The term highly sensitive child has been used more frequently recently and has helped many care givers to understand a group of children that were often overlooked or mislabeled. One of the most used definitions of a highly sensitive child is from Dr. Elaine Aron, who describes a highly sensitive child as one of the fifteen to twenty percent of children born with a nervous system that is highly aware and quick to react to everything. So what does this mean? These are the children that struggle to deal with stimuli in the world that may seem minimal or common place to the rest. These children are acutely aware of lights, sounds, smells, or moods and can easily be overwhelmed or overstimulated by them. This can lead to a variety of emotional or behavioral difficulties; however, also comes with a variety of possible benefits including being gifted creatively, intellectually, or emotionally. Some common characteristics seen in highly sensitive children are: pickiness, emotionally sensitive, easily overwhelmed, introverted, shy, hyperactive, defiance, bossiness, highly intune with the emotions of others, perfectionists, sensory difficulties, rigid thinking, and many more.
These kids may struggle in some areas, but with the right support and guidance they can grow to be exceptional. As a parent it can be exhausting and sometimes defeating to raise a highly sensitive child, but also extremely rewarding when they have learned to accept and cope with their emotional needs. The key is recognizing that a highly sensitive child needs highly sensitive parenting. A few ways to remember what your child needs and help you provide that for them are:
- See The Positives: while some of the traits of a highly sensitive child may be draining or exhausting, many of them are actually gifts. Sensitivity comes along with many skills and tends to me more common in creative or intellectual children. These are both wonderful traits that will help them lead successful lives, and assisting them in their higher emotional needs is a small price to pay to foster these gifts.
- Work Together: finding out what works for the individual child will reduce outbursts, fights, and power struggles. Initially, these children may not understand themselves what they need to help meet their emotional needs and reduce the overwhelming feeling of excessive stimuli, so by assisting them in learning what they need also assists you in learning how to parent them. There is no model of parenting and structure that works for every child. In most cases, requesting and asking for team work will be more successful with a highly sensitive child, and harsh discipline will only serve to trigger emotional outbursts due to their sensitive nature.
- Identify Triggers: learning what triggers your specific highly sensitive child will help reduce distress due to improving your ability to be prepared and help them cope or avoid triggers when possible. Certain triggers are not worth the exposure and may be possible to avoid, such as large crowds. Others may not be avoidable and recognizing that they are going to be present and being prepared to help your child cope before they become overwhelmed will reduce the negative effect they will have on your child.
- Recognize and Build on Strengths: along with some of the more difficult traits that come along with being a highly sensitive child, there are many strengths. As mentioned before, high levels of creativity and intellectual abilities are generally associated with highly sensitive children. Remembering the skills they have that may be above most children their age will help you get through the times where their deficits may feel defeating or overwhelming for you as a parent.
- Create a Calm and Safe Environment: since highly sensitive children are easily over stimulated, creating an environment that feels safe and is free of the stimuli that overwhelms them (to the best level possible) is vital. Home should be comfortable and everyone should have a place that they can relax in. Soothing lights, soft noises, soft fabrics, or whatever a child needs can help them to reduce that nervous edge they often feel outside of their safe zones and create an environment where they can thrive.
- Acceptance: trying to change a highly emotional child in most cases will not end well. Not feeling accepted is one major part of what is difficult for a highly sensitive child and not feeling accepted by your parents is difficult for any child. Accepting them for who they are tells them that they are okay and good. There will be behaviors that need to be changed, as there will be in any child. Doing this through gentle and loving discipline shows the child that it is not THEM that you are needing to change, just one behavior that needs to be adapted to a more healthy alternative.
- Find Appropriate and Healthy Social Outlets: highly sensitive children will obviously be most comfortable with other highly sensitive children. This can be both positive and negative. On one side, they can and will be more understanding of difficulties as they have them themselves; however, on the other side, they can also be more sensitive and are more likely to become upset if someone is upset. Finding a supportive group, who accepts your child for who they are, and continues to want to spend time with them will assist your child in building needed social skills and emotional skills, leading to an overall improved emotional well being.
- Get the Needed Support: as with any child who struggles emotionally, professional help can often be of assistance. In this case, help for parents of highly emotional children can also be helpful. Together, everyone can work to create the best environment, reduce conflict, and help all parties thrive.