Signs of a Highly Sensitive Child
When my son, Theo, was a young toddler, I knew he processed things differently than the majority of children. He upset much easier than other children his age and was harder to calm down.
He refused to go barefoot. I’m talking straight up sobbed hysterically if he had to take his socks off.
The first day of spring when he was dripping in sweat and we put shorts on him, he freaked out because he wanted pants.
Loud noises have always scared him. We used to have a neighbor who had a dog that occasionally barked.
Theo was so scared of the dog that he couldn’t even stand to be outside if the dog was there. He’d see the dog and immediately start sobbing and demand to go inside.
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All children have their quirks and things that set them off and this can be typical of toddlers. Theo is now 5 and although he has very much adapted to noise and stimulation, it still causes him a lot of anxiety and worry.
Just last week we were at our neighborhood park. It’s mid-March, so we haven’t been able to get much outside play in all winter.
My 3 children, Theo (5), Josie (3) and Margo (3) were playing with some cozy coupe type cars. People tend to leave toys at the park for everyone to play with, but this can be problematic as they get beat up and don’t always work properly.
All 3 of my children had a wheel of their car get caught and had the car flip over on them. Their reactions were all completely different.
Josie didn’t even flinch; she struggled to get herself up and by the time I was at her side, had wiggled out of the car and was turning it upright.
Margo yelled for help but didn’t shed a single tear and got back in the car and was fine.
Theo sobbed. I mean full on lying on the ground crying his little eyes out. I had to go get him, carry him over to the bench I had been sitting on, and help him take deep breaths to calm down. He stayed with me for at least 15 minutes until he was fine to go back and play.
Josie and Margo process things like the majority of children. Theo is part of the 20% of the population that is considered to be a highly sensitive person, or in his case, a highly sensitive child.
What Does it Mean to be Highly Sensitive
The term highly sensitive person (HSP) has been studied for 60+ years. Being highly sensitive is a temperament type or a trait. It is not a neurological disorder, such as sensory processing disorder.
Sensory processing disorder and highly sensitive people do share some of the same traits, but it is not the same thing at all.
Highly sensitive individuals are those born with a tendency to notice more in their environment and deeply reflect on everything before acting, as compared to those who notice less and act quickly and impulsively. As a result, sensitive people, both children and adults, tend to be empathic, smart, intuitive, creative, careful, and conscientious. They are also more easily overwhelmed by “high volume: or large quantities of input arriving at once. They try to avoid this and thus seem to be shy or timid or “party poopers. When they cannot avoid overstimulation, they seem “easily upset” and “too sensitive.” Mainly, their brains process information more thoroughly.
–The Highly Sensitive Child: Elaine Aron, pg 7.
Highly Sensitive Child Symptoms
According to the author of “The Highly Sensitive Child,” there are 4 aspects of highly sensitive people.
1. Depth of Processing
“This thorough processing or tendency to reflect can actually also happen unconsciously but shows up in your child’s deep questions, use of big words for his age after he has heard them once or twice, clever sense of humor, difficulty making decisions because he is thinking of so many possibilities, or being “slow to warm up” to new people and situations because he has to watch and think it over before joining in.” (“The Highly Sensitive Child, Pg xiii)
Theo is currently in preschool with a teacher who is absolutely wonderful and adored by her students. She told me that after their story time, all of the kids give her a group hug.
It took Theo until January to warm up to her to give her a hug. Even though he saw his classmates doing it every day, he wasn’t comfortable enough until observing and taking it in for 5 months to participate in the hug.
2. Easily Overstimulated
“For all children, so much is new in every moment, and we deliberately introduce new things as they grow, so that they often get overstimulated, tired, and distressed. However, this is much truer for HSC’s, who are built so that they notice and think about everything new much more than other kids.” (The Highly Sensitive Child, pg xv)
We all have been there when our children are overstimulated. It is awful and usually ends in them melting down. Theo is overstimulated very easily. By far the most easily of my 3 children.
He is affected more by too much screen time and sugar. If he has even a small amount of sugar, he is hyper. There have been times when we’d walk into Birthday parties and the noise and stimulation would make him burst into tears.
