From the trenches of parenting a highly sensitive child.

From the trenches of parenting a highly sensitive child.

I first learned about “highly sensitive people” when I read Susan Cain’s book Quiet several years ago and immediately resonated with the description.

It took me all of five minutes to realize that at least two of my four children are also highly sensitive.

This realization was a game changer.

The “highly sensitive” label doesn’t mean someone is touchy or overly emotional. The label implies no judgment: it describes the HSP’s nervous system, which is extremely good at registering the subtle nuances in any given situation.

This means that highly sensitive children startle easily, hate scratchy clothing, and don’t enjoy big surprises. They are extremely sensitive to smells, may seem to read your mind at times, and tend to be perfectionists. They don’t do well with crowds, loud noises, or violent movies or tv shows.

High sensitivity doesn’t look the same in every individual: some HSPs are extremely good at picking up social cues, some are extremely sensitive to sound and pitch, some struggle with diverse textures and bright lights.

15-20% of the population are HSPs. (This percentage applies to all species, not just humans). The trait of high sensitivity is not a subset of introversion: about 30% of HSPs are extroverts.

There are far too many HSPs for it to be considered abnormal. While there are benefits to the trait, it feels like a disadvantage sometimes—whether we’re talking about being an HSP or parenting one.

I learned about high sensitivity from reading, talking to my therapist, and observing myself and my kids. Once I knew what I—and my kids—were dealing with, we could make the appropriate adjustments. It’s made a significant difference in our family life.

Instead of sharing a bulletpoint tips post, let me tell you a little about how high sensitivity has looked through the different ages and stages in our family. (If you think better in lists, maybe we can do one of those in the future. Hit me up in comments.)

A note about these descriptions: my HSCs are not the same. For simplicity’s sake, I lumped the traits together and used the male pronoun. If you know my kids, don’t bother trying to figure out who I’m talking about (although you’ll surely recognize some traits) because this composite child doesn’t exist!

The highly sensitive infant

We knew from the beginning our child had a finely tuned nervous system. Before we left the hospital with our 48-hour-old infant, the nurses—who struggled to soothe our baby right along with us—all told us he was “touchy.” (I hated that description!)

He was highly sensitive, without a doubt, though we didn’t know those words at the time.

We knew we had a highly sensitive child right from the get-go, even though we didn’t know to use those words. Our child cried easily and was difficult to soothe. He was easily overstimulated and acutely attuned to changes in his environment.

He wasn’t very adaptable; he hated transitions. He was a terrible sleeper, because what is sleep, if not a huge transition?

As he got older, his distaste for certain textures—food, bedding, clothing—became more pronounced.

But he could still be a happy baby, if he got exactly what he needed to feel comfortable in his environment: he loved being held, he loved being carried, and he adored being outside.

As our child got older, we began physical and occupational therapy for sensory processing issues. While the therapy helped, I was never fully satisfied with the therapist’s descriptions of how SPD affected our child. In hindsight, I can see the missing piece: high sensitivity.

The highly sensitive preschooler

After a few years of practice, we were better at creating a happy environment for our little HSP. We didn’t buy shirts with tags, we were cautious about introducing new foods, we built lots of downtime into our days.

We still struggled mightily with transitions, and change of any kind was very challenging. We learned coping strategies: some we read about, some we were taught, some we discovered on our own.

We learned how to deal with intense emotions. HSPs may experience more intense emotions than the general population, because they take in more information from their environments, and process it more thoroughly. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but helping our child process these emotions was definitely a learned skill.

We came to realize he hated anything that might be considered the tiniest bit scary in movies or on TV. Disney movies and cartoons were out. (This omission delighted our child, but explaining it to our baffled friends and family was another story.)

We continued to struggle with bedtime and falling asleep at night. Seriously struggle.

We learned to never take our HSC on more than two errands a day, because errands are exhausting for highly sensitive children. This was a pain sometimes, but well worth it.

The highly sensitive grade schooler

This is where we are now.

Some days, the words “highly sensitive” never cross my mind. We’ve structured our lives and our days in ways that suit our whole family—including the HSPs among us—and on a good day, everything just works. (We have lots of good days. But plenty of bad ones, too.)

Our HSCs need: simply furnished bedrooms. Lots of downtime built into the day. Lots of time for independent work. Moderated noise levels. Still no Disney movies.

Our HSC still hates change. He doesn’t relish transitions. He hates crowds. He needs time outdoors (playground) and time in nature (hiking). He craves structure and routine.

