I didn’t know it then, but I certainly felt it. Being a sensitive child makes growing up tough, you feel everything so much more deeply than others and you don’t know why.
Being extra sensitive or an HSP (Highly Sensitive Person) is fairly common, occurring in 15 to 20% of the population.
There are many challenges about being a sensitive, but growing up in a harsh chaotic world is the biggest. Parenting a sensitive child brings many challenges too, especially if you are not yourself a ‘sensitive’.
Is my child highly sensitive?
A highly sensitive child is more than just a child who cries when they can’t have a second iceblock or because you gave them the wrong spoon. The highly sensitive child has an incredibly highly tuned nervous system making them extra responsive to all aspects of their environments, including smells, sounds, light, moods and emotions.
Highly sensitive children can become easily overwhelmed in noisy or busy environments, suffering from ‘sensory overload’ which can make them agitated, irritable or emotional. At a party while the other kids yell and run around a sensitive child may seek refuge in a bedroom quietly playing with toys or reading books. This can make a parent worry that their child is anti social but sensitive children can be very social in the right environment.
How to parent a highly sensitive child
It can be easy to get angry and frustrated at what may seem like a big over reaction to little things, however getting angry will just make them feel even worse. Telling sensitive kids to toughen up or stop being silly is likely to make them feel more upset and confused because to them the feelings they have are very real. Instead reassure them and try to distract them from whatever is upsetting them.
Just realising that your child is highly sensitive can be a huge relief for parents who may be feeling frustrated at what seems like a child who is over emotional and needy.
Once you have acknowledged that your child is highly sensitive you can learn to recognise the signs and symptoms and gauge situations to be wary of or to avoid. That said sensitive children should not be shut away or wrapped in cotton wool, rather they need help and guidance to learn to cope with their own sensitivity and the anxiety they may experience in a world that to them can seem harsh and chaotic. Instead of completely avoiding intense situations talk with your child openly about what feelings and emotions they may experience and together find effective ways to manage the upsets that may come up.
Have a plan: Work out a sign or signal with your child that they can use to express to you when they are feeling overwhelmed. You can then quietly retreat together from the situation before real panic sets in and take a 5 minute breather in the car or somewhere quiet and regroup before deciding whether to head back in or leave the situation altogether.
Sensitive children tend to be fairly well behaved as they have a great desire to please but of course they still need boundaries. Use a more gentle approach to discipline, explain calmly rather than yell, this can be challenging if you are not a sensitive person yourself and are struggling to understand the extreme reaction to something that seems little to you.
Find the right company: Rough, loud, boisterous children are best avoided if they have a negative effect. Sensitive children are naturally drawn to each other but if you notice a certain child has a more calming influence then definitely encourage the friendship.
It’s certainly not all bad. There are many positive traits that come with sensitivity. Sensitive children are often incredibly smart, intuitive, creative and compassionate – they sense injustice and unfairness and are deeply compassionate, a great asset on the playground. It can however be tough for them too – a child purposely killing an insect may be a source of entertainment for most kids but a sensitive child may be upset for the rest of the day.
While you can’t protect your highly sensitive child from all the harshness in the world, you can help them to acknowledge that their feelings and reactions are more intense than others and that it is a special gift rather than a burden.