How to Support Your Highly Sensitive Child

A father is helping his son with online school homework

Every human being responds to stimuli in their environment and feels the experiences of life. But approximately 15-20% of the population may feel these experiences even more intensely, and their nervous system may be more easily overwhelmed by life’s stimuli.  

Dr. Elaine Aron, who has done extensive research and authored numerous books on the subject, refers to this type of person as a highly sensitive person (HSP), also known scientifically as sensory-processing sensitivity (SPS).  

What it Means to be Highly Sensitive

When someone hears the term “sensitive child” or “highly sensitive person,” they may assume that it means a person who’s shy, emotional, or gets their feelings hurt easily. These are common misconceptions, along with the idea that “highly sensitive” is just another term for “introverted,” when in fact, 30% of HSPs are extroverted.    

HSP isn’t just a categorical label referring to people with certain traits; it’s an actual biological trait discovered in men, women, and children, along with over a hundred animal species, including fruit flies, primates, cats, and dogs. The trait is characterized by a sensitive nervous system, thought to be an evolutionary survival strategy for more easily identifying threats and changes in environment.  

HSPs are often more impacted by stimuli such as violent movies, loud noises, and bright lights. They tend to process deeply, be more anxious than non-HSPs, and feel overstimulated more easily. While the trait may be inconvenient or difficult to manage at times for those who have it, it also tends to be accompanied by gifts such as creativity, intuition, and high levels of empathy. 

Students working on school assignments.

Signs Your Child Is Highly Sensitive

According to Dr. Aron, the highly sensitive trait is too common to be a disorder. However, children are unlikely to get the proper support they need if the trait isn’t recognized by adults in their lives.  

So how do you know if your child is a highly sensitive child (HSC)? Here’s a list of common HSC tendencies, as listed on Dr. Aron’s website:  

  • Startles easily. 
  • Complains about scratchy clothing, seams in socks, or labels against his/her skin. 
  • Doesn’t usually enjoy big surprises. 
  • Learns better from a gentle correction than strong punishment. 
  • Seems to read your mind. 
  • Uses big words for his/her age. 
  • Notices the slightest unusual odor. 
  • Has a clever sense of humor. 
  • Seems very intuitive. 
  • Has trouble getting to sleep after an exciting day. 
  • Doesn’t do well with big changes. 
  • Wants to change clothes if wet or sandy. 
  • Asks lots of questions. 
  • Is a perfectionist. 
  • Notices the distress of others. 
  • Prefers quiet play. 
  • Asks deep, thought-provoking questions. 
  • Is very sensitive to pain. 
  • Is bothered by noisy places. 
  • Notices subtleties (something that’s been moved, a change in a person’s appearance, etc.) 
  • Considers if it is safe before climbing high. 
  • Performs best when strangers aren’t present. 
  • Feels things deeply. 

If this sounds like your child, they’re most likely highly sensitive. However, this list should not be used as an official diagnosis, as highly sensitive tendencies can vary greatly from one child to the next.  

A woman supporting her highly sensitive child.

How to Support Your Highly Sensitive Child

Parenting a highly sensitive child often requires specific, highly sensitive child parenting strategies. According to Dr. Aron, HSCs are often gifted but feel misunderstood by their parents and peers. When raising a highly sensitive child, it’s important that parents show appreciation for their child and do their best to accommodate special needs, including understanding of their intense reactions or behaviors. A gentle approach is needed when correcting HSCs so they don’t become anxious or ashamed of failure. 

When interacting with an HSC, parents, caregivers, and teachers can help by remaining calm and compassionate, even when the child is having a moment of intense emotional distress. When faced with new challenges, HSCs need a lot of positive encouragement and may need extra emotional support.  

The Highly Sensitive Child at School

Some highly sensitive children may feel overstimulated in a traditional school environment due to bright lights, noise, and the fast-paced atmosphere. Virtual learning can eliminate many of these environmental factors that can distract highly sensitive students from the goal of learning, and many sensitive kids experience positive results when they switch to online school.  

For more information about HSCs and how you can support them, check out the resources available from Dr. Aron.   

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