Raising A Highly Sensitive Child
My First Red Flag
Around the time my daughter turned 5 months old I knew "something was not right." Other babies loved playing with bright objects and enjoyed listening to various sounds. My daughter, on the other hand, screamed the moment any object was placed in front of her. Loud sounds startled her easily causing many restless nights and interrupted naps. I researched online, discussed my concerns with her pediatrician and bought every book on the planet. I fought for answers, but my questions went unanswered.
Time flew by and little red flags continued to pop up in my mind. I continued my research, but at times I doubted my concerns. Many friends suggested I was being an overly sensitive first time mother. Others insisted my daughter would "outgrow" these tendencies, that it was "normal" for young children to react this way. It sounded good, I wished for it to be true, but I knew in my heart "something was not right."
As my daughter turned two I began to focus on her social/emotional stability. She displayed self-doubt during most social situations to such an extreme that I figured maybe everything was the result of low self-confidence. Still, deep inside, I knew it didn't explain why, as a young infant, my daughter cringed at the sight of toys or cried when she heard a loud sound. I continued to seek out answers and finally I struck gold. During one of my endless research sessions on the computer I happened to stumble upon an article about a very unique inborn trait. Children with this trait are considered to be highly sensitive and quick to react to everything. As I looked at the long list of signs, I knew my daughter fit the mold perfectly.
What Should A Parent Do?
"... it is primarily parenting that decides whether the expression of sensitivity will be an advantage or a source of anxiety."- Elaine Aron, PhD
A highly sensitive child is one of the fifteen to twenty percent of children born with a nervous system that is highly aware at all times, causing the child to become overwhelmed by high levels of stimulation. It is not a result of external factors or poor parenting skills, it is just how a child is born. If you suspect your child is highly sensitive then you must be proactive and find strength through education. Dr. Aron, a leading researcher on HSC, has published a book on this subject and provides a test to "see" if you are raising a highly sensitive child. You can locate this test at: http://www.hsperson.com/pages/test_child.htm.
Once parents empower themselves and really take a look at their child, they begin to understand that in order for their highly sensitive child to be successful one thing must happen, the parents need to change their parenting style in order to fit the needs of their child. A highly sensitive child should never be made to feel something is wrong, that somehow they need to change. Highly sensitive children do not suffer from an illness or syndrome, they were born with a certain temperament, one that if supported, will develop into a healthy, happy and creative adult.
The Beauty Of Highly Sensitive Children
Highly sensitive children are often labeled as being too shy, fussy, difficult, too emotional, picky, hyper, and of course, too sensitive. These labels carry a negative connotation. Why do so many people unknowingly put these labels on children? Quite simply, people try to make sense of certain characteristics, especially when they are worried, and these labels are "normal" characteristics that everyone will understand. Parents of highly sensitive children often don't understand why their child behaves in a certain way. Highly sensitive children may display the following traits:
- Will worry about the world
- Curious about the meaning of life and death
- Finds emotional connections to animals
- Feels emotions more than other children their age
- Asks many insightful questions
- Responds emotionally to music, stories, painting, sculptures, etc.
- Sensitive to certain sounds, smells, sights and tactile stimulus
- May not want to wear certain clothes because they feel uncomfortable
- Trouble handling criticism or rejection
- Other people's strong emotions make them very upset
- Overwhelms easily in large crowds or noisy areas
- Overwhelms easily in new environments
Honestly, I cried when I first read this list. I pictured such a scary world for my daughter filled with endless worries and anxiety. Even the positives appeared to be negatives because I asked myself, "Can my little girl handle so many intense thoughts?" However, at the same time it felt so good to finally understand why my daughter's expression would change during certain stories or why she asked random questions about intense topics. I began to understand, and this is the key, how lucky I am to be raising such an incredible child. Highly sensitive children are beautiful for the following reasons:
- They are extremely careful with other people's feelings
- They show empathy at an early age
- They develop a social conscience at an early age
- They are aware of other people's emotions and problems
- They are kind to others
- They will protect friends who are being bullied or teased
- They are responsive and expressive
- They place high value on helping others
- They are often gifted intellectually
- They are extremely creative
How To Support A Highly Sensitive Child
Lately my daughter will share her innermost thoughts late at night. My highly sensitive child will talk about missing her baby toys, our old car, sad stories, death, the cycle of life, her "mistakes", wanting a toy, my love for her, old friends, pets, garbage on the street, stars, oceans, animals...the list goes on. Sometimes she cries uncontrollably and my heart breaks. Sometimes she's very matter-of-fact about her feelings and she goes right to bed. Sometimes we hold each other and sing. I listen with an understanding and patient heart and I always, and I mean always, thank my daughter for sharing her thoughts with me.
Parenting a highly sensitive child is not easy. It is okay to feel sad for your child, to hurt along with them when they cry, but it is important to model for your child how to overcome sad feelings. Show them there is always hope. Let them know it is okay to feel sadness or anger, but what you do with these feelings determines if you move forward towards the light.
Parenting Tips For Raising Highly Sensitive Children
- Celebrate Your Child's Sensitivity- Highly sensitive children are no more prone to problems than nonsensitive children. HSC share similar characteristics with some of the most influential people in history like like Carl Jung, Joseph Campbell, Abraham Lincoln and Eleanor Roosevelt. Accept, rejoice and strengthen the gifts given.
- Form A United Front- Educate the people who directly effect your child's development. This includes, but is not limited to, teachers, doctors, caregivers, family and close friends. Make sure everyone is on the same page.
- Gentle Discipline/Setting Limits- Highly sensitive children need structure and clear limits. Knowing what is expected and understanding consequences will ultimately ease anxiety during stressful situations. All children thrive with consistent limits. Be firm, but loving.
- Build Friendships- Support your child's growing social skills. This may mean a little extra effort on your behalf to help your child build friendships by planning play-dates and other activities that work well with your highly sensitive child. Find activities that are relevant and inspirational to your child. Work around your child's personality. Do not try to fit your child into the conventional mold.
- Help Your Child Develop A Feelings Vocabulary- This can take time. A toddler will have a different vocabulary compared to a 5 year old. Be patient and label emotions. Eventually your child will learn to use words to express his/her needs in an appropriate manner. When my daughter was 2 she screamed in public bathrooms. Toilets and hand dryers were too loud for her sensitive ears. I remained calm and gave her the words to use. Now, at the age of 5, she will say, "Please wait till you flush the toilet. I want to cover my ears. Can you hold my bag so I can wash my hands quickly before the dryers go off?" It sounds amazing, but after three years of modeling calm reactions to various stress factors, my daughter is a pro. People look at us a little funny as my daughter covers her ears with her arms, but I smile and feel nothing but pride. My daughter rocks.
- Hug Your Child- I am a true believer in the power of hugs. Hugs work. Sometimes, in the midst of all the chaos, take the time to slow things down. A hug works both ways. You feel calm, your child feels calm and there is the feeling of love. It really is the best medicine out there.
Everything Is Just Right
Now, almost five years after the first red flags popped up, I look at my daughter and feel an overwhelming sense of pride. She is the bravest little girl I know. My daughter walks into a room and I know her nervous system is on full alert, I can see it in her face, in the way she moves her body. However, after years of practice, love, patience and understanding my daughter has found a way to navigate through the chaos and express her emotions. My highly sensitive daughter is growing into a remarkable and fascinating individual who walks with pride, even with her hands covering her ears. Yes, everything is just right.