inherited traits and different childhood and school experiences.
1. Prone to over-stimulation
Highly sensitive children are more attuned to changes in their environment and can feel overwhelmed by sensory experiences, such as:
Noisy places can be hard to tolerate. It may be hard for them to get to sleep after an exciting day. They may also complain about scratchy clothing, seams in socks, or labels against their skin.
2. Aware of subtleties
HSCs also tend to notice subtle changes others may miss. This may be the slightest sound or odor, or other people’s moods, body language, or facial expressions.
3. Doesn’t do well with change
You may notice your child doesn’t do well with big changes and probably doesn’t enjoy big surprises. They may startle or scare easily.
They can also be very cautious. For example, they may stop to consider whether it’s safe before climbing high.
4. High empathy
Highly sensitive children feel things deeply and are sensitive to others’ emotions, especially distress or pain. They may cry during sad movies, or when their peers are teased or hurt. They can get their feelings hurt easily.
HSCs are generally conscientious and process information deeply. They can seem very intuitive and ask deep, thought-provoking questions.
Some have a clever sense of humor. They tend to prefer quiet play and may perform best when unfamiliar people aren’t present.
High sensitivity can make your child prone to feeling failure and shame more deeply. As such, they may have a tendency toward perfectionism and control. Losing can be very hard for an HSC.
Researchers and clinical psychologists believe high sensitivity could be connected to:
- school experiences
According to The Gottman Institute, research shows the parent-child relationship affects highly sensitive children more than those who are less sensitive.
Children who are highly sensitive tend to do extremely well in supportive, nurturing environments. If their environment is unsupportive or harsh, they’re at higher risk for developing a range of physical and mental health conditions.
Helping your child understand and regulate their emotions is key to nurturing their unique gifts. Here are some ways you can support your child:
To tune in to your child’s emotions, it can help to slow down and look for emotional cues, such as body language and facial expressions.
Meditation and mindfulness exercises can help you practice being fully present and aware, which also puts you in a better position to support your child.
Listen and validate
It’s important to give your child your undivided attention when they’re sharing their thoughts or emotions. Try to reflect back on what you’ve heard, and validate what they’re feeling.
For example, you may say “OK, it sounds like you’re feeling sad and nervous that your best friend is not in your class this year. I understand. You’re going to miss having all that time with her, and you’re worried about how it will be different without her around.”
Despite well-meaning advice from family and friends to “toughen them up,” being harsh or critical actually has the opposite effect. It can make children second-guess their decisions and be overly sensitive to criticism.
This doesn’t mean you can’t set limits when necessary. If you start by listening to and validating their experiences, you can then calmly help them understand boundaries and consequences, and problem-solve solutions.
Many HSCs are also introverts. They often get their energy from spending time alone, and prefer one or two deep friendships vs. many surface relationships. But it may be harder for them to reach out to new people or experiences.
Try to gently encourage activities that help them create meaningful connections and feed their creative spirit. But be sure to allow for plenty of downtime to replenish their tank.
Find your own support
The way you relate to your HSC can have a lot to do with your own upbringing and how your caregivers handled emotions.
If you’re also highly sensitive, you may be overly attentive to your child’s needs, which can lead to burnout and impact their development. Or you may have a hard time understanding their challenges, which can leave you feeling frustrated or burdened.
Reaching out to a counselor or therapist can help you work through these feelings and challenges.
Highly sensitive children share some common traits, but each child has their own set of challenges and strengths.
Understanding how your child relates to their environment can help you support them as they learn to manage and regulate their emotions, and use their unique gifts to their advantage.