3 ways to help highly sensitive children have a better reading experience

3 ways to help highly sensitive children have a better reading experience

Five years ago I learned what a highly sensitive person is, and that I am an HSP myself, and it’s no exaggeration to say it changed my life.

Many of you have had the same experience in recent years (or months or days). You discover you’re an HSP—through a friend, or an article, or maybe because of this blog—and you realize you need to start doing a few things differently, as soon as possible.

And judging from my conversations with you, in person and here on the blog, one of the areas you feel the least sure about is the reading life.

I get some variation of this question all the time: I have a highly sensitive child. How do I know what’s “safe” for them to read?

The short version: you can’t. (Sorry about that.) But there are definitely things you can do to increase the odds that they will have a pleasant reading experience.

I’m going into this assuming you know what a highly sensitive person is. (The nutshell version, according to Dr. Elaine Aron, who coined the term: the HSP “has a sensitive nervous system, is aware of subtleties in his/her surroundings, and is more easily overwhelmed when in a highly stimulating environment.” This affects the way the HSP (or HSC, for highly sensitive child) reacts to things like lights, textures, noises, movies, or NPR. There’s a whole chapter on HSPs in Reading People: How Seeing the World Through the Lens of Personality Changes Everything, and I’m sorry you won’t be able to read it till September!)

Readers are asking about what’s “safe” because a highly sensitive person is often, but not always, overwhelmed by certain types of content that are just not a big deal to the 80-85% of non-sensitive types (or maybe I should say regularly-sensitive types) in the population. A book that is just a book to 80% of kids can make a highly sensitive child want to dive into bed, pull the covers over their head, and not come out.

HSPs experience things strongly. They feel things deeply. A book that is only a reading experience to most people can be deeply upsetting to sensitive types. Non-sensitive types can read something upsetting and carry on with their lives. Highly sensitive types can internalize that thing—a violent image, a disturbing line of dialogue, a horrific event—and live with it for days, or weeks, or longer.

If you’re hanging out on this blog, I’m betting you want to do what you can to help the kids in your life—whether they’re your kids, your neighbors’, your nieces and nephews, your students—have positive reading experiences. So how can we do that with the highly sensitive children we know?

This is something I’ve thought about a lot. I don’t have all the answers on this topic, but—in partnership with our educators, therapists, and fellow parents—I have found a few ways to improve the odds that highly sensitive children will have a positive reading experience. (To be clear: “positive” doesn’t mean nobody’s reaching for the Kleenex during the sad parts. It does mean they’re not terrified or traumatized and they want to keep going back for more books.)

With that in mind, I have 3 tips for helping highly sensitive children have a better reading experience:

1. Know the child. I know, I know—this isn’t easy! But it’s important.

Every highly sensitive child is different, and will be freaked out (technical term) by different things. For example, I have a kid who is terrified of animated movies (Bambi, Snow White, all the classics so many kids are raised on) but who is way less sensitive to more realistic content. This kid is fine with realistic books: journalistic style fiction about natural disasters or train wrecks or nuclear meltdowns aren’t exactly happy reads, but they’re manageable experiences.

This kid is less than fine with fantasy. Way less than fine—an invented world where the rules are unknown and the people aren’t as easily recognizable is deeply unsettling. But for many kids, it’s the opposite. Know your kid, and put that knowledge to work when you’re choosing genres, topics, and stories for them.

2. Let the child control the content. As an HSC, it’s scary to not have control over what’s coming your way—whether that’s lights, sounds, or a super-emotional reading experience. Do what you can to help the child in front of you feel like they’re the boss of their own reading experience.

Obviously, this may mean letting them choose their own books as far as possible, or having a major say in what they read. The format also matters: if a child is reading a paperback and is getting nervous about what’s happening, they can flip ahead a few pages to see what’s coming next. But they couldn’t do this if they were listening to an audiobook, or a read-aloud.

3. Break the rules. I have a lot of assumptions about the “right” way to read a book. I would imagine we all do. Feel free to throw those rules out the window to give your highly sensitive child a better reading experience.

For example, we all know you’re not supposed to read the ending first, right? Or jump around while you’re reading. Or skip chapters. But sometimes that’s just what a highly sensitive type needs to get through a book in a way they’re comfortable with.

A few years back, a family friend was totally exasperated that my highly sensitive child wanted to sneak a peek at the ending of a book she was reading aloud to the kids. She was convinced that the experience was no fun without the element of suspense. But a lot of highly sensitive kids—including my own—are uncomfortable with plot tension—they want to know what’s coming next, and they need to know that everything will turn out okay. She finally handed the book over so this child could read the ending first—and only then could everyone relax and enjoy the reading experience.

