Does your child seem to feel things more deeply or intensely than others and process everything more thoroughly? Are they prone to having hurt feelings, cry more easily and become very upset by criticism? Are they bothered by being in busy places or around too much noise and prefer quiet time? Then they may be a Highly Sensitive Child.
One in five children are highly sensitive
One in five children are born with an innate temperament trait of high sensitivity (otherwise known as sensory processing sensitivity) which means that they tend to notice more in their environments and pick up on subtleties than others tend to do. They also feel things more deeply and process everything more thoroughly and they can be more emotionally reactive to positive or negative events in their life. Highly Sensitive Children get affected by sensory or environmental stimuli and their sensory nervous system goes into overstimulation if there is too much stimuli or too much going on around them and they can end up feeling overwhelmed or having a meltdown.
Does this sound like your child? Check out the list below for other indicators of the trait:
- Is your child very intuitive, reflective, empathic, compassionate and caring?
- Do they seem wiser than their years?
- Do they dislike strong smells?
- Do they dislike change? And notice little changes that others wouldn’t?
- Are they more hesitant meeting new people or being in new environments?
- Do they complain about clothing materials being itchy or scratchy?
- Do they tend to favour one friend over being in a group situation?
- Do they notice slight temperature changes when others don’t?
- Do they get deeply distressed by another’s suffering?
- Do they have ‘imaginary’ friends, have psychic abilities or see/sense things that others don’t?
- Do they love being in nature, by the sea or are drawn to crystals?
- Are they creative or artistic?
- Are they natural helpers?
- Do they struggle to wind down and sleep after a busy or exciting day?
- Do they respond better to gentle discipline rather than loud or angry tones?
Discussing sensitivity with your child
HSCs are often mislabelled as shy, fussy, introverted, or even mildly autistic, but they are none of these things. Being highly sensitive is not a disorder, it’s an innate temperament trait. In Western cultures sensitivity is often criticised or seen as a weakness or a flaw, but sensitivity is actually a gift and a strength and so it’s important to discuss sensitivity in a positive way with your child. Help them to recognise that being kind, empathic and compassionate are amazing qualities. Help them to trust what they feel and explain that their awareness of subtleties is one of the gifts of sensitivity, but also help them understand that not all children will experience or feel what they do. Discuss their differences in a positive way, for example, you could say, ‘You know some children are good at sport and some aren’t, well some children will feel things like you do and some won’t’. This will help them to develop positive self-esteem as they grow.
Helping them to thrive in a non-sensitive world
Being a Highly Sensitive Child in a non-sensitive world can be overwhelming. Facing difficult situations as an HSC can be highly distressing because of their deeply sensitive and gentle natures and they often feel inadequate for not being ‘stronger’. But being kind and compassionate and having an open loving heart in a world that can be cruel on times is most definitely a strength. For a highly sensitive child to thrive in this world, they need parents and caregivers that understand, support, nurture and embrace their trait. HSCs need to be able to express their true feelings and have loved ones who can champion and advocate the gifts of sensitivity for them to others. As parents you can also help them to become aware of what triggers overstimulation or overarousal in them, so you can help them to find preventative measures or coping strategies. Most HSCs find being in nature the best way to reduce overwhelm, otherwise having a relaxing space where they can have some downtime alone can also do this.
The final suggestion to help them to thrive and flourish is to let them know that there are other children who are highly sensitive like them. This is because HSCs often feel different to the other four out of five children around them and this can be a lonely experience, especially if they are more on the introverted side. You can help them by taking them to places or activities where you think other HSCs will be present, such as animal sanctuaries or at music, art, dance or craft clubs. These activities are also wonderful forms of self- expression for HSCs as they can tap into their rich inner world and imaginations.
Mel Collins is an Author, Speaker, Psychotherapeutic Counsellor and Healer based in Devon. Her book ‘The Handbook for Highly Sensitive People’ was published in January by Watkins Publishing. Before this, she worked for the Prison Service, including eight years as a Prison Governor managing Substance Misuse Services. Being innately sensitive in a challenging prison setting has given her a unique learning experience to develop coping strategies for managing certain aspects of the HSP trait. She has also appeared on the Jeremy Vine Show on BBC Radio 2, spoken on BBC Radio 5 Live about HSPs and featured in the Daily Mail as well as various magazines. You can find out more at www.melcollins.co.uk