With anxiety in children, there is often a heightened sensitivity through which that child experiences the world. Other times, the sensitivity occurs without signs of anxiety, but rather other challenging behaviors. Some of the most common questions I get asked in my therapy practice relates to parents unsure how to manage these children who often seem to feel things so intensely. They can be different from their peers and quite confusing to their parents- often acting in a way that seems so much more mature than they actually are, and then other times responding like a really young child and having emotional meltdowns.
Highly Sensitive Children (HSC) is a very real term to describe children who tend to notice the world in more details, feel things intensely and need to feel comfortable before taking action. In my previous blog post “I don’t understand why is it always such a big deal with my child” I explored some of the challenging traits often displayed by HSC when overwhelmed. These are some of the reasons parents feel overwhelmed and unsure how to help manage those behaviours and seek out professional support.
Research has shown there are fundamental differences in temperaments - it can be useful to understand children in terms of Dandelions, Orchids and Tulips. Many children are like Dandelions, they can grow anywhere and under any conditions and can often thrive regardless of their experience. Orchid children are very sensitive to their environment and can be more of a challenge to tend to, but will thrive under the right conditions. And Tulip children tend to fall somewhere in the middle, being both delicate like an orchid and robust as a dandelion. This idea of the orchid having the potential to wilt and thrive is so important for understanding Highly Sensitive Children (HSC) and the role parents plays in that development.
Through my experience as being a HSC, now parenting my own HSC and working with countless young people and adults who can identity as HSC, I have gained valuable understanding around supporting these personalities to thrive. These are 5 helpful strategies for parenting a HSC:
Acknowledge it - it is a trait since birth, it is not as a result of something you did or didn’t do. Do not apologize to others for your child’s ‘sensitivity’ – it is not something the child should feel shame about. By acknowledging and accepting their temperament, you help your child start to understand their experience and gain self-acceptance.
Consider practicalities. Manage basic needs such as enough rest, adequate food, the heat, noise level etc. These elements will be felt more intensely by a HSC and thus quicker to feel overwhelmed. It can help to provide information regarding schedules/routines, adequate warning of upcoming changes etc, where possible. A HSC can find the “unknown” overwhelming and can struggle to just ‘ go with the flow”
Understand that they may want to participate in activities, but at their own pace and level of comfort. By labeling this behaviour as being shy or fearful, we create a negative association, when in fact it is can actually be a positive attribute. Sometimes it may take a few attempts in small chunks for a HSC to engage in something new.
Its important to acknowledge how much each child is capable of managing themselves – think of their emotions as filling up a jar. When that is full, we often see behaviours such as meltdowns, tantrums or emotional outbursts (regardless of the age). The jar of HSC will fill up quicker due to their sensitivity to all the things going on around them. Parents can help HSC find ways to empty their jars through encouraging soothing activities such as going for a walk, reading a book, quiet play, sitting on your lap/cuddles or even going for a sip of water. Over time the child will learn how to empty their own jar, but its helpful for parents to offer suggestions, or even ‘enforce’ such breaks when you see their jar filling up.
Avoid harsh discipline on HSC – when reprimanded, punished or embarrassed, they are likely to be so overwhelmed by the emotions that they will not be able to take in the information you wanted them to learn. But that does not mean anything goes.It is ok, and necessary, to set limits in a gentle, caring but firm manner.
While it can feel overwhelming at times, to both the parent and the child, I encourage parents to consider this trait in a new way, to put aside labels and negative connotations that society equates with sensitivity, especially in boys. A highly sensitive adolescent I was working with, asked if I had the choice, would I change my sensitivity? I can honestly say, that I would not – sensitivity, if managed correctly, can be a real blessing and strength. Elaine Aron, one of the leading researchers in this field, shares such a valuable quote – “If you want to have an exceptional child, you must be willing to have an exceptional child”. Parenting a HSC provides certain challenges and responsibilities that many may not understand, but it also provides the opportunity to be deeply moved and amazed by the insight, kindness and compassion that your child shares with you and others.