When it comes to reading and highly sensitive children, these few tips are just the beginning—and A LOT of readers have questions about this topic! Please share your personal experiences and best suggestions for reading with highly sensitive types in comments. We need them! 

P.S. It’s more than a kid hangover, 5 online personality quizzes actually worth taking, and from the trenches of parenting a highly sensitive child. And if you need a good primer on highly sensitive children, this book is for you.

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24 comments

  1. Cheryl says:

    I see myself as a child in this SO much! Oh my goodness. And I still read the ending of a book. LOL. Thank you for posting this. We homeschool so we have been able to instinctively meet the needs of our children when choosing literature. When I was in school, being forced to read a book because it was “a good book” based on someone else’s opinion or those of the so called experts was painful for me. The day I realized that I don’t have to finish a book that isn’t for me was so liberating. I can choose to put down a book. Surprisingly, in that freedom I sometimes keep reading and end up thinking ‘that was a good book’ or ‘that was challenging. What do I really believe’. Thanks for the post!

  2. Louise says:

    You know, I have always preferred skipping to the end of a story first because it helps me enjoy the overall story more when I’m not so tense and hurried, rushing through to find out what’s going to happen, and I’ve never before connected that to being an HSP. Wow. That makes so much more sense now.

    Also maybe helps explain why my HSC skims books the first time she reads them, and then re-reads them half a dozen times immediately thereafter. Guess maybe I should stop trying to break her of that habit!

    • Karen says:

      I do this Louise…rushing through to find out what’s going to happen. I don’t skip to see how it ends…but I hurriedly read to find out. I hadn’t really connected that to being an HSP (which I am an HSP). Maybe it is though. Because if I re-read a book, I tend to read it more slowly and take more time with it because I already know how it ends.

  3. Laura J says:

    My son, while not exactly hsp, was very affected by things he read at times. I recommend reading books you suspect might be too much first. That gives you a chance to be ready to talk about them. I also would paperclip pages together that he shouldn’t read because it was just too *something*. He was fine with that and would just skip that section. Harry Potter had quite a few paperclips at times! He is 24 and in law school now so it seems to have worked out ok. 😉

  4. Rachel says:

    These are great tips Anne. My seven year old son is terrified of Veggie Tales (he says because the characters don’t have arms and legs and that is freaky.) He also hates any books that are out of the realm of reality, so any books I read to our older son were out. He doesn’t like talking animals, fairy tales, silly names or anything he just doesn’t think could happen in real life. He also hates surprises, so that was helpful when you applied that to reading, maybe he’d enjoy books more after I gave him a good idea of what to expect?

    • MomofTwoPreciousGirls says:

      My daughter is like this too! I remember our first trip to build-a-bear. She got a puppy and we picked out clothes and dressed it. My hubby and I also gave her bear and monkey we had made in the past, both with clothes on. Every time we cleaned her room we would find the clothes off and under the bed. We would put them back on and think nothing of it. After this happening 3 or 4 times we asked her why she kept taking off their clothes.
      Her 4 year old self looked at us in disbelief of our stupidity and said “have you ever seen animals wearing clothes in the wild?” Touché, my sweet girl!

  5. Kristin says:

    I’m yet another HSP who has always liked being able to read the end of books (and in this era of the internet and tivo frequently read “spoiler” plot summaries of movies and watch the end of t.v. shows first, too). As another commenter mentioned above, I just can’t relax and enjoy the book with the tension of not knowing how it’s going to work out hanging over me. And as a kid it let me abandon books (which I did more than once) when I knew I wasn’t going to be able to handle the ending. Interestingly, we’re just starting to read aloud chapter books at bedtime with my HSC four-year-old, and while she can’t read yet, she always makes sure to skim the pictures ahead of time so she has an idea what’s coming. I’m so glad to hear we’re not alone in this, as my husband and most friends think I’m crazy :-).

  6. MomofTwoPreciousGirls says:

    My nine year old is on the autism spectrum and is highly sensitive also. In first grade she cried for an hour because one of the readers she had been assigned talked about killing a giant. When she sees the words dead, death, kill and hate she reacts strongly! I had write a note to her teacher to be mindful of the book content with her (not that I think first graders should be reading about death or killing ANYWAY).
    I’m guessing since she has watched some of the Harry Potter movies and knows the story, this is why she won’t let me read it to her.
    Interesting thing is death only bothers in relation to human characters. She doesn’t have the same reaction with animals (Charlotte’s Webb). Like she understands the nature of animals but does not want to accept the same for humans!

