Understanding a Highly Sensitive Child

I‘m raising three highly sensitive children. To do this well I need support from those around me. Which means others need to understand what highly sensitive is.

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 (HSC), I will be standing up for my child in a lot of situations that feel uncomfortable to a highly sensitive person (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.

Creatives

Highly Sensitive People are very often also highly creative

The Positives of Being Highly Sensitive

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.

The Negatives of Being Highly Sensitive

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.

Highly Sensitive is Innate

High sensitivity 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.

What are Highly Sensitive Traits?

Around twenty percent of children is highly sensitive. They have a highly tuned nervous system and in turn intensely experience and process 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.

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It’s Not Just Physical, It’s Emotional Too

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.

HSCs 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.

HSCs Need Time to Warm Up

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 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.

HSCs 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.

HSCs 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.

HSCs are Often Perfectionists

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.

HSCs in School

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.

So What 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 deal with their day.

HSCs 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 support, acceptance and understanding from their environment.

A HSC Turns into a HSP

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 sensitivities 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).

Getting Support and Spreading Understanding

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. 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.

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.

There is a list of book resources here to help you.

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.

 

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About Amanda van Mulligen

Mother, writer, author, blogger. I was born in Britain but live in the Netherlands. I have three Dutch sons and a Dutch husband and I blog about Turning Dutch and raising highly sensitive children.
This entry was posted in The What and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

30 Responses to Understanding a Highly Sensitive Child

  1. Fantastic! I love that you’ve gone back to the basics in this one. You’ve really made it clear what high sensitivity is and how it manifests itself in our kids.

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  2. Great post it’s really hard being a highly sensitive parent trying to convince the world your child is normal but different and thats just fine, but we have to be committed because if our children our parented and educated by people who understand them they will thrive.

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    • Thanks Jamie. Normal but different – exactly. My son’s teacher last year summed it up beautifully when she said “every child has something, something individual about them, something they need” and I think part of a teacher’s job is to identify that ‘need’ (or at least listen to parents) to ensure they can flourish in their classroom. It’s not just about teaching maths or the sciences……..

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  3. Sara cash says:

    I am a mommy of a 5 yr old HSC & she had been terrified of participating in today’s Music school program for Veyerans Day. So I stood up for her, advocating w/her teacher & school as it was a mandatory participation. After all was said & done, I kept her home & took her to school once the music program was over.
    Reading your blog helped me to be proud of her & also for myself, in standing up for her & intuition instead of making her go as my mother would have! Thank you for your insight! It helps us mommies!

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    • Thank you so much for sharing this Sara. We do have to be our children’s biggest advocates, particularly when they are so small and vulnerable. At the end of the day your daughter was saved a lot of unnecessary stress because of your actions – and proud you should be! It makes me very happy to read these posts help!!

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  4. Deepa says:

    Loved reading this post, I recognise so much in it! We went through a similar experience at the creche. Thankfully, I managed to convince them about my child’s sensitivity citing my own example. And now they ‘try’ to shield her from the very noisy pauses at the playground etc. Otherwise, my next move would have been changing the creche too!

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  5. Ross Wintle says:

    Thank you for sharing – this is a really succinct explanation of HSC’s that I’ll be sharing with others around us. We’ve recently discovered high-sensitivity and it explains SO MUCH about out kid. It’s just one big “aha!” moment after another.

    I’m really glad you started this blog and I’ll be following!

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  6. This has really helped me – I have a sense that my little one is a HSC but seeing as she is only 20 months I’m not sure if I’m right or not but this really helped in any case #mummymonday. At what age can you really begin to tell would you say?

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    • In hindsight we could see it clearly by age 2 but if you are not familiar with ‘highly sensitive ‘ then it can be a while before light bulbs come on. You can probably see some signs: high needs baby, upset with change, noise & new environments and anything out of the normal routine. When my son started nursery his sensitivities were realky highlighted as he was taken out of his normal environment and away from familiar faces. Does that help?

