As a parent I would like to teach my children to be ‘authentic’, to be true to who they are. I refuse to mould my children into the right shaped peg to fit the holes that others in our society create, just because it is easier for others. My eldest starting his school ‘career’ made me realise all this. It also made me realise that, as a parent of a highly sensitive child, I will be standing up for my child in a lot of situations that feel uncomfortable to a HSP.
During 2013 my husband and I were in a long
battle dialogue with my eldest son’s primary school about highly sensitive children and, more specifically, his needs in the classroom.
My eldest is most certainly a highly sensitive child (HSC), which, for the most part, is an amazing set of character traits to have.
HSCs grow up to be the artists, the musicians, the peacemakers amongst us. They have an affinity to the natural world, to animals and living, growing things. They are conscientious (there is a reduced chance that I will spend time nagging my son to do his homework in later years) and have an innate sense of justice and right and wrong. They are creative. They are emotionally tuned into the world around them. They are intuitive. They are incredibly caring, affectionate, and loving, as well as wise for their years.
But it also means their heads fill up quickly, they are prone to finding the world around them overwhelming, especially in busy or new environments. It means they need support in a busy classroom.
The first hurdle for many parents of a HSC usually involves a lack of knowledge in the environment around them. There is little awareness of the idea of highly sensitive people (HSP). Having to dispel the idea that being highly sensitive means there is something wrong can end up frustrating. It is not an illness or a disorder, nor is it a behavioral problem in itself. It is not something that our children need a diagnosis for. It is their character. It is how they are, how they see the world. And that is difficult to get understanding for.
However, being highly sensitive does mean that many HSC have a specific instruction manual. And we all know that if you make an expensive technological purchase and try to operate it without the instruction manual you are asking for problems. Without the instruction manual you either won’t understand half of the functions so won’t get the best out of your equipment or, worse still, you may even damage your precious purchase. And so it is with a HSC.
Twenty percent of children is highly sensitive, and they intensely experience the environment around them. The senses of a HSC are easily overloaded: cooking smells can be overpowering to the keen nose of a HSC; the feel of sand on a HSC’s hands can be distinctly uncomfortable; a wet sleeve can lead to a drama; loud noises can be intensely frightening; a scratchy label on a new T-shirt can be highly irritating. A highly sensitive toddler can therefore come across to the untrained eye as an extremely fussy child, whereas in reality he genuinely experiences physical or sensory discomfort.
And physical sensory overload is just the tip of the iceberg – that sensitivity that we can actually easily see if we care to look close enough. Look below the surface of a HSC and there are pools of emotion of a depth well beyond a child’s years. They feel the emotions in a room: they know when a parent is unhappy or a teacher is feeling below par; they read through the words actually spoken to the meaning behind them, and quickly sense when the two don’t match. They are good readers of people and are alarmingly capable of taking on the emotions of others around them, taking on the burden of someone else’s problems as if they were their own. It’s a lot of responsibility to take on, particularly for our little ones.
The majority of HSCs are introverts (30% are not), and many are often labelled as shy or fearful. The reality is that a HSC often scans and observes before participating. They are more cautious about tackling the climbing frame in the playground or jumping from the bench in the gym. They are unsure of new environments and new people. They are the toddlers clinging to their mothers’ legs and refusing to play with the other children at the mother and toddler group. They are the children screaming the new classroom down on the first day of pre-school and the children who are reluctant to start at primary school. They need to know it is safe before they take action. They need time to warm up to places and people. It’s about self preservation and trust.
Highly sensitive children are also often perfectionists. If something a HSC works on is not perfect in their eyes, they feel like a failure. They become upset and teachers often have no idea why, or dismiss their reactions as a ‘tantrum’.
To put 110% into everything you do to get it to a ‘perfect’ state is mentally and physically exhausting and frustrating, to feel the emotions of everyone around you is draining. A classroom is a melting pot of sensory stimulation. By the time a HSC comes home a meltdown is invariably on the cards.
It falls to us as parents of a HSC to help a teacher understand the impact their classroom has on our child and what happens once school hours are over.
Unfortunately, the reality is that not all teachers are receptive to this message. The reserved, withdrawn child they see in the classroom often doesn’t fit with the picture you paint from home. I have been on the wrong end of that particular conversation more times than I care to talk about. Winning recognition for their needs can be a hard slog.
Somwhat does a HSC need?
To balance their day, a HSC often needs a lot of downtime. If they can get that in the classroom it helps them process their day. They are the children you often find spending long periods of time alone in their bedrooms after school. They need time to clear their head out after a busy day. They need a break during the school day to give everything they have experienced a place. They need quiet time. They need understanding from their environment.
Between fifteen and twenty percent of the entire population is highly sensitive. A HSC becomes a highly sensitive adult. It’s something I know firsthand – oh did I mention that high sensitivity is a hereditary trait? It’s an inborn character. It’s genetic. My children got it from somewhere it turns out!
The degrees of sensitivity are as varied as children themselves. As children grow older some sensitivities seem to disappear as they get used to sensations or have the tools to cope better, some are simply managed better, and some sensitivities are unfortunately suppressed because they don’t fit with the demands of modern society (the consequences of which are anxiety and depression and a lack of authenticity but that’s a whole other blog post in the making).
In whatever form a child’s sensitivity manifests itself, the first step for a parent of a HSC is usually to educate those around them. I know first hand. It’s the reason I started writing about raising a HSC.
I, hand in hand with my husband, spent eighteen months trying to educate my son’s educators about what he needs to thrive in a busy classroom. Our attempts fell on deaf ears. We ended up changing schools. It was a stress that no parent should have to go through. It is a stress that no child should have to go through.
I have so much fodder for so many future blogs on this topic……..
Fortunately many other people in my son’s world do understand at least some of what it means to be a family with highly sensitive people in it. Some people understand that we are not as flexible and spontaneous as other families.
We all have to find a way that works for our own family.
More importantly, loved ones accept my son for who he is. They allow him to be authentic, and don’t ask him to change because it makes life easier for them. Those that have required him to do that no longer play a role in our lives. That’s how strongly I feel about the notion that my children should be allowed to be authentic.
The last seven years has been a real journey for us and I am constantly learning what works parenting my HSC. I have taken on roles I am wholly uncomfortable with, but my mother’s instinct is strong and it takes over.
At the end of the day, every battle is worth it, every attempt to make others around us understand what life is like to be highly sensitive is worth the effort, because I strongly believe that the world sure is a better, more colourful, place with highly sensitive people in it!
Are you parenting a HSC? Are you a HSP? I would love to hear from you – the highs, the lows….. feel free to leave your comments below.
*If anything is this blog post rings bells for you check out Elaine Aron’s website for more information on the is topic, as well as a checklist of HSC traits to help you determine if your child(ren) is(are) in fact HSCs.
For those of you who would like a closed environment to talk about parenting a HSC, or want to share about parenting as a HSP then there is also a Facebook group called “Happy Sensitive Kids“. The closed Faceboook group is a supportive, safe place to share tips, experiences, challenges and the joys of bringing up HSCs. As it’s a closed group you need to request membership but it also means that the posts can only be seen my members.*