Our huge challenge in this stage is emotional. We’re talking a lot, explicitly, about what high sensitivity means, its perks and its drawbacks. And oh, do we have lots of opportunities to talk about being an HSC. Our child struggled mightily with the book The Trojan War when it was assigned for English Lit this year. The book was challenging; I didn’t read much into it. Many months later he explicitly said that he struggled with the blood and violence. Of course, I thought—six months too late.

That’s not an isolated incident. History is often violent; I anticipate this being a challenge in the coming school years. We’ve been having lots of talks lately about dealing with uncomfortable content in the world around us: even discussions of current events in church—or even the scripture readings—can be gruesome.

There are no easy solutions: this is the world we live in, and he needs to learn to live in it. We’re walking the line between trying to shield him appropriately, as we can, without being overprotective. We’re teaching and enforcing personal boundaries. We’re teaching him to self-monitor; our goal is to help him become more resilient.

It’s not easy.

Through it all, we’re emphasizing the perks of sensitivity, and I’m telling him all the time how I understand because I’m the same way. HSPs are gentle and compassionate, they’re natural peacemakers, they’re responsible and intuitive. They are creative, ingeniously so. They feel emotions more deeply, and while this sometimes feels like a curse, it can be a huge blessing.

Parenting highly sensitive children can require increased sensitivity on your part, here's what you need to know.

It’s not an easy road, but it’s the one we’re walking. I know many of you are on it, too, and I’d love to hear your thoughts, tips, observations, and strokes of genius in comments.   

For more info (and links to free diagnostic quizzes), read these posts: It’s more than a kid hangover, let’s talk about highly sensitive people, and self care for the highly sensitive parent.

For further reading, I recommend:

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87 comments

  1. Coming across this post is a blessing because it so accurately describes my youngest child. It brings so much clarity and a starting point on how to deal with him this upcoming school year. Thank you for the book suggestions. I actually have Susan Cain’s Quiet sitting on my fireplace patiently waiting on me to pick it up. It is on my summer must reads list. Not because of my son but because the description resonated with my childhood and who I am as an adult. I will be moving this from #3 to the next book to read on my list since it will help identify and provide some insight into my little one. Thanks again and good luck with this upcoming school year.

    Andrea

  2. Vanessa says:

    Disney movies are still rather scary. My parents didn’t let me watch them as they bothered me as a child and as I’ve watched some as an adult I am so thankful I was shielded from them! Thanks for this post and for sharing.

  3. Polly says:

    I’d love to talk more about sensitive kids and media. My 8 year old won’t let me finish reading “The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe” aloud to her because there is a “scary witch.” We had to stop on page 25.
    My kids also only want to watch movies that they’ve seen many times before. Any kids movie with a plot seems to freak them out, which is kind of sad for my husband and I since we have old favorites we want to share. It seems clear to me that fear of the unknown and the suspense is what upsets them and I’ve tried to talk to them about it but it just doesn’t seem to do much good.

    • Anne says:

      I hear what you’re saying about “any movie with a plot.” That’s how I describe my kids, too. Conflict drives plots forward, so if a child doesn’t like conflict, that makes sense. I know that many of my friends’ kids are fine with the conflict if they know it has a happy resolution, but my sensitive kids have never been that way.

      We’ve noticed that one of our kids is okay with conflict if it’s reality-based (like, say, a plausible baseball storyline) but not at all okay if it’s fantastical (no witches and talking fauns and furniture that opens into alternate realities for him, thank you very much).

  4. Marisa says:

    My daughter is a HSP. Thankfully I was made aware of this through a Listening Prayer seminar I attended when she was just 3 years old. It answered a ton of questions and gave me great insight into her personality and issues. As a child the only Disney movie she could watch was the Aristocats as the “evil” side of the movies disturbed her so much as did any other violent type shows. Hard transitions at school with tears at the door for the first few weeks of school each year until 5th grade. High school was a tough transition as ours is overcrowded and she was overwhelmed and could sense the “pain and sin” of those at the school. We spent many a night doing cleaning prayers so she wouldn’t carry the feelings/burdens of others. Lots of down time at home as she adjusted and long talks so she could unload. Thankfully she has had some very accommodating English teachers who have allowed her to read a different class novel study book as she couldn’t handle the ones that were chose. We plowed our way through the Outsiders – the blitz read it on a weekend and we talked it through but it did a number on her so in future years we spoke up early and got alternate books. Lots of texting over lunch breaks so she had a “safe haven” to dip into during the day. She will be a senior this year and last year was her best year to date as she “knows the ropes” and she has even branched out into a few school clubs. Read the book The Highly Sensitive Person and it is excellent. Also give exercises in the back on how to “re-program” their thoughts (often assume the next experience will be exactly the same as the previous without giving it a chance to be otherwise etc.). If you have any questions on what we have encountered and how we have dealt with things, don’t hesitate to send me an e-mail 🙂 Love her to bits, her sensitive heart is amazing as is her intuition and insight into situation/people. I am an HSP myself though most likely more “hardened” due to not knowing why I reacted to things the way I did over the course of my lifetime and it has been interesting to deal with my own HSP characteristics as we walk through my daughters.