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  8. annebrearley says:

    Hi Amanda !
    Im a high sensitive who has 4 children and 6 grandchildren ! My concern is with my 14 yr old son who is my last child at home. I have always been proud of his beautiful sensitive soul and it was all good for him until year 5 when his ignorant teacher decided to move him to the bottom groups in English and Maths and no matter how devastating that was for Charli he took. It as an insult a personal wound and it changed everything for him ! Obviously his friendships changed which was hard enough and the children he started to mix with had issues and are not highly sensitive. The heart breaking thing is Charli now in year 9 has never recovered his grades in Maths or English and now still is in those low groups with children who have crushed him and he calls them friends . I can’t emphasise enough to the school that due to there neglecting his HS and grouping him by his academic failures and not his creative gifts and perseptive insights for other people’s feelings etc. He now only survives each day wiitrh his sensitivity on a back burner somewhere in his soul as he feels it had no use and he changed .Ii know he’d love to be his natural self but can’t .He has hated school and its awful insensitive environment especially since the beginning of high school. I still express openly my natural sensitivity and me and my Son are still as close as I know him he still can come home from an awful overbearing day and just sit in his pants eat something he loves and cuddles me and all I can do is understand and empathise with him. I am 52 and he is 14 even though to the outside we are worlds apart but we both know we are equal in our trait to us its a bonus.
    I do concern myself obsessively with my son’s future and feel the ignorance of the education system has failed him somehow ! I would love to be involved with any of your research or feel from my own life experience I could be of some use to you ?
    Anne Brearley

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    • It’s shocking how far the wrong school environment can be so damaging. Thankfully he has you tuned into him – many don’t have that! Thanks for getting in touch. Keep an eye on this blog and the accompanying Facebook page – there is a book in the planning so there may be a call out for case studies!

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  9. Kim says:

    Thank you for sharing your story. My family is going through the same struggles as you having to deal with a school environment which is not a good fit for my sensitive daughter. We too have started a dialogue with the teachers, principal, school inspector, psychologists trying to come up with a solution for my daughter. Even though she will be changing school in the next school year, we would still like to make an effort to bring awareness of this temperament at her current school. I am sure she is not the only child in the school with this trait. I have read Elaine Aron’s book The Highly Sensitive Child and find it very validating.

    It has been a very challenging time for us having her fear school so much that she would cry daily. It has taken us months to figure out what the problems may be because she is so distressed from the negative experiences at school and she is not able to speak about it. We have since removed her from the school and are hopeful that the future will be brighter with greater awareness of this personality trait.

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    • You are absolutely right. Your daughter will not be the only HSC in her current school. It is heartbreaking to read how distressing school has been for your HSC – school really shouldn’t be the place that makes a child feel unsafe and fearful. Somewhere along the line we’re not educating our children in the right way if so many end up scarred by their school years. Take heart from the fact that there are schools that get it right and some teachers are gems – I hope the new school lets your daughter and you see that. Thanks for sharing your thoughts and I would love for you to keep me posted.

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  10. Joey Michelle says:

    Thank you for this post! I know I’ve always been an HSP (and have been called “too-sensitive” in a derogatory manner) many times. I’ve never seen it as a negative, though sometimes the world interprets it that way.

    Now that I have an 8 year old who is definitely a HSC, I appreciate that you mention the herditary connection between being a HSP and having a child who is highly sensitive.

    I hope that society takes note that highly-sensitive people are as tough if not tougher than others because we constantly live in a world filled with physical stimuli and “we” have to try and keep focus and calm.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Constance says:

      Hi Amanda, I’m glad that you’re on the “mission” of spreading the words on HSC — this makes such a great difference and help to parents as well as any adults working with children. Many school teachers do not have the awareness, and I can understand how hard you’ve tried to educate them so that they can better manage your son and help him to reach his learning potential. The teachers usually have greater awareness of disorders and learning disabilities rather than identifying the needs of children. I think it has to do with our human inclination towards negativism. As a result, many children manifest behavioural problems, and more disorders terms are coined, and children are labelled.

      I first learnt of the concept of “highly sensitive” (HS) when I did my post-grad studies on Characteristics of Giftedness in Children three years back. It is coined as “Over-excitabilities (OE)” instead in Gifted Education. I do see some overlaps between “Highly Sensitive” and “Over-excitabilities”. As a general rule, I would say that Gifted children have traits of being highly-sensitive but Highly-sensitive might or might not have traits of giftedness.

      Like you, upon discovering the traits of “highly sensitive person” (HSP), I also had my “aha” moments. It made sense to me why I acted in some ways at times, and why others can’t see what I see (but time proved that I was right later). I started sharing with my husband, and explaining to him. He also noticed that our son is very much like me, and only I am able to calm him down during his meltdown. My husband said it was because my son listened to me only. However, I told him that the reason why I was calmed him down was because I understood his needs (because this is what a HSP needs, and this is what I would need if I were him). Initially, he was skeptical and believed that I damaged my brain due to over-studying. However, after several episodes over the months, he is finally convinced that it is true after I taught him some ways to handle certain situations. He now takes my advice now readily, and is more accepting to negative traits that come with my sensitivities. I have to say, it really helps a lot when people around you knows about this trait, and appreciates your “good points”. At least for me, having a husband who finally accepts and appreciates me is a blessing.

