In your capacity as a parent, you will strive to care for your child, understand their needs, and try as best as possible to offer them the correct guidance and support they need to achieve success. For parents of highly sensitive children (HSCs), this task becomes more complex, as they tend to have a hypersensitive experience of the world. Despite this, HSCs have a truly exceptional reserve of empathy, imagination, and enormous sensitivity. Accepting them for their distinctive temperament is a requirement in the process of promoting the child’s welfare, as well as allowing them to grow up to reach their full potential.
In the article:
Little feelers: understanding high sensitivity in children
Feel, understand, connect: ways to support your HSC and cultivate their strengths
Nature's blueprint: causes of high sensitivity
When to reach out: identifying the right time to seek professional help
Caring for caregivers: strategies for parents
Understanding high sensitivity
It is estimated that 15–20% of the general population can be classified as highly sensitive, of which half are children. Children classified as highly sensitive usually demonstrate a variety of behaviors that make them easy to distinguish from their peers. These can be both strengths and weaknesses, as they originate out of a heightened awareness of their emotions, surroundings, and sensory input.
The following are some of the behaviors that are characteristic of HSCs:
- Emotional sensitivity. HSCs have a vast emotional landscape, and they often feel strong emotions, both positive and negative. They can easily cry over little things but can also feel immense joy and appreciation, too.
- Enhanced empathy. HSCs take on others’ feelings to heart and are incredibly caring and sensitive. This empathy can be a wonderful source of strength but can be overwhelming at times.
- Sensory processing sensitivity. HSCs might be annoyed by loud noises, bright lights, intense aromas, or rough textures. This high level of sensitivity can make it hard for them to focus and may result in meltdowns or tantrums.
- Introversion. Most HSCs are introverted, and they tend to be comfortable in low-key, quiet places. They may become fatigued in social settings and may require some time alone to recharge.
- Deeper relationships. HSCs form profound connections with select people and usually prove to be good friends who remain loyal and supportive.
Here are some additional common behaviors:
- HSCs may be perfectionists and take responsibility for everyone else as their set standards can be very high.
- They do well in structured and predictable settings, as they feel secure and comfortable.
- They can be very sensitive to any criticism, allowing negative feedback or evaluations to linger and unsettle them emotionally.
- HSCs are self-reflective and introspective and spend a great deal of time thinking about their thoughts, feelings, and experiences.
- They often have a rich inner world and an innate ability for creative expression, with strong artistic skills in art, music, writing, or other forms of creativity.
Early signs of high sensitivity
Although the signs of high sensitivity may not appear until a child is more mature, parents can observe early indicators of this trait among babies and toddlers. As newborns, HSCs are likely to have increased crying frequency due to the high responsiveness to external stimulants and emotional intensities. These infants may also be more touch-responsive and don't like being smothered or having their feet rubbed. HSCs may be more sensitive to challenges posed by disrupting routines or unfamiliar settings; they usually cling to parents for closeness and support.
While formal diagnosis is not necessary, understanding this personality trait is helpful for parents and caregivers as they can then adapt their parenting style to suit their child's specific needs. This could include creating a more nurturing and consistent environment, developing self-regulation skills, and teaching the child ways of managing particularly intense feelings.
Practical ways to support a highly sensitive child
Sensitive children may perceive the world around them much more intensely than their peers, which gives rise to enhanced sensitivity toward emotions and senses as well as other people. Although this sensitivity is an inherent characteristic of their personality, it may become a challenge at times.
Here are some effective ways to support your HSC:
- Provide a stable and consistent home environment that keeps distractions and sensory overload to the very minimum. Design predictable, regular routines, reduce noise or clutter, and employ calming sensory equipment, like weighted covers or muted lighting.
- Be loving, compassionate, and supportive of your child, and note they may be vulnerable while respecting and affirming what they feel. Do not label them as ‘overdramatic’ or ‘oversensitive,’ as this may reinforce a negative self-image.
- Rather than punitive discipline, institute positive reinforcement and retargeting. Your child deserves your approval, whether or not he is always successful, and try to be as patient as possible with their emotional processing.
- Encourage your child to build strong relationships through positive social support from peers and adults. Recommend enjoyable activities or groups to enhance their social skills in a safe environment.
- If their sensitivity significantly affects their normal daily life, consult a trained therapist or counselor specializing in helping HSCs. They can provide advanced approaches to dealing with challenges as well as building on their strengths.
Nurturing creativity, expression, and self-awareness
HSCs have remarkable strengths that need to be emphasized and promoted to stimulate their growth as individuals. Offer your child an opportunity to engage in various creative areas, like writing, drawing, painting, music, dancing, or others. Creative expression can help them restructure their surroundings and calm their emotions. For more calming methods, promote mindfulness practices, such as deep breathing, meditation, or yoga. This will aid HSCs with controlling their feelings, relaxing, and developing a more profound awareness of themselves.
Value and respect your child’s individuality, opinions, and perspectives. Allow them to be curious and question given assumptions. Additionally, encourage them to engage in unstructured conversations, activities, and projects where they can pursue interests and apply critical thinking simultaneously. Offer them chances to decide and even create situations where they can try new things, make mistakes, and learn from them.
Lastly, remember that children learn by observation. Be a model to them — demonstrate the kind of behavior that you want them to have. Show how to manage emotions, navigate challenges, and accept one's uniqueness.
The causes of high sensitivity in children
High sensitivity is a complex trait arising from multiple etiological factors, but the main causes can be summarized to:
- Genetics. Researchers believe there is likely a genetic predisposition, evidenced by the higher density of nerve fibers in the limbic system, which forms the emotional center of the brain.
- Early childhood experiences. Nurturing environments provide emotional security and self-esteem, which acts as a buffer against sensitivity difficulties. On the other hand, negative exposure can heighten sensitivity as a defense reaction.
