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.
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 further reading, I recommend:
P.S. I wrote a book about personality! In Reading People: How Seeing the World through the Lens of Personality Changes Everything, I walk you through 7 different frameworks, explaining the basics in a way you can actually understand, sharing personal stories about how what I learned made a difference in my life, and showing you how it could make a difference in yours, as well.