Understanding a Highly Sensitive Child

Understanding a Highly Sensitive Child

Your kid may not be on the spectrum but you should know about this trait.

It can be a mystery to understand your child at different points in their development, and our society is ever-more focused on providing labels to explain behavior or to identify specific struggles that students may encounter on the academic journey.

Being highly sensitive

One aspect of a child’s temperament is sometimes criticized and often misunderstood, and that’s being Highly Sensitive.  It’s more than a tendency to feel things deeply and react strongly: being Highly Sensitive is a biological and neurological trait that was first defined by Dr. Elaine Aron, who has conducted more than 25 years of research about this 15-20% of the population who are HSPs.

The scientific term is Sensory-Processing Sensitivity (SPS), which is found to be innate and normal, and present in over 100 species—including birds, dogs, and horses.  

Being highly sensitive does not mean that your child is on the spectrum

It does not mean he has a nonverbal learning disorder, or is ADHD—although children who are HSPs may have these underlying (or comorbid) conditions as well.  

Highly Sensitive Children can have a rich imagination, need more time for transitions, get overwhelmed with current events, and experience very intense highs and lows with their emotions. They may also have an uncanny sense of how others are feeling, demonstrate incredible empathy, and have unique artistic or leadership gifts.  That said, students who are Highly Sensitive need special support for a finely-tuned nervous system that processes information and energy acutely—and when overstimulated, HSCs can have great difficulty focusing on homework, falling asleep at night, and frequently experience an upset stomach, headaches and even food allergies.

If you are the parent of a Highly Sensitive Child, it’s important for you to get much-needed support too. Finding a trusted professional to help guide your family to establish balance at home and school is an ongoing effort, and learning tools to embrace the waves of change can be very helpful.  Dr. Aron has written several helpful books on this topic, and here are some initial ways to embrace having a Highly Sensitive Child:

  • Help your son or daughter to know that s/he is perfectly normal, and that this is a trait in 1/5th  of our population, and in every culture around the world.
  • Provide downtime for your child:  s/he will need a “cushion” to process the day’s events and re-integrate into her own skin after school, parties, and big events.
  • Look for ways to include more opportunities to connect with nature:  HSCs are often refueled by long walks, running water and beautiful spaces; they also can have a special affinity with animals, so having a family pet can be quite therapeutic.
  • Talk to your son or daughter’s teacher to introduce this trait:  educators will need to know that your child may benefit from being near a window, in the back of the room, or a moment to sift through the multifaceted ideas in their mind before they are able to provide an answer to their questions.
  • Your child may also be a perfectionist:  that’s the way they’re wired.  Creating space to explore and celebrate your son or daughter’s vision for both their projects and personality is crucial. Look for ways that your child can tap into additional opportunities to express their hopes and dreams in extra-curricular activities, books, trips and relationships.
Sandra is an educational therapist and has her own private practice. She is certified in emotional literacy from Yale. She helps people struggling with issues such as perfection, motivation, organization, learning differences and self-esteem. She also helps children who are highly sensitive. She uses techniques such as mindfulness, social and emotional intelligence, creative leadership and positive psychology to help them.