3. Emotional Reactivity and Empathy
“As a parent of an HSC, you know what this emotional responsiveness and empathy looks like, as when your child feels everything so deeply; cries easily; “reads your mind”; is a perfectionist or reacts intensely to making the slightest error; or notices the distress of others, including school friends, family members, strangers, and sometimes animals.” (The Highly Sensitive Child, pg xv1)
Theo’s teacher took me aside the day after school to let me know that Theo became incredibly upset over the book they were reading, which was “Little Red Riding Hood.”
When I talked to Theo about it, I explained that he doesn’t have to worry about a wolf getting him because they can’t get into our house, so we are safe from them.
His response was that he knew he was safe from wolves, but he was just worried and scared for the little girl in the book.
Read –> How to Ease Your Toddlers Fears
4. Sensitive to Subtle Stimuli
“Being aware of subtle sounds, smells, details, and so forth is all part of being highly sensitive, of course. Some people have a particular sense that is highly developed, but for the most part, again, it is not that the sense organs are more responsive, but the higher levels of thinking and feeling that attend to and make subtle discriminations.” (The Highly Sensitive Child, Pg xviii)
If we rearrange furniture or hang up a new picture, Theo is quick to point it out and ask why we did it. If I wear a new article of clothing he asks me where I got it from.
He is acutely aware and skeptical of any minute changes we make.
How to Handle Highly Sensitive Children
As a parent, I won’t lie, I’ve been embarrassed that my child is the only one crying or sensitive to the loud music. It doesn’t feel good that your child is ‘different’ or more needy/fussy.
Parenting sensitive kids is hard in today’s society, but is especially difficult to parent a highly sensitive boy.
But you know what? There are a lot of wonderful qualities that come with being highly sensitive. It can be difficult to parent but also rewarding to have a child with such complex and deep emotions. Sure, they get upset easily, but they are also incredibly Joyful.
Don’t Ignore Their Feelings
Definitely acknowledge your child’s feelings. Your highly sensitive child needs to know that their feelings are valid, and they need you to help them work through it.
Over Christmas this year, we watched the movie The Polar Express. Theo was terrified of a few parts and didn’t want to continue watching it. I knew he would love it if he just gave it a chance, so I insisted that we work through the scary parts together.
One of the parts he was scared of is the part when the train is careening on the tracks like a massive roller coaster. He actually got out of bed one night and told us he couldn’t sleep because of the scary fast train.
I could have punished him for getting out of bed because it’s against the rules, but instead, I helped him work through his fears.
Related –> What to Do When Your Child Has Nightmares
While I wanted to tell him that he wasn’t on the train and that he should just forget about it, I knew it wouldn’t work. Theo was legitimately worried.
So instead, I made it fun. I put him on my lap and told him we were going to pretend that we were on the Polar Express going super fast.
“Woah, we’re going so fast! I’m scared! Are you scared?!” I exclaimed as I spun his little body all around.
After a few minutes of that, I calmed down and pretended we made it through to the other side. “Are you OK?!” I asked. “I’m OK! We made it! We’re both fine!”
It was a gamble and a totally silly thing to do, but it actually worked.
The following day, we watched the rest of the movie, and fast forwarded that part. The day after that, Theo requested to watch the entire movie without fast forwarding anything.
It’s now his favorite movie, and I finally told him (in March!) that we aren’t watching it again until November.
Don’t Coddle Them
There is a very fine line between coddling and ignoring your child’s sensitivity. It is important to comfort them and acknowledge their feelings, however, they need to learn to control their emotional outbursts.
Take my previous example of the Polar Express. I could have held him in my lap, consoled him, and not made him watch the movie at all. But for crying out loud, it’s not like it’s “Scream.”
It’s a movie that I knew he would enjoy and I wasn’t going to sit there saying “Poor Theo, we don’t have to watch it!”
Only you can decide what your child can handle. There’s no way I would show Theo “The Lion King” because I know he’d have a hard time with the whole death part. That’s just the way he is wired, and that’s perfectly OK!
As we introduce themes that he will have a hard time with, we will have to give him the skills to work through them.
If you think your child may be highly sensitive, you can take a quiz here!
If they are, I highly, highly recommend that you purchase the book and work through it. I do plan to do several posts in the future with resources and discipline strategies for parenting highly sensitive children.
I hope that this helps you with your journey through parenting a highly sensitive child!