A Guide to Helping Your Highly Sensitive Child, Teen, or Young Person

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How do you know if your child is highly sensitive? And what could you do about it? Identifying a highly sensitive child is not straightforward, but knowing some of their traits can greatly help.

What are Highly Sensitive Children?

With a hyperactivated nervous system, highly sensitive children are very aware and quickly react to their environment and the stimuli around them. They process information and stimuli coming from their environment more intensively and deeply than others. They can rapidly grasp very subtle changes, behave conscientiously and favor deep reflection before acting.

Not to be confused with sensory processing disorder (SPD), highly sensitive kids are rather scientifically termed as having sensory processing sensitivity. The two differ in that low tolerance for any distress is not a dysfunction but in this case a personality trait or peculiarity.

Many people wrongly assume that highly sensitive children are odd, too sensitive, or anxious, and the validity of their experience has only recently been given space.

Traits of Highly Sensitive Children

The key points or signs of highly sensitive kids stem from the fact that they take in more sensory information from their surrounding environment than other children. By being more sensitive to stimuli, highly sensitive children may hear faint sounds, be overwhelmed by lights, and detect subtle smells. They may be bothered by itchy fabrics, clothing tags, or tight-fitting clothing.

These children are easy to warm up to and are typically sweet-natured and eager to please others. Being highly aware, they can sense if someone around them is feeling down, and their genuine concern for others can be profoundly touching. In fMRI studies on highly sensitive brains, higher scores in highly sensitive people were associated with stronger activation of the brain regions involved in awareness and self-other processing.

Other traits of a highly sensitive child include:

  • Being very intuitive and perceptive
  • Having high empathy for others
  • Feeling greatly impacted by other’s emotions
  • High sensitivity to pain
  • Displaying cautiousness in new situations
  • Shyness and introspectiveness
  • Asking a lot of questions
  • Feeling overwhelmed

A highly sensitive child is not necessarily more emotionally intelligent than others, but they use emotional intelligence differently.

Behaviours of Highly Sensitive Children

Often behaviors of highly sensitive children are misjudged as being temperamental or moody. Wanting downtime after social interaction or a birthday party, or throwing a tantrum when their environment is too overwhelming may be seen as excessive. But in reality, the greater magnitude of their reaction compared to others is because of the amount they have to adapt. A highly sensitive child may start to cry because of being overwhelmed with emotion and empathy for those close to them, especially if they have suffered a tragedy. They have to process all the stimulation of an environment before they can relax.

Risk Taking in Highly Sensitive Children

Highly sensitive persons have a keen awareness of any potential consequences. They often have mature thinking skills, and with it can imagine the full impact of potential outcomes. They will want to mitigate the potential risks that they see.

With a very active behavioral inhibition system, they have a strong sense of caution. Whereas the most common strategy for others is to be and act quickly and think later, highly sensitive children will take everything into account before acting, which may cause a simple trip to a shop to choose a toy to take a long time. They may want to contemplate decisions and consider all their options carefully.

This trait serves a great purpose for the larger society as well as for the sensitive individual, as they can sense danger and see the consequences of actions before others do. The trait has unfortunately been misunderstood by parents and psychologists, who may see only one aspect of sensitive kids and label them as being inhibited, fearful or shy. Highly sensitive children may also experience annoyance from others due to this trait.

The constant analysis of the surrounding environment makes these children insightful and bright. But it can also be very overwhelming, and place them at risk for anxiety. They may fiercely cling to their comfort zone, resisting change until they can process it.

It could mean that they refuse to go to activities even though they love them. A highly sensitive child may also have a harder time separating from their parents and separating their parents’ emotions from their own.

What Are the Advantages and Disadvantages of Highly Sensitive Children?

When raised with understanding from family members, a highly sensitive person is no more prone to challenges than others and can grow up to be an unusually well-adjusted, happy, healthy adult. They can also be especially creative.

Being a highly sensitive child is not a predictor of future success without care and understanding from their parents and their family. Judgment and misunderstanding of what or who they are can negatively impact them, instead of the traits themselves.

Your child’s perceptiveness and empathy for others can be viewed as a huge strength. It places them at a great advantage for succeeding as healers, creators, and artists.

For their intuition, creativity, and surprising wisdom to blossom, they require understanding, otherwise, they are prone to anxiety, depression, and shyness as adults.

Because of their ability to pick up on your emotion and take time to process it, a highly sensitive child is also prone to internalizing; they can internalize everything you say and amplify it too. This, in addition to having a sense that they are somehow different or ‘lacking’ compared to friends or peers that are outgoing, may make cause a highly damaging sense of shame or make them feel self-conscious.

Ways of Treating a Highly Sensitive Child

Inadequate conditions of development may affect a highly sensitive child’s future and can become especially burdensome to them. Being able to identify the signs of a highly sensitive child is the first important part of knowing how to support them. Being more aware of your child’s specific sensitivities can also help you identify their triggers, such as loud music, confined spaces, or bright lights.

By turning inward and finding acceptance, you can greatly help your child. Highly sensitive children are triggered and get upset when they see the people they love upset, and they can pick up on your anxieties very easily.

Creating A Safe Space

Creating a safe, comfortable space for them is very important, as it allows them to be confident in being themselves.

A highly sensitive child can thrive if they are celebrated for their unique strengths. Encouraging them to see their intuitiveness and empathy as strengths will boost their self-confidence and support them in blossoming through these qualities.

Their sensitivity, ability to connect with others on a deep level, and see things that others don’t are strengths as long as they are willing to see it this way. Your encouragement is needed for their self-esteem.

How Do You Discipline A Highly Sensitive Child?

Gentle reminders work way better for a child that is highly sensitive than discipline. As a parent, this may be challenging, but an isolating time out, a stern or raised voice, or strict rules don’t work for them. Due to their high-powered perception and processing, they require a much gentler approach.

A highly sensitive child may need much more time for recharging after being out in the world. Jam-packing their days with activities can take away this time and is disadvantageous. As a parent, you may help them relax by being mindful of their schedule, or by creating a calm space in the house so that they can relax and feel safe after a long day.

To build confidence in new situations, you may have to protect your child. They may need to take smaller steps than others and require a lot of encouragement from you.

Much of a highly sensitive child’s confidence is built on previous experiences that were similar and positive, not forcing your child to go beyond what they are capable of can be vital. This may require you to carefully listen when they say that they feel tired, sick, exhausted, or need quiet time.

Perhaps the most vital of all as a parent is to know that a highly sensitive child’s experience of the world is different from yours, but it is very real. Assuming that they ‘fake’ tantrums, are exaggerating their frustration, or are just being temperamental may make them feel unheard or alone.

Get Help Today

If you are looking to help your highly sensitive child, look no further than The Wave.

At The Wave, we offer support and guidance for young people to enhance their lives. We are passionate about overcoming difficulties, celebrating milestones, and healing. By building solid foundations, we can help uncover a person’s individual qualities and develop them into worthwhile skills.

With specialists in trauma treatment, we provide treatment for young people who may feel frustrated, confused, or upset by their past or present. By uncovering and unknotting the causes behind their trauma, we can help your child benefit from healthy, harmonious living.

Fiona - The Wave Clinic

Fiona Yassin is the founder and clinical director at The Wave Clinic. She is a U.K. and International registered Psychotherapist and Accredited Clinical Supervisor (U.K. and UNCG).

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