Some children have a soft spot for animals. Others get upset when someone pokes fun. However, there is a difference between being sensitive and being highly sensitive.
The designation “highly sensitive person” (HSP) is used to describe those who are hypersensitive to stimuli ranging from loud noises to bright lights to deep emotions. Raising a highly sensitive child presents a unique set of challenges for parents. Learning how the world affects your child can be crucial in helping you be a more compassionate and effective parent.
What Does It Mean To Be A Highly Sensitive Person?
Amber Trueblood, MFT is a marriage and family therapist, an author and the mother of four sons, some of whom happen to be highly sensitive. “Although ‘High Sensitivity’ is not a medical diagnosis,” she explains, “many now acknowledge the importance of understanding highly sensitive children and how we might better meet their needs both at home and in the classroom.”
She goes on to clarify that this distinction is about more than just a child’s emotional response to a situation. Referencing the dictionary definition for “sensitivity,” Trueblood explains that “highly sensitive children have an increased awareness and capacity for receiving sensory input, compared to the general population.”
So how can you recognize the signs that your child might be highly sensitive? It can be tough, as not all highly sensitive kids share the same traits. Lights, sounds, scents or textures may easily overwhelm an HSP. They might avoid violent or scary movie scenes or upsetting situations. They may sometimes need quiet time alone and can be perceived as shy. They also often have a great deal of empathy, emotional awareness and creativity.
“Like anxiety, its effects can range from mild to completely impeding one’s ability to function in society,” says Trueblood. “Some children experience increased sensitivity only in one area (i.e. tactile) while others may have multiple areas (i.e. auditory, visual and olfactory).”
How Can Parents Help Their Children Cope With Their Sensitivities?
What can you do if your child is highly sensitive? Reducing sensory overload is a great place to begin. “For parents, it’s very helpful if they notice any highly-sensitive reactions, and help their children learn to modulate or minimize the input as much as possible,” Trueblood advises. “If the child is young and the sensitivity is mild, you can gradually introduce more and more stimulation until the child can calmly withstand the input levels they’ll find in the outside world.
As an example, Trueblood shares that her own children were unable to cope with the sounds and visual stimuli of movie theaters when they were just 4 or 5. “But at 8 and up (for the most part), they now enjoy movies in an actual theater. We started by watching movies at home, with low sound, on a small screen.”
Angela C. Santomero, creator of “Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood” from The Fred Rogers Company, also recommends carefully screening the media highly sensitive kids absorb. “A highly sensitive child is very empathetic and caring and, therefore, even more engrossed in the media they see, ‘leaning in’ more and ensuring that the learning is stronger,” she says. Because of this, it’s important that parents choose shows that are visual, active and slower paced, and that have characters who are positive models. “All kids model what they see in media,” says Santomero, “but this is especially true of those who are highly sensitive.” In fact, this is why the needs of highly sensitive children are always considered when Santomero and her colleagues create shows for preschoolers.
Equipping your child with tools and skills they can use even when you are not around can also help your child cope and flourish. “When children have very high levels of sensitivity, it’s helpful for parents to teach their children how to breathe,” says Trueblood, recommending that you teach your child to stop, close their eyes and take three deep breaths. She also says it can be helpful for them to learn how to talk to others confidently about their sensitivities. For example: Yeah, I have super hearing ears so even regular noises can sound super loud to me.
How Else Can You Nurture Your Highly Sensitive Child?
It is essential for parents to be supportive of their child’s unique needs, emotions and sensitivities. So, as a start, you should:
- never tease your child for tearing up over a song or a piece of art.
- make it okay for him to leave the room or hide his face during a movie scene he deems tense or scary.
- let her cover her ears when sounds are too loud or change her top when it feels too itchy.
- take a break from errands or other busyness if he starts to appear overwhelmed. What seems like everyday stuff to you can be exhausting to your highly sensitive kiddo.
Along with teaching them how to avoid or minimize extreme and uncomfortable levels of sensory input, parents should help highly sensitive children comprehend and accept that they are wonderful just the way they are.
“Raising a highly sensitive child is just like raising a child with any other trait or quality that is not the norm,” states Trueblood. “Most important is helping them to understand themselves without guilt or shame, so they do not become a target for bullies or a victim of their own self-talk in the future.”
Overall, being a loving, accepting and attentive parent may be the best advice. Highly sensitive children possess a unique gift, enabling them to be deeply touched by—and to touch deeply—the world around them.
[h/t: Scary Mommy]