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.
P.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.