He cries at the drop of a hat—or a toy, in this case. She crumbles if you raise your voice at her, even slightly. He seems to have a bionic sense of smell. Before you write your child off as a drama queen, consider the fact that this behavior may be innate.
Research by Dr. Elaine Aron shows that a high degree of sensitivity is often a physiological reality with which some children are born. Despite what other parents may tell you, it’s not due to a deficiency in confidence or social skills, and it’s certainly not something you as parents have, or ever had, control over.
Sensitive children have different, or perhaps more exaggerated, reactions to things. They don’t act the way you’d expect a typical child should in many situations. Unfortunately, in our society, this is often seen as weakness. But according to Jeremy G. Schneider, a MFT (marriage and family therapist), it’s just the opposite. Says Schneider, “The reality is that sensitive children have a gift. They are able to experience the world at a higher level than average children.”
What earmarks a child as ‘highly sensitive’? Highly sensitive children may exhibit one or all of the following traits. Schneider explains that the key is to notice a pattern of behavior, as well as the degree to which a child exhibits one or more of the following:
- Is your child highly sensitive to his/her senses? An excellent sense of smell or hearing? Very sensitive to pain?
- Does your child get emotionally overwhelmed easily? Does she feel a wide, yet intense range of emotions? Does she sometimes get so excited she withdraws?
- Does your child have a depth greater than his peers, or even adults? Does he ask profound questions, think a lot on his own or reflect on his experiences?
- Is your child highly aware of her surroundings? Does she notice when small household items are moved or minor changes in others, like a haircut?
- Is your child very sensitive to other people’s emotions? Does he notice when someone is feeling sad and try to help him? Does he seem especially sensitive to the feelings of animals?
Realizing your child is highly sensitive can be tough. Not tough to understand, but tough to swallow. Don’t depair! It's better that you know early on, and take steps toward helping him deal with his world going forward. Schneider offers these two tips to parents to help their children maintain their sensitivity and confidence without making them feel they are not like other kids:
- Adjust your behavior, not your child’s. Don’t try to force her to adapt to society’s demands. Love and accept your sensitive child unconditionally. You cannot change who he is. He needs to know you love him no matter how he perceives or reacts to the world.
- Become partners. Work with your child to create ways to interact with the world safely. For instance, she’ll likely have an easier time interacting with classmates 1:1 than in larger groups, so set up individual play dates so she gets comfortable with several classmates.
- Focus on strengths. Sensitivity is practically a stigma in the U.S. and it’s important not to “label” your child. Help him understand that he experiences the world more deeply than most children, and help him see the strengths associated with this. He may notice things most people don't, have a better imagination, focus or concentrate better, be a gifted student, or empathize and be sensitive to others.
- Make small changes. If you need to make changes to your child’s environment, make them little by little. She will feel less overwhelmed.
- Nudge, don’t push. Most highly sensitive children get easily distressed when they have to make a decision. They often reject opportunities out of fear. Sometimes the best thing you can do is nudge your child to take a risk or try something new. The same goes for punishment. He’ll respond better to you gently correcting his behavior, rather than yelling at him. If your highly sensitive child knows you will be there for him and love him no matter what he is feeling, he’ll have less hesitation in new situations, and will be less self-conscious or risk-averse. If he knows you’re not going to push him to be something he’s not, you’ll both be a lot more relaxed and prepared for the road ahead.
You can help your child deal with the world and all the unexpected noise and upset it can throw out at us. Highly sensitive or not, all children need that parental security blanket every now and then.