  5. melanie says:

    For all of us who are HSP or have HSP kids be aware that in addition to being HSP, it is also possible to be an empath. Empaths are those who are deeply sensitive to the emotions of the people around us. We take on the emotional attributes of a person or animal and feel them as they would. We are the healers, caretakers and “fixers” of the damaged. We have trouble with boundary setting which can leave us feeling depleted and used. Being an empath can be a blessing and a curse. Just thought I’d mention it as an HSP who didn’t discover this about herself until midlife. I think it would have been very useful to understand this aspect of myself much earlier than I did.

  6. lisette says:

    Thank you for this article! I realize I’m high sensitive too and while reading this it suddenly hit me; so is my daughter! It’s funny how so many of your solutions have also helped us, even without knowing why we did them. I have always hated how people thought and think that we’re over protective of her; they just don’t know how upset they can get. My daughter is really strong and smart so no one would ever know that she can struggle with life more than the average kid.
    Thank you for sharing and getting their stories out there, they deserve to be heard!

  7. Donna says:

    I have struggled to understand the temperament of my 6 year old daughter, I have recently been reading up on HSP, while she hasn’t been clinically diagnosed as of yet, she fits perfectly into the category of HSP. She was well advanced for her age in all aspects, speaking early, reading early and excels in her school work, she even skipped kindergarten and is the youngest in her class. Her issues/struggles are emotionally and her temperament. She is clearly advanced for her age and while she gets excellent academic grades, her citizenship grades are far below the average. she is always in trouble for arguing, not following directions, and is often off task which causes disruption in her class. She is very critical of herself and others, most often times angry at herself and everyone. She hates school and thinks everyone is against her. As far as sensitivity she is the child that cannot stand tags, socks that don’t fit perfectly, and shoes that she cannot move her toes around in, even brushing her hair is a struggle and a fight. I worry that she is self centered and she feels like she should have more control, luckily with patience I can get through to her with reasoning, it feels like she questions everything and only complying after I prove my point, often times she even makes a great argument and we compromise to get things accomplished. I am sad she feels like a bad kid especially at school, flipping color cards for behavior, and notes bring sent home. She just gets more frustrated, I dint even get made when behavior notes come home brandy more because then that meant she was bring tortured both at school and at home. Luckily her offenses are not physical, she is not violent it’s just mostly her mouth and attitude that get her teachers angry. I am so happy to see I am not alone in this, I felt guilty like I couldn’t handle this child without losing it myself.

  8. Jodie says:

    Thank you. Today I learned a high schooler in our area recently committed suicide because he felt lonely. I looked at my four year old and recognized that he is sensitive and I want him to be happy and confident, among other things. I started to research and I came across this Highly Sensitive Child description. My son is even afraid of going into another room in our house by himself, even the bathroom. Now, I begin praying and adjusting my parenting of him. Pray for me and my husband as we learn how to embrace his gift of sensitivity and help him to do the same.

  9. Mary says:

    Thank you so much for writing about this! Our 4 year old boy is this & much more! I wish there was a school for them. It has been a very interesting & exhausting road. We cherish every moment.

  10. Cj says:

    I just wanted to thank you for the article you wrote. I just now stumbled across it, after having an argument with my mother over how to parent my 7 year old. I was feeling frustrated, and like a failure of a single mother because I didn’t agree with my parents stance on ‘tough love’ and couldn’t seem to make them understand that there is nothing WRONG with the way my child acts, feels, processes, or the job I am doing when trying to raise her. Of course, I’m not quite where I want to be, and I’m struggling with trying to make her understand that it’s okay to want to please everyone, and not want to hurt anyone’s feelings, but sometimes she has to put her comfort, her wants, and her safety above her fear of disappointing someone. My parents are constantly on me about being too ‘easy’ on my child, and though even our doctor, her second grade teacher, and our therapist says that she is HSC, my parents see that as an excuse, and were making me feel like I was failing my child somehow. This article, and the fact that you took the time to write it, elevates some of my fears, and makes me see that there are some people out there (the author and those who commented) that know exactly what I’ve been trying to explain to my family for 7 years… HSC is real. And sometimes it requires a DIFFERENT set of rules and traditions. Thank you for helping ease some of my burden!

