I knew something was different. I was a first-time mother, still learning and finding my confidence. Even though I didn’t feel there was something wrong with my child, I could tell that he responded differently than others to the world. He would cry a lot. I mean, babies cry a lot. But he cried a lot. Often not about anything in particular, he was just very unsettled.
As he got older we started dealing with frustrations and resistance to any change of activity. He wouldn’t wear socks or clothes with tags on them. He would get overwhelmed very quickly. The tantrums and emotional meltdowns were constant and overwhelming.
As a mom I felt frustrated and exhausted, like I wasn’t doing a good enough job. But at the same time, I was discovering the sweetest little boy, with an intelligence far ahead of his years and a highly empathetic heart for others.
And then I realized—my child was highly sensitive.
Highly sensitive children are deep thinkers, empathetic, and creative. They are also very emotional, easily overstimulated, and can require much more patience to parent. It is likely you already know if your child is highly sensitive.
Some of the daily challenges you experience with your child may be as follows:
- crying very easily over ‘nothing’
- regular tantrums and meltdowns
- resistance to transitions
- irritation about noise, temperature, or tags on their clothes
- deep emotional pain when they see someone else in pain
- aversions around specific foods and smells
- cautious in social situations
- overthinking, or prone to fear and anxiety
- frustrated easily
Parenting a highly sensitive child can feel frustrating, exhausting, and heart-breaking. Many parents often share that they feel much higher guilt, as they don’t think they’re doing enough to support their sensitive child. Understanding what high sensitivity is and how you can support it, is not only important for your child’s well-being but also for your own confidence as a parent.
High Sensitivity as a Trait
High sensitivity is a trait or temperament. This means you are either born with this high sensitivity, or you are not. These traits run in families. Just like if you are either an introvert or an extrovert, you can’t do anything to change your natural temperament, but you can learn how to work with it.
Neuroscience research by Dr. Elaine Aron has found that the high sensitivity trait can be summarized with the acronym DOES:
- Depth of Processing
- Emotions and Empathy
- Sensitivity to Subtleties
Highly sensitive individuals are aware of an increased amount of things in an environment, compared to an individual without high sensitivity. Then they are taking this large amount of stimuli they are experiencing and thinking deeply about it. This is what causes the over-stimulation and emotional outbursts.
They are not having an “over-reaction” to a normal amount of stimuli. They are having a normal reaction to an overly large amount of stimuli.
What we see on the surface as high sensitivity (emotional outbursts) is the effect of their awareness and deep thinking about their environment. Because of what they are processing on a daily basis, highly sensitive individuals are also more likely than the general population to struggle with anxiety or depression.
Despite these challenges, high sensitivity is a gift. Highly sensitive individuals are deep-thinkers, creative, intelligent and empathetic. They are designed to be heart-centered leaders.
As we support and equip our children to manage the challenging sides of sensitivity, they will grow up to make a positive impact in our world.
How to Raise Highly Sensitive Children
- Respond with Empathy. Empathy is the capacity to put yourself in someone else’s shoes and see things from their perspective. It is understanding what someone else is going through. Empathy is the most important part of parenting a highly sensitive child. Research has shown that when a highly sensitive child grows up with an empathetic parent, they are significantly less likely to experience the negative impacts of the trait (anxiety) into their future. Do not underestimate the positive impact you are having on your child, just by being understanding!
- Create Space. Highly sensitive children need space and time to decompress and process the information they are receiving. If their schedules are too hurried, or their environment is too cluttered or noisy, it is likely you are only going to see the negative side of your child. Small changes make a big difference.
- Allow time in the schedule to decompress.
- Create clutter-free environments for them to relax.
- Be aware of the noise or temperature in the environment.
- Be available to have very deep conversations for their age.
- Advocate. Your highly sensitive child is growing up in a world that mostly does not accommodate or understand them. It is our job as their parents to advocate for them. This means helping those working with them (whether it’s their teachers, sports coaches, leaders at church, etc.) to understand them also.
High sensitivity is a gift.
If we can help our child manage the challenging sides of the gift, they will grow up to use their intelligence, creativity, and empathy in positive ways in the future.
For more information and strategies on how to develop confidence and bravery in your highly sensitive child, you can download this free resource: “The Sensitive Child Guide.” And check out Sarah’s Kickstarter campaign for her book The Boy Who Stood Up Tall, a picture book that re-defines courage for tender-hearted children and shows them how to overcome fears (opportunity to fund through July 20, 2018).
QUESTION: Do you have a highly sensitive child? How are you supporting your child?
CHALLENGE: Think about ways to make your home more peaceful so the whole family has space to decompress. Download “The Sensitive Child Guide” and read it this week.