    • Stephanie says:

      My kids won’t let me finish reading Harry Potter to them either. They haven’t seen the movies, but the suspense is just too much for them! After reading this, I’m considering suggesting to my 9-year-old that she read the last few pages first to reassure herself and that she might enjoy reading the book herself (since that would put her in control of reading pace, etc.).

      • Sarah says:

        I have a highly sensitive 11 year old who is almost finished with the last HP book. I have found that if he is going to keep reading, I have to answer ALL his questions. I had to reread the books alongside him. Not being of a highly sensitive nature when reading myself, this baffled me. And I resisted for a long time. He is reading more than ever because he knows I will go look it up if I need to just to answer his questions. And contrary to ruining the tension or the experience for him, it almost seems to enhance it. There are a few plot points that we’ve had to talk through pretty thoroughly before he would move on. But the times I hold back are the ones when he stops reading!

  7. Guest says:

    This is so ME!! You were the first writer I heard mention HSP and I am definitely HSP. Which is odd in some ways because I’m an ENTJ and have often been accused of not being sensitive enough. But I’m actually very sensitive about things that others aren’t and vice versa.

    The endings tip…YES! For years I used a website (that no longer exists) to read the ending of movies before or while we were watching them. I wouldn’t tell anyone else but if there was any suspense, my nerves couldn’t handle watching unless I knew how things worked out in the end.

    When I was a kid, I had a family member who loved to watch horror movies. I would stay in my room but to this day (in my 40s), I remember the sounds, etc. A friend recommended The Lovely Bones which I couldn’t put down but I found it very troubling and still think about it anytime I see a well house.

    The nice thing as an adult is that I have identified my triggers. I think it’s important (and try to do this with my own kids) to help our kids figure out theirs.

    So, yes, I get it and thank you for this wonderful post.

  8. Renee says:

    This is so interesting. I have two boys who are both a little extra sensitive about particular things. I usually have a pretty good handle on what they can and can’t handle (dolls, for instance), but sometimes I find myself being overly cautious about exposing them to certain things as well. My oldest started listening to Fablehaven recently, I was definitely concerned it would be too scary, but he adores it.
    I see a lot of myself in these guidelines too. I was reading a book recently and I knew I just couldn’t keep reading it if one of the characters didn’t make it to the end, I had to go and check! I think one of the reasons, as you say, that I’ve always loved reading is that you can really control how you take in the experience.
    As always, Anne, when I read your blog I feel like I have found “my people”!

  9. Allie says:

    So interesting! I read a few books as a child/young teen that upset me so much I couldn’t sleep with the book in my bedroom (Go Ask Alice is one that stands out in my memory).

    Also, not book-related, but I have a five year old who has very limited access to screen, and is terrified of most children’s animated movies when he does see them, especially anything Disney. I’ve been thinking that maybe Disney is just really scary (ominous music of any kind especially bothers him), but now I’m wondering if maybe he is an HSC…. Books don’t seem to bother him, but he hasn’t been exposed to anything very disturbing, either.

    • Susan says:

      My 8 year old cannot handle watching any animated films. Just loses his ever-lovin’ HSC mind at the thought of it. However, he’s seen every episode of Mythbusters and will do anything to get to watch an hour or two of HGTV.

      At his school, the second graders are “rewarded” with a showing of the movie The Polar Express right before Christmas Break. My kiddo said no, absolutely not, he did not want to watch it and I struggled mightily to get the teacher and school admins to realize that watching that movie (parts of which I find quite disturbing and I’m not HSP) was in no way a treat for him.

      You can take the HSC quiz here: http://hsperson.com/test/highly-sensitive-child-test/

  10. Pam says:

    When my teenage daughter was in elementary school, they had to read Crispin by Avi. At one point there is a death described pretty graphically and she refused to read the rest of the book until I read it and said it was okay. Now in high school, she had to read All Quiet on the Western Front. She read just a few pages and her exact words were ” Ok. No. I’m done.” and didn’t read anymore.

    Not book related, but when younger we had to fast forward through all of the parts with Jafar in Aladdin. Some of her favorite movies now are the Pirates of the Caribbean series but she still fast forwards on the yucky parts and focuses more on the humor.

    Do HSC also have anxiety issues? Wondering if it is related.

    • Karenlynna says:

      Ds17 and I listened on audio to All Quiet on the Western Front and we are both still haunted by some of the images, so we relate here.

