How Much Should You Expect a Highly Sensitive Child to Change to Fit in a Non-Sensitive World?

Many highly sensitive children struggle with too much stimuli at once. How far should we as parents go to help them reduce the stimuli they have to process?

In Elaine Aron’s words highly sensitive people are:

“….more easily overwhelmed by ‘high volume’ or large quantities of data arriving at once.” Elaine Aron: The Highly Sensitive Child

In essence, a highly sensitive person processes information more thoroughly than others – not just in their head, but with their whole body. They notice much more in their environment that others.

A red flower in a sea of purple flowers.

If we think about a highly sensitive child and their typical day in school and their typical after school activities it’s clear how much information (visual, auditory, smell, tastes, activity, emotions, incidents) they are processing in a day. And easy to understand that this is too much for their bodies to handle. Emotional outbursts are a consequence, and an understandable release when you really understand what being highly sensitive means.

For many parents the solution is to reduce the stimuli that a child needs to process in a day. Less stimuli means less information processing. But how far should we go with adapting our children’s environments to reduce the stimuli they are subject to? How far can we go? How quiet should we make things for them? Should we help our children completely adapt to their environments instead?  Should we say they just need to be able to cope? Is this even realistic?

There’s a reason I am bringing this up. My son experiences noise in the classroom as loud. He experiences it as much more disturbing than his teacher and classmates. His teacher has said that he complains about the noise when actually it’s pretty quiet to her ears. I’m not there so I cannot make a judgement one way or another. However, what I do know is that the noise that comes in to my son’s ears is real. For him it is loud. He hears every sound, every movement and doesn’t filter that out. The noise is real. And it fills his bucket, disturbs his concentration and ends up irritating him. This irritation comes out at home.

It has been a problem in the school environment for many years. He has tools to help him (noise reducing headphones, privacy screen on his desk, opportunity to work outside the classroom) but it remains an issue. Noise, and his perception of it, effects how he feels in a classroom. He wants silence to work in. He will never get that in a traditional schooling environment. So we need to find a way for him to cope with noise. That’s the conclusion after discussions with school. He will eventually go to secondary school, which will mean even more noise and stimuli, and he will have to cope there too.

Cope. I’m not happy with that word. It’s about getting through a school day. It’s about surviving. We’re not talking about helping him flourish in school. We are talking about how to get him out of an average school day in one piece.

My husband and I were talking. Are we talking about changing our child? Are we trying to change the essence of who he is so he can cope at school? Can a highly sensitive child really learn to filter out the noise around them?

I am in my 40s and as I type there’s a faint drilling noise coming through my home office wall; it’s like a mosquito buzzing in my ear and it is slowly but surely GETTING ON MY NERVES. So coping mechanisms – how far can we go? How far should we go? What do we just need to accept as physical and sensory limitations? Must a HSC adapt to their surroundings or should we adapt their surroundings to help them?

It’s a question many parents ask themselves.

It’s why many choose to remove the stimuli of a school day completely and homeschool their highly sensitive children.

It’s why parents make sure quiet time is built in to each and every day of a highly sensitive child’s life.

It’s why parents keep after school activities and play dates at a minimum.

It’s why parents of HSCs are endlessly in discussion with teachers and heads of schools.

It’s why many parents of HSCs feel conflicted and confused.

It’s why the parents of a HSC are excellent planners.

It’s why many parents of HSCs feel like they are banging their heads against a brick wall when discussing their child.

Parenting a highly sensitive child is very much about creating the balance between ensuring that a child feels comfortable in their own skin, knowing they are loved and accepted as they are, and helping them thrive in a world that just isn’t built to accommodate highly sensitive traits. How we do that is our own personal journey and it’s not an easy one. Luckily we are in this together to try and figure it out.

Over to You: How far do you go to reduce stimuli in your child’s environment? What is your best tip to help other parents of highly sensitive children help their children cope with busy environments?


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.
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6 Responses to How Much Should You Expect a Highly Sensitive Child to Change to Fit in a Non-Sensitive World?

  1. Rhonda Steel says:

    My apologies. I should have edited the above reply with more focus. I was on the go at that time.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Rhonda Steel says:

    Thank you for you sharing. This site is a saving grace and is religiously included in my yearly email, and reminder emails, to all of the teachers and administrator that I anticipate my son will interact with that year. Every article and every post resonates un-waveringly our day to day. I can honestly say I do “not” know that answer to the title of this article. I don’t know if I will ever know. What I can acknowledge is once I let my son take the reins where it comes to his education, and about everything else within reason, coupled with proactively addressing all of his concerns directly with the school, whether I am comfortable or not with it, was the day everything got a lot easier. We have run the gamut ranging from traditional schooling, home schooling and non traditional (BASIS – the best fit) and have done the repeat cycled through them. Sometimes doing a portion of a year this way and a portion of the year that way. Over all, to my surprise despite my worrying, it has never had any negative effect on his success in academics. My guess is since HSP pick up so much. To any other non-parent I suspect how we have had to maneuver through my son’s education would seem amply strange, but I am a HSP’s parent. Now, I get it. What I have come to learn is that elementary school was the hardest on all of us as a family. Not by the fault of deficient schools. They were all superb, but by the nature of the culture of elementary school (more confining – ie. one classroom, some students all day, staying in line, etc). Once my son was able to attend a school (like middle school) where classes changed every 45 minutes and he had more freedom to enter or exit sensory when walking in the halls, by choice go outside/inside during lunch, contacting me by text to mention a sensory concern, and pick the electives his sensory could handle (art, not band) his days have been life changing. I everyday still has HSP challenges. Those challenges are absolutely still there, but the after school anxiety and depression have been reduced significantly. I don’t know it this is a pattern among HSP, but it has been my own discovery. I hope it helps someone else.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Pingback: 7 Reasons Your Highly Sensitive Child Struggles with Gym and Swimming Lessons | Happy Sensitive Kids

  4. Lauri says:

    Thank you Amanda for sharing the joys and challenges of this journey. My youngest son is 12, highly sensitive and highly amazing. We chose to homeschool after 4 years of trying to fit into a school environment. In some ways it was hard to leave. The school is truly a good one. It is close to home, has supportive teachers, excellent curriculum. My son had a hard time piecing out the academics from the social environment of 25 other students. This was sensory, emotional overwhelm. Every. Day. Overwhelm turned into distress, into anxiety, further internalized into depression. At school he was the quiet kid; at home we worried about his learning, and especially his mental health. We wondered about the cumulative effects to his physical body, his future choices, his sense comfort with himself? Would his soul sing? Homeschooling: we still have sensory challenges at home and in the community; we still get “yeeeeeah riiiiiggght” stares from friends, professionals, strangers when we try to explain our son, or ask for help or understanding; we still worry about academic learning and making friends and the future. Preteens are Preteens Plus. Parenting is joyful and wears us out. The biggest change is the hum of a happy soul.

    Liked by 1 person

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