High sensitivity is a trait that affects about 15-20% of the population. The concept of sensitivity is associated with many prejudices and labels, so it’s worth to discuss this topic, expanding the stereotypical perception of so-called “oversensitive” individuals. Often, statements like “there’s something wrong with this child – it’s too mature, talkative, quiet, sensitive, withdrawn” can be heard, as if it’s something that needs fixing or correcting. Indeed, children with high sensitivity can pose a greater parenting challenge, but if we learn to respect their temperament, strengthen and support their potential, we’ll see that high sensitivity is a value linked to great empathy, creativity, commitment, and intuition.
What is high sensitivity, and how does it manifest?
High sensitivity is an innate trait associated with temperament, neurological conditions, and higher excitability of nerve cells. It can be considered on several levels:
- Physical – the child shows greater sensitivity to fabrics, smells, sounds, temperature, reacts more strongly to hunger or pain than other children, and may be more susceptible to food allergies.
- Emotional – the child easily absorbs the moods of others, reads nonverbal expressions of emotions well, experiences emotions more intensely, quickly becomes enthusiastic, and easily becomes upset.
- Social – the child dislikes when a lot is happening at once, dislikes sudden changes, and doesn’t want to be in the center of attention, especially among strangers.
Exceptionally sensitive children don’t favor loud, crowded places; an excessive amount of stimuli makes them irritable, distracted, and tired. Excessive stimulation poses a challenge to their highly excitable nervous system. They are more aware of details and subtleties in their surroundings. They notice things that others might not pay attention to, such as being too cold, too hot, an itchy or uncomfortable shirt, an uncomfortable mattress, or a difficult-to-accept blend of flavors in a dish. They also exhibit high reflectivity and caution, preferring to think through all the details before taking action. They also need more time to adapt to new conditions, including the school environment. Since they experience everything more intensely, they may become more affected by witnessing suffering, injustice, and exclusion. They may be more sensitive to criticism and may linger on failures for a longer period.
How to support a child with high sensitivity?
First and foremost, accept and respect that the child is a highly sensitive person, and it’s not a flaw. Don’t scold them for being distracted or daydreaming. Encouraging a child to be more bold, tough, competitive, or less affected by everything can contribute to higher levels of anxiety and lower self-esteem, feeling that they cannot be accepted for who they are. If exceptionally sensitive children don’t encounter understanding and support from adults, they may be more susceptible to depression, anxiety, and shyness. Alexander Thomas and Stella Chess (Thomas, Chess, 1977) in their temperament theory use the term “goodness of fit,” referring to the compatibility between the child’s environment and their temperament. Even if you feel that the child is exaggerating or being dramatic, they may genuinely be at the limits of their endurance—respect that, listen. Consider how you can help them calm down. Don’t force them into activities that cause high levels of excitement and stress, but encourage activities they enjoy – for example, they might not like noisy birthday parties or playing ball, but they enjoy smaller gatherings with familiar people, love gymnastics, and feel comfortable participating in drama club activities. Help the child enjoy activities that don’t require competition (such as reading, dancing together, singing, cooking). A highly sensitive child might excel in games that require strategic thinking, creativity, and noticing even the most subtle differences (puzzles, checkers, puzzles). Highly sensitive children quickly become interested in social and existential issues, want to understand the meaning of what’s happening around them, and can ask questions like “why?” and “for what purpose?”. You can suggest various options such as books, games, and educational movies.
Create optimal conditions for their activities. When a child needs more time to complete a task, rushing, impatience, and criticism will only worsen the situation, increasing their arousal and stress levels (under these conditions, there’s no room for effective communication and action). Don’t pressure them, but also don’t discourage them from activities; patiently support them in taking steps and facing new situations. A highly sensitive child might perform poorly when under pressure or being observed – for example, when everyone in class is listening to them answer a question, despite knowing the answer perfectly, they may experience strong stress and memory blanks. Bearing this in mind, try not to force them to answer questions suddenly in a family or class setting. Let them speak when they feel ready, consider written expressions, and organize discussions in smaller groups.
Talk to them about what high sensitivity is and how it can affect their actions. Explain that they have abilities and skills, but new circumstances, stress, noise, an audience, or other intense or prolonged stimuli can be overwhelming and overpowering. Show them the beauty that comes with being sensitive.
Help the child name and express strong emotions that accompany them. Take them to a quiet, calm place and allow them to express what they are feeling in a safe way. A child who receives emotional support doesn’t have to cope alone with the high arousal that accompanies them and that they don’t understand. Over time, they will learn to cope independently with strong emotions.
Teach the child that they have the right to say “no” (highly sensitive children often have a strong need to help, meet other people’s needs, and satisfy the environment).
As Elaine Aron, a researcher who introduced and described the concept of “highly sensitive person” (Aron, 1996; 2002), writes, exceptionally sensitive children are friendly, curious, sharp, meticulous, enthusiastic, creative, expressive through art, intuitive, imaginative, empathetic, and sociable. Under the influence of stimuli and stress, they may be temporarily irritated and upset. However, with proper support, they learn to cope with high arousal and their emotions, growing in the sense that their sensitivity is a treasure, something beautiful and unique, not faulty or shameful.
Aron, E. N. (1996). The Highly Sensitive Person: How To Thrive When the World Overwhelms You. New York: Birch Lane Press.
Aron, E. N. (2002). The Highly Sensitive Child: Helping Our Children Thrive When the World Overwhelms Them. New York: Broadway Books.
Thomas, A., Chess, S. (1977). Temperament and Development. New York: Brunner/Mazel.