  11. Annie says:

    Thank you for writing this. The part where you mentioned that the nurses in the hospital had a hard time calming your highly sensitive baby- THAT WAS ME! My daughter is almost a year old now and as first time parent to a highly sensitive baby, it often feels like I’m “not doing it right.” She is tough to soothe and it makes me often feel like I’m failing as a mother. What mother can’t soothe her child? While all of my friends take their babies out and about while the child naps contentedly, my baby will scream when we go to a friend’s home for dinner or even if friends come to our house. Even her own grandparents that she hasn’t seen in awhile! She cries and clings to me when she sees them. It’s above and beyond the common “stranger danger” phase and it started when she was 4 months old. I’m preparing myself for the next stages you mention. Any more resources you know of about sensitive babies?

    • Anne says:

      I would highly recommend checking out Elaine Aron’s book (the one for children) and site. Also, looking back, I can see that one of my infants was exquisitely sensitive. Understanding that earlier would have helped, but some good occupational therapy sure helped a ton. Yes, he was highly sensitive, but we also add additional issues going on, but in infancy they can look much the same.

  12. Rebecca says:

    Our daughter, age 5, is definitely highly sensitive – as am I. It began at birth, being really needy of Mommy, only calming once outdoors (at all hours) – and she’s definitely a picky eater. I’ve always called her my “odd duck” as she never wanted to do the things the other children did. I noticed early that she always waited until the crowd had cleared, watching before hesitantly participating (and only with huge support from Mom), shying away from the things kids are “supposed” to like. The playground is torture unless there aren’t many children there. Loud and/or aggressive adults and teachers are very scary, and ironically other children are drawn to her like a moth to flame. This of course upsets her – especially since children often don’t have a personal space filter and she can’t fight back for her space. We tried preschool, but began seeing a therapist for selective mutism (she couldn’t find her words at school) and began our quest for understanding and serving our little duck the best we could. We finally pulled her from her preschool in April after feeling her become gloomy in all aspects of her life – she began to hate all activities (skating, ballet, riding). It’s taken about 4 months for that cloud to lift – she’s eager once again to go to those activities, and we’ve opted to homeschool for at least this year. The joy has returned to our life thankfully, and I’m coming to accept that things are just going to be not “odd” but special and unique. She is wildly creative, super verbal and intelligent – super cautious physically and likes activities and outings that are calm and mellow. It’s a truly wonderful world we live in – but we’ve really diverted from society’s typical path, and as a sensitive person I can say “Oh, this is way better!”….

  13. CC says:

    Any advice for the mom of an 8 yr old boy HSC who has great difficulty coping w/his emotions after losing a game? He becomes overwhelmed by intense feelings of frustration and then more upset as he feels next feels tremendous difficulty trying to calm himself down from that first reaction of frustration/disappointment. The deep breathing exercises don’t work for him, he’s too upset to implement that technique at the time. He is a classic HSC, gifted off the charts, model student at school, hates transitions, loud noises, perfectionistic, empathic, also social and a sensory seeker, quick to overstimulate and difficulty with emotional self-regulation in the face of anything he cannot control, especially the outcome of a game he has lost. I have read Aron’s book & it was a game changer, but it doesn’t address how to help kids this w/challenge other just being supportive. Anyone other moms overcome this issue this issue w/their HSC? Thanks!

  14. Julie says:

    First off, let me thank you so much for writing this article! Me and my husband are in the field of psychology and I do not ever remember coming across the term Highly Sensitive Person. This is both incredibly eye opening and insightful in understanding myself and my daughter’s (9 years old) challenges.I have the sense that this is the beginning of a great journey of understanding.

  15. Joseph says:

    Great article and kudos to all parents out there with a HSC. I want to be quite frank from the beginning…this is the hardest job/task I have ever had to do. We all can relate to possibly being highly sensitive as kids growing up and not having parents who understood the personality differences. I am a dad with two HSC; an 11 year old daughter and an 8 year old boy. He is actually the true poster boy for this topic. Started as a premature cholic baby up every two hours for the first year…then never sleeping on his own and still up today, I walk him back to his room in zombie mode 4 or more times a night. But he is the most special child anyone can hope for. During the day he plays joyfully, is extremely empathetic and just an awesome funny kid. Of course I struggle that he doesnt like sports, at least anything with the remote possibility of getting hurt. It took 6 months to get him to ride a bike. Anyway my main comment was to just say that this is extremely hard; I really don’t have the patience that comes naturally to a mom but it takes just one moment of an outburst from me to see his eyes filled with fear, disappointment and just sheer panic to remind me not to EVER do that again. I just pray I am alive long enough to protect him in this dangerous, insensitive and impatient world.

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