Raising a highly sensitive child
Are you raising a highly sensitive child? Are you baffled by how they can do some things way ahead of what you’d expect for their age, and yet other things are seriously tricky for them? Are you curious about understanding how they tick, so you can help them better?
In case you’re not sure if your child is highly sensitive, here’s a brief overview of what it is and how it can manifest.
Highly sensitive child symptoms
First, the basic principles of high sensitivity:
- You notice more than non-highly sensitive people
- You have stronger internal responses than non-highly sensitive people
While these principles are general, the specifics of what high sensitivity looks like in an individual depends on genetics, their environment, and their experiences.
High sensitivity is an in-built, genetic trait shared by up to 1 in 5 people.
It is, perhaps, surprising that so many people are highly sensitive. But highly sensitive isn’t one-size-fits-all. Highly sensitive people have different sensitivity profiles. And high sensitivity can be high, or really high, or eyebrow-raisingly-super-high. Knowing what you’re dealing with is critical!
Like most other human traits, it comes with advantages and disadvantages.
Highly sensitive adults can have keen eyes and create excellent designs. Or an amazing palate and can tell which spices and herbs have been used in a dish. Or a keen sense of empathy and justice that helps in their legal career. Or any number of other skills and capacities, and combinations thereof.
The sensitivity (or sensitivities) that are your strengths, can equally be your weaknesses.
Highly sensitive eyesight means you struggle with bright lighting and overhead lamps. You can’t tolerate certain flavours at all. Your strong sense of empathy and justice leads you into difficult encounters and dangerous situations. You can read more in this article about Highly Sensitive People.
What does high sensitivity look like in children?
Here are a few key indicators for children at different ages:
Highly sensitive baby
- Makes steady eye-contact earlier than you would expect (before 6 weeks)
- Is intensely curious about the world
- Strongly affected by the emotions and stress levels of those around
- May prefer to be left alone OR may want lots of contact – or both, alternately
- May have trouble sleeping because the world is too damn interesting
- May need a lot of soothing, especially after high-input events
- Could be labelled ‘fussy’ or ‘high needs baby’ if physical issues (e.g. ear infection, tummy troubles, etc) have been ruled out.
Highly sensitive toddler
- Has tantrums that aren’t eased by giving in to what they want (this is probably a meltdown – emotional overload)
- Gets really absorbed in what they’re doing
- Picky or fussy eater
- Asks insightful questions that are surprising from someone of this age
Highly sensitive school-age kids
When children go to school, they’re often entering an environment that’s much busier than they’re used to. Bigger groups. More social interaction. Different personalities in the classroom.
Highly sensitive children take in much more of this, both consciously and unconsciously.
- May be deeply affected by and has strong reactions to events and people
- May react very badly to criticism
- Strong empathy when people or animals are injured or distressed
- Has a more mature understanding that you’d expect at their age
- Shows deep care and nurture, of their friends, plants, animals, or similar
- May be dreamy when they’re absorbed in their inner reflections, ideas, plans, or creating
- May be a model student at school and go wild as soon as they get home
- May show signs of anxiety if underlying (possibly as-yet-unknown) issues aren’t resolved
- Likes to be with others and likes to (or benefits from) spend time playing alone
- May be idealistic about friendships, even when friends treat them badly
Ironically, the kids who are better at self-management get it worse because they don’t look like they need help. They miss out on identification. They miss out on specialist support. They miss out on understanding themselves with the knowledge about high sensitivity. All while looking like they’re ok, when in reality they’re working double- or triple-time on the inside to make it look like they’re ok while they’re actually not.
Highly sensitive teenager
Take everything above, all the experiences and built-up emotions, and throw in some puberty hormones, a rapidly changing brain, and a shift in focus from the family to friendship groups.
- Anxiety – may show up as anger
- Intense responses to the state of the world, injustice, etc
- Strong interests in certain kinds of music, video, art, or literature
- Hugely passionate involvements with friends and romantic interests
- Can be very shutdown and withdrawn, may suffer depression
- May act out their intense emotions in harmful or self-destructive ways
When dealing with an older child, look back over their history insofar as you know it, to confirm whether it’s high sensitivity or something else going on.
In the childhood and teenage years, young people are vulnerable to abuse and manipulation. The first signs you might see of this could be marked changes in their behaviour. It’s important to rule out possible external events and circumstances that could be triggering difficult behaviours.
Highly sensitive parents
You’ve probably figured out already that if you’re genetically linked to your child, they either got their high sensitivity from you, or from their other parent – or both of you, in fact.
Highly sensitive parents, with highly sensitive kids, have an extra-amplified experience of family life. You can set each other off in gigglefits and larking about. You can create a warm, balanced, happy family life that’s mostly meets everyone’s needs. You can doomspiral down into hating each other with an intensity that can almost be touched, it’s so strong. Some highly sensitive people are also empaths: read more about highly sensitive empaths.
One of the keys to parenting while being highly sensitive is to make sure you avoid overwhelm and burnout as much as you can. If you’re already in a high sensitivity burnout, you need a slow and steady recovery to get back to surviving. After that, you can move steadily on towards thriving. But get the fundamentals in place first.
Being highly sensitive, you’re probably acutely aware of when you’ve messed up. You notice it and, unless you’ve got some self-acceptance and compassion in your toolkit, you quite possibly beat yourself up about it, or ignore it with the help of overwork, wine, gaming, or whatever your distraction or drug of choice is.
