Is the Social-Emotional Development of Your Highly Sensitive Child Being Misread?

Have you ever been told that your highly sensitive child (HSC) is lagging behind in their social-emotional development? You certainly wouldn’t be the first parent of a HSC to hear this. But what if we look at social situations or emotional reactions from the perspective of a highly sensitive child? If we look through their eyes maybe we see something other than a delay in social-emotional development. Author Josina Intrabartolo (Scrivo Media), writer of many books on the topic of highly sensitive (including Long Hat which has been written especially for HSCs), explains how the social-emotional development of a HSC can easily be misread.

Is the Social-Emotional Development of Your Highly Sensitive Child Being Misread?

Social-emotional development includes the child’s experience, expression, and management of emotions and the ability to establish positive and rewarding relationships with others.

The core features of emotional development include the ability to identify and understand one’s own feelings, to accurately read and comprehend emotional states in others, to manage strong emotions and their expression in a constructive manner, to regulate one’s own behavior, to develop empathy for others, and to establish and maintain relationships.

(Cohen and others 2005).

Parents of HSCs often hear that their child’s social-emotional development is not developing in line with age expectations. Common feedback is that they don’t stand up for themselves enough, they display ‘young’ behaviours and are easily upset.

This can of course be true. But you can also look at behaviours in a different way. Here are a few examples.

  • Sensitive children often seek harmony. Is another child being difficult about something? The sensitive child tends to lean towards giving in in order to avoid conflict or an escalation of the situation. Is the child letting someone walk over them or are they consciously choosing a solution that makes them feel happier and better?
  • There are many reasons why a sensitive child can easily become  upset. For instance, HSCs have a strong sense of justice and therefore an intolerance for things that are ‘not fair’. Or perhaps a child is so overstimulated by their surroundings that the smallest thing can be the trigger for an emotional outpouring. Feeling misunderstood can also frustrate a HSC greatly, resulting in upset.
  • The fact that a child doesn’t want to participate with every activity (for example on the school playground) doesn’t necessarily mean that they can’t or don’t want to make contact with other children. It may be as simple as a sensitive child just needing the break times to catch their breath and recharge – voluntarily using the time to wander around alone or just watch classmates engaged in more raucous activities from the sideline.
  • It’s not uncommon for HSCs to be gifted. These children develop differently. Unjustly this development is often stamped with ‘delayed’. An example: if a sensitive child cries because her friend goes to play with another friend after school you could conclude that her response to her disappointment is childish and out of proportion. However, if you add context and see the situation through the HSCs eyes you will learn this: the HSC arranged a playdate with her friend days ago, and has looked forward to it immensely for two days. She then hears that her friend – who has long forgotten the appointment – is suddenly not coming. The HSC remembers the date they made and expects her friend to do the same.
  • There are other common examples which we can look at. Take moving from the infants to the juniors in school (group 2 to group 3 in the Netherlands). It is not uncommon for teachers to keep a child from moving up to group 3 based on social-emotional development in order to do another school year in group 2. However, turning this around, HSCs actually benefit from the structure and calmer environment of group 3 (where lessons begin and children receive formal reading and writing instruction). For such children it is also important to ensure that they are kept academically challenged – i.e. it can be detrimental to base a decision on a perceived social-emotional lag.

Trying to see a situation through our children’s eyes makes us realise how important it is to really understand your child and follow your instinct.

Josina Intrabartolo is the Dutch author of children’s books written with HSCs in mind, such as Langmuts and Ridder Zeldenmoed. If you are Dutch speaking then I cannot recommend these books enough. For English speakers one of the Langmuts series has recently been translated into English, available as Long Hat is a Hero from and from Scrivo Media. Josina is also the co-author of De Gids Over Hooggevoelige Kids, a book that I permanently have on my desk to dip into. You can find out more at




About Amanda van Mulligen

Mother, writer, author, blogger. Born British, Living Dutch. 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.

2 Responses to Is the Social-Emotional Development of Your Highly Sensitive Child Being Misread?

  1. Pingback: Happy 2nd Birthday Happy Sensitive Kids! | Happy Sensitive Kids

  2. Rhonda Steel says:

    I am desperately looking for help for my 11 year old son. Most notably with reference to the right fit for my son in a school environment. It is not unusual for my son to melt down with any range of emotions at school from over stimulation. He also gets agitated with class repetition and having to wait on the class to move forward in learning. I finally took him out of school to home school simply because his reactions to over stimulus was handled as a discipline problem no matter how often I mentioned HSP and I came to realize that a school environment naturally triggers all of the characteristics of an HSP including him melting down as soon as I picked him up from school. Now my son thinks he want to go to a school (Basis) that is known for high pressure accelerated academics (meeting his need for quicker learning) but also lots of homework and again back into the typical school environment with, for him, all that over stimulation. I am not sure how it is best to proceed with him. Please help.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.