- Environmental factors. The overload of more sensory information — such as noise, light, or social stimuli — can cause HSCs to develop anxiety, irritability, or fatigue.
- Interplay of factors. Sensitivity seems to arise from the interplay of these factors, interacting in complex ways.
High sensitivity and anxiety
Some studies have shown that there may be a connection between high sensitivity and anxiety. It could be due to highly sensitive people being prone to intense emotions, including fear and anxiety. Nevertheless, it is important to mention that high sensitivity itself does not initiate anxiety, and many do not suffer from anxiety disorders.
Additionally, high sensitivity does not constitute a diagnosis or mental health issue. Research indicates that it is an innate personality trait manifested in reaction to internal and external stimuli. Although highly sensitive individuals can have some struggles because of their sensitivity, these struggles are not an inevitable part of the quality itself.
Therefore, in general, high sensitivity is a normal and healthy personal characteristic that may be both beneficial and problematic at the same time. Recognition and acceptance of this character are beneficial for parents to ensure the child survives in a world that may be sometimes frustrating.
Sensitivity later in life
High sensitivity can persist from childhood into adulthood but is generally not something children outgrow. Over time, they may learn to manage their heightened sensitivity by learning what triggers them and practicing self-coping mechanisms, like deep breathing or relaxation.
Highly sensitive adults may face corresponding benefits and drawbacks. Empathy, a positive attribute, enables a deeper connection to other people’s emotions, often leading to strong relationships with a small number of close friends. Another advantage is intuition, which aids decision-making based on gut feelings.
However, highly sensitive adults may suffer from overstimulation from loud noises, bright lights, crowds, and other sensory stimuli. They may also have anxiety and social anxiety.
When to seek professional help
There are several reasons why parents might consider seeking professional help. Highly sensitive children can have very strong feelings, both positive and negative. They may avoid social interactions, lack friendship skills, or have problems with self-regulation. If these behaviors pose difficulty in school or at home, professional help can educate them on social skills, coping mechanisms, and self-regulation strategies.
Sleep may also pose a problem. HSCs might be overly sensitive to light, sound, and temperature alterations that could interfere with sleep onset and maintenance. If sleep disturbances interfere with their daytime functioning, professional assistance can train them in relaxation skills and sleep hygiene practices.
A variety of therapeutic approaches can be helpful for HSCs, including:
- Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT). CBT could assist HSCs in locating and stopping negative thoughts and beliefs, as well as creating coping mechanisms for regulating their emotions and behaviors.
- Sensory integration therapy (SIT). SIT can enhance HSCs’ ability to process sensory information, thus lowering the sensitivity toward noise, light, touch, and others.
- Play therapy. Play therapy is an emotionally safe and harmless space for HSCs to elicit their emotional responses and confront their difficulties.
- Parent-child therapy. Parent-child therapy ensures that parents are in a position to develop appropriate parenting skills for coping with the challenges related to HSC.
Finding a qualified therapist
To find the best therapist for your HSC, you must choose a therapist who understands high sensitivity and has been working with children. You can enquire for suggestions from your friends, relatives, or your child’s doctor. Alternatively, you can look up online directories or seek out local therapists who work with HSCs.
Parents' mental well-being and self-care
Parenting a highly sensitive child can be mentally and physically draining. HSCs will experience strong feelings, increased sensitivity to sensory stimulation, and the need for ‘quiet time.' Through all this, don't underestimate your needs and the importance of looking after yourself. You will need all your strength to provide the best for your child, and you cannot do this if you burn out.
Take time out to go to yoga classes if that is something you enjoy. Make sure you are getting enough sleep and try to get plenty of exercise. If you need extra support, don't hesitate to contact friends or go to therapy. Focusing on your health will enable you to cope with an HSC and also help your child develop their unique strengths.
High sensitivity is not a weakness to be overcome but a characteristic that should be cherished. Celebrate your child’s profound perceptiveness, natural empathy, and infinite creativity. Although high sensitivity may create certain difficulties, it also allows for more profound connections, greater insight, and a profound understanding of the beauty of the world around us.
Why is my kid so sensitive?
The trait of high sensitivity is thought to be a part of the personality of 20% of people in general, which includes children, too. The temperament trait is present in the child in infancy, and it results from both genetic inheritance as well as early environmental influences. Because of their tendency to sensory response, HSCs score highly on empathic concern and hypersensitivity to stimuli.
Do highly sensitive children need therapy?
It is not always necessary for highly sensitive children to seek professional help. However, if your child's sensitivity is leading them to feel a lot of distress or hurting their daily life, therapy can help them develop coping mechanisms and self-esteem in a supportive, caring environment.
Does hypersensitivity ever go away?
High sensitivity is a lifelong trait. However, with support and understanding, HSCs can learn to manage their sensitivity and thrive in the world.
High sensitivity is a temperamental trait present from birth, caused by both genetics and early experiences.
HSCs are highly aware of their surroundings and emotions and may be more sensitive to sensory input.
While their sensitivity may present challenges, it also comes with unique strengths — deep empathy, creativity, and intuition.
With understanding and support, HSCs can learn to manage their sensitivity and blossom into remarkable individuals.
- Neuroscience & Biobehavioral Reviews. Sensory processing sensitivity in the context of environmental sensitivity: a critical review and development of research agenda.
- Journal of Clinical Medicine. Experiences of adults high in the personality trait sensory processing sensitivity: a qualitative study.
- Medical Sciences Forum. Relationship between sensory processing sensitivity and mental health.
- Healthcare(Basel). Relationship between sensitivity tendency and psychological stress reactivity in healthy students.
- Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society of London. The functional highly sensitive brain: a review of the brain circuits underlying sensory processing sensitivity and seemingly related disorders.