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Key Takeaways:

  • Highly sensitive children are deeply in tune with their emotions and hyper-aware of their environments. They are responsive and may experience things differently.
  • A highly sensitive child might get easily overwhelmed, resist changes in routine, experience emotions intensely, and take time to warm up to their peers.
  • You can support a highly sensitive child by providing them with a safe, communicative environment, honoring their limitations, emphasizing their strengths, and practicing healthy coping mechanisms.

Does your child appear overly aware of their surroundings and often deep in thought? They may be a highly sensitive child. However, high sensitivity isn’t diagnosable and can be challenging to identify.

Fortunately, supporting a highly sensitive child is a manageable and rewarding task. Learn the benefits of understanding highly sensitive children and how to help them more effectively.

What is a Highly Sensitive Child?

A highly sensitive child is more reactive and responsive to their environment than others. They experience things intensely and pick up on subtle changes in their surroundings that others might overlook.

They experience positive and negative emotions profoundly and may be easily excitable but just as quickly frustrated. Because they take in so much information, a highly sensitive child may get overwhelmed in stimulating environments.

How Can I Tell If My Child is Highly Sensitive?

Highly sensitive children may display symptoms when hungry, tired, or emotional. Below are indicators that you might have a highly sensitive child.

Behavioral Indicators

A highly sensitive child often displays a variety of behavioral indicators that can help identify their sensitivity. Here are some common signs

  • Dislikes loud noises, bright lights, and specific textures in clothing or toys
  • Easily startled by sudden movements and unfamiliar sounds
  • Resists changes in routine
  • Has meltdowns or tantrums when they become overwhelmed by their emotions
  • Requires regular downtime or breaks from stimulating experiences

Emotional Indicators

Emotional indicators of a highly sensitive child can be quite pronounced due to their heightened sensitivity to stimuli and emotions. Here are some key emotional indicators:

  • Experiences emotions intensely
  • Picks up on others’ emotions and are highly attuned to others’ feelings
  • Easily offended or hurt by criticisms and feedback
  • Thoughtful and introspective, requiring time to process their emotions
  • Prone to anxiety, especially in unpredictable or uncertain situations

Social Indicators

Social indicators of a highly sensitive child often revolve around their interactions with others and their responses to social environments. Here are some common social indicators:

  • Feels drained in larger groups and prefers close-knit circles
  • Observes others before interacting
  • Takes time to warm up to new people and is selective with their friendships
  • Strongly dislikes certain activities or social situations
  • Appears shy or withdrawn

Factors Contributing to Sensitivity in Children

“Nature and nurture” play a significant role in influencing the trait of high sensitivity in children. High sensitivity can be observed in children's early development, suggesting an innate predisposition. However, environmental factors can also impact these sensitivities. Let’s take a closer look.

Genetics

Research suggests that highly sensitive children's nervous systems are more sensitive to stimuli due to differences in neurotransmitter production [*].

High sensitivity is also partially hereditary. When a parent is highly sensitive, their child may also be highly sensitive.

Environment

Environmental factors have a more significant impact on high sensitivity than genetics. For example, early experiences can determine how a child interacts with their surroundings later in life [*]. If a child lacks parental warmth or closeness, they may become “fragile” as adolescents or teenagers.

How to Help a Highly Sensitive Child

Having a highly sensitive child can be overwhelming for both parents and kids. Learning how best to communicate and respond to each other can help families develop a loving and enriching environment for everyone involved. Here are a few tips for helping highly sensitive children and staying resilient in troubling times.

Validate their feelings

Highly sensitive children must know their feelings are valid. Normalize feeling big emotions and help them name these feelings. Use a feelings chart to enhance their emotional vocabulary and learn to cope with overwhelming feelings.

More importantly, don’t assume how your child feels. If they appear upset, say, “You seem upset today; am I getting that correctly?” to allow them to communicate their feelings.

Create a calm environment

Calm environments make highly sensitive children feel safe. Dedicate a part of your home or their quiet, gently lit, and relaxing room. Minimize clutter to create a sense of calm and order.

Pay close attention to what might overwhelm your child’s senses, providing them with ways to relax, like using noise-canceling headphones, dimming the lights, and offering calming scents like lavender.

Teach them coping strategies

Instead of enforcing harsh discipline, help your child develop healthy coping mechanisms. Mindfulness is an excellent place to start—try grounding techniques. These techniques involve the 5-4-3-2-1 activity in which your child names five things they can see, four things they can feel, three things they can hear, two things they can smell, and one thing they can taste. Grounding can help a child refocus their thoughts.