      I grew up not knowing that, and think that there was something wrong with me. The sad thing is my parents do not know or understand that I am a HSP (till now, I am past thirty, and my dad is in his mid-fifties). I still get frown upon when I acted “over sensitive” to issues which appear very small to others. I feel very much misunderstood.

      During that time, when I discovered that I was HS, I found a greater fit in my mum. So, yes, I must have inherited that from my mum (who does not even know). She would remove all the clothes tags for my son’s baby clothes because she felt the tags were uncomfortable (but my son didn’t show any discomfort). I had to stop her as I needed those tags to guide me on which age group those clothes belong to (especially all baby clothes looks similarly small). She also hates noisy environment, and loves going to the beach. She, in her mid-fifties now, chose to stay alone, away from everyone, and found solace with quiet time alone. My father who is obviously not HS, does not understand and says that my mum is weird, and blamed me for leaving her alone. I only replied, “That is how she feels better and finds peace.” My father scolded me for being cold-blooded. It is definitely very hurting, especially for a HSP. However, I gave him the benefit of doubt.

      I believe the environment is essential for the development of everyone, especially so for HSC. Do continue to spread your words so that more parents, caregivers and educators will be more aware, and the school environment will be more supportive and in-tuned to the needs of our HSC.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Thank you for your kind words – and the support. I think you hit the nail on the head when you talk about looking for behavioural disorders rather than simply addressing children’s needs. The education system has a path that they expect all children to follow and if a child needs to deviate from that to thrive then the system requires everyone to look for a disorder! Something is not right……… and it’s not the children!!!

        I’m sorry to hear that there has been a lack of understanding about being highly sensitive in your direct environment – it’s a shame because you are certainly not alone. Let’s hope that as we know more and more about being highly sensitive, and there are more people listening in positions that can make a difference the situation and expectations will eventually change for the next generation. Thanks for sharing your story.

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  13. Julie says:

    21/1/16 Thank you for your post. I only discovered the term “highly sensitive” a few months ago. I can’t say what a blessing it has been. I am an HSP with 2 HSC’s and 1 fair/moderate SC. Our youngest is 6 and is most definitely HS. I am trying to figure out how to compose an email to his Kindergarten teacher. She has not been a good match for our little guy. He tells me every day that he hates school which breaks my heart. He never said this in Pre-K where he had a teacher he adored. He is very smart and in the highest reading and math groups. But, he gets overstimulated and will talk a little when he’s not supposed to. He shuts down if reprimanded. This morning he began crying, begging us to let him stay home, saying he didn’t want to get in trouble. My husband and I decided to give him a “Mental health” day. He thanked me multiple times! He willingly and happily did 4 writing worksheets and 2 math worksheets at home. We took him to lunch and a movie and just let him not think about school for a day. He is a wonderful boy. I am thankful to be learning more about being HS and to have access to other parents who “get it”. Thank you!

    Liked by 2 people

    • Getting understanding from school is so important – and often tough. Elaine Aron’s The Highly Sensitive Child book has a section written specifically for teachers which is a real help to try and explain what applies to your own child – might be worth looking at if you haven’t already. If you haven’t already joined the HSK facebook group then you are most welcome there too – lots of friendly tips, advice and shoulders to lean on!

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  14. Tara says:

    Oh my I can’t belief I finally have understanding of my son. I am in shock and relieved. Oh my is all I can say. Thank you.

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  15. Tara says:

    Oh my I can’t belief I finally have understanding of my son. I am in shock and relieved. Thank you.

    Liked by 1 person

  16. Betty says:

    I came across the term HSC today for the first time, and I’m absolutely amazed at how the highly sensitive child checklist fits my son to a t. I’ve had people tell me that he seems like an aspbergers child, but that never really seemed to fit him. I’m so delighted to have found this blog while my son is just 3, I’ve been absolutely stumped by his behaviour since he was just a little baby. Thank you for the awesome resource!

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    • I am so delighted that you have found Happy Sensitive Kids – and even more delighted that you’ve had the all important light bulb moment. Realising your child is a HSC is the start of getting the best out of him 🙂

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