Some children have a soft spot for animals. Others get upset when someone pokes fun. However, there is a difference between being sensitive and being highly sensitive.
The designation “highly sensitive person” (HSP) is used to describe those who are hypersensitive to stimuli ranging from loud noises to bright lights to deep emotions. Raising a highly sensitive child presents a unique set of challenges for parents. Learning how the world affects your child can be crucial in helping you be a more compassionate and effective parent.
What Does It Mean To Be A Highly Sensitive Person?
Amber Trueblood, MFT is a marriage and family therapist, an author and the mother of four sons, some of whom happen to be highly sensitive. “Although ‘High Sensitivity’ is not a medical diagnosis,” she explains, “many now acknowledge the importance of understanding highly sensitive children and how we might better meet their needs both at home and in the classroom.”
She goes on to clarify that this distinction is about more than just a child’s emotional response to a situation. Referencing the dictionary definition for “sensitivity,” Trueblood explains that “highly sensitive children have an increased awareness and capacity for receiving sensory input, compared to the general population.”
So how can you recognize the signs that your child might be highly sensitive? It can be tough, as not all highly sensitive kids share the same traits. Lights, sounds, scents or textures may easily overwhelm an HSP. They might avoid violent or scary movie scenes or upsetting situations. They may sometimes need quiet time alone and can be perceived as shy. They also often have a great deal of empathy, emotional awareness and creativity.
“Like anxiety, its effects can range from mild to completely impeding one’s ability to function in society,” says Trueblood. “Some children experience increased sensitivity only in one area (i.e. tactile) while others may have multiple areas (i.e. auditory, visual and olfactory).”
How Can Parents Help Their Children Cope With Their Sensitivities?
What can you do if your child is highly sensitive? Reducing sensory overload is a great place to begin. “For parents, it’s very helpful if they notice any highly-sensitive reactions, and help their children learn to modulate or minimize the input as much as possible,” Trueblood advises. “If the child is young and the sensitivity is mild, you can gradually introduce more and more stimulation until the child can calmly withstand the input levels they’ll find in the outside world.
As an example, Trueblood shares that her own children were unable to cope with the sounds and visual stimuli of movie theaters when they were just 4 or 5. “But at 8 and up (for the most part), they now enjoy movies in an actual theater. We started by watching movies at home, with low sound, on a small screen.”
Angela C. Santomero, creator of “Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood” from The Fred Rogers Company, also recommends carefully screening the media highly sensitive kids absorb. “A highly sensitive child is very empathetic and caring and, therefore, even more engrossed in the media they see, ‘leaning in’ more and ensuring that the learning is stronger,” she says. Because of this, it’s important that parents choose shows that are visual, active and slower paced, and that have characters who are positive models. “All kids model what they see in media,” says Santomero, “but this is especially true of those who are highly sensitive.” In fact, this is why the needs of highly sensitive children are always considered when Santomero and her colleagues create shows for preschoolers.