Other coping strategies include journaling and creative expression or engaging in safe sensory activities like using fidget toys to ease anxiety.

Set clear boundaries

Establishing expectations is part of setting clear boundaries. Highly sensitive children thrive in predictable environments, so ensure you develop clear and consistent expectations for behavior at home.

Preview related activities if you’re introducing your child to a new experience. For example, if you’re visiting a new park, you can share photographs or videos of the location and discuss what they can expect to see.

Promote positive social interactions

While most highly sensitive children may prefer to be alone, having a close-knit and dependable circle of friends can provide the support they need. However, your child shouldn’t feel rushed—take things gradually by scheduling shorter or less frequent playdates and prioritizing meaningful connections.

Advocate for their needs

Highly sensitive children have very specific needs. Ensure that you advocate for these needs by involving other trusted adults in their lives, such as teachers and caregivers. Collaborate on ways to show support in classroom and public environments.

Simultaneously, champion for your child’s strengths. Does your child demonstrate exceptional traits like kindness and compassion? Are they a good athlete or musicians? Remind them of areas they thrive in to provide validation.

Model healthy behaviors

For your child to start developing healthy behaviors, they must see what they look like in action. They must also learn to accept their temperament, which can help them normalize their emotions and find healthy ways to cope.

Model healthy behaviors with your child by practicing positive self-talk for higher self-esteem. Choose affirmations like:

  • My differences make me unique.
  • I know I have good qualities.
  • My thoughts and opinions are valid.

Be patient and understanding

Parenting a highly sensitive child can test your patience, but staying calm and collected is vital. During meltdowns, understand that your child may not process information quickly enough and give them the space they need while staying present.

Find time for self-care to balance the stress of parenting. Dedicate time to do something enjoyable and relaxing to put yourself in a better mindset.

When to Seek Professional Help

While supporting a highly sensitive child is manageable, there may come a point when it may be more appropriate to seek professional help. Consider contacting their primary healthcare provider or a mental health specialist if you notice the following:

  • Your child struggles at school, with sensitivities negatively impacting their learning ability.
  • Your child consistently avoids social interactions.
  • Your child can’t regulate their emotions and experiences frequent or daily meltdowns.
  • Your child engages in regular negative self-talk and has a low self-esteem.
  • Your child demonstrates symptoms of other mental health conditions like anxiety, depression, or OCD.

Frequently Asked Questions

Are highly sensitive children more prone to anxiety or other mental health issues?

Yes, highly sensitive children may be predisposed to anxiety or other mental health issues as their deeper emotional processing makes them more susceptible to feeling overwhelmed [*]. However, it’s critical to remember that high sensitivity itself is not a mental disorder.

Is there a difference between being highly sensitive and being introverted?

Yes, there is a difference between being highly sensitive and being introverted. Contrary to popular belief, highly sensitive children may be extroverted but sensitive to specific environments. They may also need extra downtime to recharge after a social interaction.

Are there any long-term effects of being a highly sensitive child?

Being a highly sensitive child can have positive and negative effects. Negatively, a highly sensitive child might experience anxiety, social difficulties, and low self-esteem.

However, highly sensitive children also have a solid moral compass and desire for fairness because they process emotions deeply. In addition, they have deep empathy and compassion and a strong capacity for creativity [*].

The Bottom Line

While sensitivity is an inborn temperament, a child’s environment can significantly influence their interactions. Highly sensitive children thrive in the right environment, so providing the support they need is critical to their social and academic success.

Help your highly sensitive child overcome their social insecurities with our social skills worksheets.

Sources:

  1. Pluess M. “Individual Differences in Environmental Sensitivity.” Child development perspectives, 2015.
  2. Sperati A, Spinelli M, Fasolo M, Pastore M, Pluess M, Lionetti F. “Investigating sensitivity through the lens of parents: validation of the parent-report version of the Highly Sensitive Child scale.” Development and Psychopathology, 2022.
  3. McMahon K, Anand D, Morris-Jones M, M. Zachary Rosenthal. “A Path From Childhood Sensory Processing Disorder to Anxiety Disorders: The Mediating Role of Emotion Dysregulation and Adult Sensory Processing Disorder Symptoms.” Frontiers in integrative neuroscience, 2019.
  4. Bridges D, Schendan HE. “Sensitive individuals are more creative.” Personality and individual differences, 2019.

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