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Updated on Sep 3, 2009

When you think of a sensitive child, you might picture a sudden outburst of tears or quiet whimpering in the corner—both in response to what seems like… well, absolutely nothing!

According to Elaine Aron, clinical psychologist and bestselling author of The Highly Sensitive Person—originally published in 1996 and since translated into six languages—this describes only a small slice of the sensitivity pie. Aron, who has researched and published extensively on highly sensitive people (HSP), says the sensitive child is one who takes everything into account before acting. This is in contrast, she explains, to the child who acts before considering the possible consequences of his actions.

“We often see a child holding back, not joining a group, and doing nothing while they are observing,” Aron says, “and we assume it’s out of fear, out of shyness, but it could be out of a desire to process.”

Aron explains that sensitivity is innate. It is an “inborn temperament or style that is found in about 20 percent of children and of nearly all animals.” One out of five children is highly sensitive. What does sensitivity look like in a child? Aron points to the following characteristics:

  • startles easily
  • complains about scratchy clothing, labels against skin, etc.
  • doesn’t enjoy big surprises
  • learns better from gentle correction than punishment
  • seems to read my mind
  • uses big words for his/her age
  • notices unusual odors
  • has a good sense of humor
  • seems to be intuitive
  • is hard to get to sleep after an exciting day
  • doesn’t do well with big changes
  • wants to change clothes if wet
  • asks many questions, often thought-provoking
  • is a perfectionist
  • notices the distress of others
  • prefers quiet play
  • is very sensitive to pain
  • is bothered by noisy places
  • notices subtleties (something that’s been moved, a change in a person’s appearance, etc.)
  • considers if it is safe before climbing high
  • performs best when strangers are not present
  • feels things deeply

You might read this list and find that half the items fit one of your children and the other half fit another. Aron says there’s a scale or continuum for sensitivity, just as there is for many things in life.

It’s important to recognize, Aron says, the difference between sensitivity and shyness. “Sensitive children can more easily become shy,” Aron explains. “These children are often labeled as shy. And if you hear enough times that you’re shy, you become shy. I think people should be very cautious about the use of the word shy. It should not be used as a label but rather to describe an emotion.”

But Renee Gilbert, a clinical psychologist who specializes in shyness and social anxiety, says she has a problem with that theory. “If your child is shy, people are going to come to that conclusion on their own,” Gilbert says. “It’s hard for me to believe that the label is worse than the natural outcome.” Gilbert encourages parents to list for their shy or sensitive child famous, successful people who were like the child—a list of presidents, celebrities, singers, inventors, business people. “It has more to do with how you create a label,” Gilbert says. “And if you present it with whatever your child’s strengths are, then you’re actually being proactive.”

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