  11. Stephanie says:

    I’m so glad you tackled this subject, Anne! It’s given me lots of ideas for how to help my girls choose books that aren’t as likely to overwhelm them while simultaneously reminding myself not to push them to finish books that don’t feel right to them.

  12. Marisa says:

    My daughter is a HSP. Her 8th grade English class had to read “The Outsiders” and it just about killed her. She felt EVERY feeling of EVERY character and a quarter of the way through the book wasn’t sure she would be able to finish it. I spoke with her teacher and explained things to him and thankfully he was very understanding and accommodating. He let her bring the book home over the w/e so she could read it in one go and get it over with (versus having it read aloud chapter by chapter in the classroom). This allowed her to be able to read it all in one w/e with us here to walk her through some of the tough parts or read them for her and give her the crib notes version. It also allowed her to know the story and what was coming up as well as be able to “tune it out” when it was being read in class. Ever so grateful for that teacher!! He has a friend who was a nurse that they called “The Feeler” as she felt everything her patients went through so he understood our daughter. The next year there was another issue with a book and had to talk to that teacher as well – she was able to “miss class” a few times when the chapters were too intense for her to handle and got a crib notes version. She was also able to miss the film in one of her Health and Career classes that dealt with drugs and drug use as she knew she would be a wreck for weeks after feeling the pain of those who they showed using drugs. Very thankful for accommodating teachers – and don’t ever be afraid to speak up for your child to find alternatives in school situations. This also translates to movies…the only Disney movie she was able to watch until her teenage years was the Aristocats as no strong “good versus evil” theme in that movie versus so many other Disney movies.

  13. Jaime says:

    My son gets very anxious over the unknown, and I second the idea of reading the end first. Then the experience is about the journey and not the conclusion, which still works for him. He also says he likes stories where people have problems but there’s no bad guy type villain. We recently stumbled upon the Justin Case trilogy by Rachel Vail and these books are perfect for him. The main character is in the third and fourth grades throughout, but the style and content would easily be accepted through early middle school aged readers.

  14. I am not so sure my kid is highly sensitive, though definitely very sensitive. Even as my child became a teen, I continued to read bedtime stories. I probably have gotten away with this because we are bilingual, and I read in English, whereas my kid lives and goes to school in France, speaking French all day except for with me. The bedtime books (in English) have more sophisticated vocabulary and story lines and probably would be too hard for my kid. I tend toward the classics, and usually after a rocky 5-10 pages, my kid succumbs to the tale and wants to continue. This is the thing–the classics are what they are because they’re really good. “Tom Sawyer” was a dead “no way” until we got into it, and then it was, can we read everything else by the same author. We stop a lot to talk about new words and to discuss the story or character, which usually leads to tangents about my kid’s life at school. I cherish these moments, and I thank these books many times over for raising questions of morals and character that set off these discussions.
    That said, my kid reads completely different stuff in French. Lots of John Green for the moment. Just read the Hunger Games. More popular stuff that often has been made into a movie.

  15. Elizabeth says:

    I have an 8 yo who loves stories with adventure or mystery and has a huge imagination, but is also an HSP. Finding the right books and movies is a challenge sometimes!

    We are reading the second Harry Potter book aloud right now, and she was able to get through the suspense at the end by telling herself he would be okay because otherwise there wouldn’t be more books. 😊 We’ll probably hold off on more Harry Potter until she’s a little older.

    A few other things that seem to help: she only listens to calm books for the last hour or so before bed. This seems to give her brain a chance to work through anything intense so it doesn’t affect her dreams so much. With movies, we generally skip the theater since that experience is pretty intense. At home, the smaller screen and quieter sound helps and we can fast forward the scary parts. I also found after we watched Moana last weekend that she liked fast forwarding the scary parts the first time and then watching it all the next few times. I let her watch it twice in a row the first time because it seemed to be helping her process the scary parts and take away some of the intensity.

    Definitely storing away some of these other ideas for when she starts reading intense books on her own!

  16. Beth B. says:

    I am an HSP raising an HSP, and I frequently look up books and movies on Common Sense Media for my daughter and MYSELF to see exactly what content is coming my way! “Spoilers” mean nothing to me. I’ve ruined many a plot line for myself, while saving myself major emotional distress. So worth it.

  17. Jennifer O. says:

    This is really interesting! I also sometimes read the end or just take a peek (I just did that recently with Dark Matters) and I had to pause Captain Phillips and Gravity to google the story – I needed to be prepared. I’ve always described myself as highly empathetic but maybe I’m sensitive too?

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