Parenting is hard work. You’ll rarely get kudos for it. You won’t get extra credit for parenting while highly sensitive. It sucks. I know. But the fact that you’re here, reading this, shows how much you care and how much you want to do a better job of it. And that probably means you’re already doing a decent job of it.
How do I stop (my kids) being highly sensitive?
Short answer: you don’t.
Long answer: High sensitivity isn’t something you can get rid of. It’s part of how you are. It’s who you are, even if you haven’t got the hang of it yet. It’s something that you’d miss, if you got rid of it.
You can block it out, for a while. The mind is great at compartmentalising – it can shut off hurt, embarrassment, even joy, if the mind thinks it’s a good thing to do.
Eventually, like an overstuffed school locker, the emotions and experiences you’ve shoved away will tumble out, haphazardly and without warning. You can double-down on your avoidance strategies, find a helpful therapist, or work the baggage out some other way. You can’t avoid it, is my point here.
When kids are told not to be so sensitive, to shut their emotions away, to shut themselves down, they learn that they’re not ok as they are. They learn to subconsciously fill the lockers of their minds and shut it away. They learn how to pretend to be ok. They don’t learn how to handle their experiences or emotions. They don’t learn how to navigate life as a highly sensitive person. They don’t learn all the advantages of high sensitivity.
The more you know and understand your high sensitivity, the better you can handle yourself. Add in a clear set of ethics, your innately strong sense of justice, and a willingness to try things out, and you can soar in whichever way you’re most suited to.
Raising a highly sensitive child
If you’re clear your child is highly sensitive, and perhaps you are too, there are a few things you can do to help improve your family life and decrease your parental stress levels.
Accept that you’re not going to change their sensitivity. Just like you can’t really change someone’s height, you find clothes that fit them. You can’t change your child’s sensitivities, you can only help them to understand and handle them.
Make sure you have enough time for you. The whole airplane-mask analogy. Make sure you can breathe enough so you can help your child better. The ‘enough’ is important. You don’t have to be breathing beautifully, super-relaxedly like at the end of a 5 day yoga retreat on Bali. You need to be breathing enough to be able to function and keep going realistically, at a level that you can sustain.
Know that your child’s sensitivity is their strength. What makes them vulnerable also gives them enormous strength. Learn to flow with their river. Don’t waste your efforts paddling against the stream.
Get both your head and heart around it. Do what you need to understand high sensitivity enough to be able to help your child. To help you to understand them. To accept them – and possibly yourself if you’re discovering your own high sensitivity through seeing your child’s unfold in front of you. To accept that life looks different from societal norms when high sensitivity is in the mix.
Check out other types of neurodiversity. High sensitivity is a type of neurodiversity, where the way the brain and body function is different from what we might call ‘neurotypical’. In other words, life is different when any other neurodiversity is in the mix. Have a look around and see if there’s any autism, ADHD, or other types of wiring in you, your child, and/or your wider family. These are more prevalent than previously assumed, and are often co-occuring with high sensitivity.
Know that you’re not alone. High sensitivity occurs in 1 in 5 people. Most people don’t know they’re highly sensitive: they just know they’re different, or emotional, or driven, or any other words that describe parts of the highly sensitive experience. Join support groups of like-minded parents.
Get help. If you feel like you’re struggling with raising your highly sensitive child, and need an outside pair of eyes on the situation, reach out for help. There are plenty of specialists around who can help you. If you resonate with my approach, please take a look at your options for working with me.
Take delight in your child. Raising a highly sensitive child comes with its own particular issues and special joys. The depth of character. The wisdom. The curiosity. Take a moment every day to let yourself appreciate your child. It sounds totally corny, but it’s fuel. When you appreciate them in the fullness of who they are, it’s easier to accept and get on with the things you find less pleasurable, less interesting, more demanding. If you’re deep down in the fog, ask a friend to tell you what they like or find interesting about your child. Let your child’s sun shine through.
In summary, 1 in 5 people (and hence children) are highly sensitive: with more sensory input coming in, and stronger internal responses to that input, high sensitivity gives people a lot to handle. Highly sensitive children are not only learning to navigate the world, they’re learning to navigate their sensitivity in a world that’s not designed with them in mind. The recognisable signs and symptoms of highly sensitive children help you find out if your child is highly sensitive.
Highly sensitive children – and their parents – need help with their sensitivity to be able to handle themselves and their sensitivity in the world. The earlier highly sensitive kids get help with their sensitivity, the better they understand and regulate themselves, and the better and less stressfully they can experience childhood and adult life.
I help highly sensitive people see and understand their sensitivities – and those of their children – and to find out what would best suit them. If this sounds like something for you, find out about 1:1 Consultations here.
The information contained above is provided for information purposes only. The contents of this webpage are not intended to amount to advice and you should not rely on any of the contents of this webpage. Professional advice should be obtained before taking or refraining from taking any action as a result of the contents of this webpage. Sue Mahony PhD disclaims all liability and responsibility arising from any reliance placed on any of the contents of this webpage.
Sue Mahony PhD is gifted, autistic, and ADHD. She provides 1:1 specialist support for brains similar to her own, neurodiversity training, mentoring & coaching for organisations, and a wealth of articles on this website.
You can sign up for her mailing list for articles, insights, and announcements in your inbox.