From a young age , I’ve been aware that how I process the world , is different from quite a few of those around me. It baffled me for many years. Then , I learnt to hide it in an attempt to fit in however unsuccessfully. Later , as an adult , I met my first born , and at last it all fell into place.
I recognised in my son , so many of the sensitivities I’d been lead to believe were ‘weird’ and ‘annoying’ for others, in myself. I was determined to parent him in a way that would nurture his sensitivity whilst still preparing him for and supporting him within our society as it is today.
I followed a trail of books, and internet articles absorbing the works of Dr . William Sears especially his ‘fussy baby book‘ and Elaine Aron’s ‘The highly sensitive child‘ . Elaine Aron’s description of the highly sensitive child resonated deeply with me as I recognised myself , simultaneously gaining a greater understanding of myself and my son as I read her words,”a highly sensitive child is one of the fifteen to twenty percent of children born with a nervous system that is highly aware and quick to react to everything.” Such children are incredibly responsive to their environments whether it is the lighting, sounds, smells or overall mood of the people in their situations – highly sensitive children will pick up on it.
The “highly sensitive” label doesn’t mean overly emotional. It describes the child’s nervous system, which is extremely sensitive and responsive.
This means that highly sensitive children startle easily, and don’t enjoy big surprises. They are extremely sensitive to smells, may seem to read your mind at times, and tend to be perfectionists. They don’t do well with crowds, loud noises, or violent movies or television programs.
The trait of high sensitivity is not necessarily a sign of introversion, though, with about 30% of highly sensitive people being extroverts.
In infancy the highly sensitive child may be considered a ‘high needs baby’ , a term coined by Dr. William Sears . You can check out these ’12 features of a high needs baby’ to see if your child fits the description here.
We knew from the beginning our child had a finely tuned nervous system. He was highly sensitive and high needs, without a doubt, though we didn’t know how to word it at the time.He cried easily and was difficult to soothe (apart from by breastfeeding – yey super boobies!). He was easily overstimulated and acutely attuned to changes in his environment.He was still a happy baby, if he got exactly what he needed to feel comfortable in his environment: he loved being held, he loved being carried, and he adored silence.
High needs babies grow into highly sensitive toddlers.By now ,I’ve experienced this with all 3 of my children. I’m not expecting them to grow out of it – after all , I didn’t!
After a few years of practice, most will have learnt how to create a happy environment for their little highly sensitive person. In our house the number 1 thing is building in lots of downtime into our days.
In general , highly sensitive children, may experience more intense emotions because they take in more information from their environment, and process it more thoroughly. This can lead to over-stimulation in busy or noisy environments.
Being a highly sensitive person myself, life experience had taught me a lot about how to process these high emotions.Translating what works for me into easily teachable skills for my children has taken years of thought and trial and error.
It’s important for children to be taught socially acceptable ways to express their emotions fully , and also how to direct their highly sensitive energy into a means in which they can serve society. One of the main benefits of high sensitivity is an increased sense of empathy , and an increased drive to steer away from violence and aggression , which I feel are traits the world needs more of today.
We’ve structured our lives and our days in ways that suit our whole family and on a good day, everything just works. (We have lots of good days. But of course there are bad ones, too.)
Here’s what has worked for us :
- Simply furnished rooms. Minimal toys on display , and a big emphasis on keeping things in there place and tidy.
- Lots of downtime built into the day. Even during playdates I allow my children to ‘escape’ into a room away from our guests if they feel they need it. I don’t want them to appear rude so for the younger ones I explain to our guests that this is something I give permission for as I feel it’s important they have space to regulate themselves. For my eldest who is now 8 , I expect him to explain and excuse himself before he leaves , and to return to say goodbye before our guests leave at the very least or sooner if possible.
- Lots of time for independent work/play . All children thrive on un-directed play . Play is the work of childhood , they learn so many lessons ,which we could never teach , when granted free time and space to explore and play independently.When play is child-driven, children practice decision-making skills, move at their own pace, discover areas of interest on their own, and ultimately engage fully in the passions they wish to pursue.When play is controlled by adults – such as in organised sports – children have to follow adult rules and objectives (like winning) and lose some of the benefits play offers them, particularly in developing creativity, leadership and group skills. Free, child-driven, creative play protects against the effects of pressure and stress , which is especially important for a highly sensitive child.
- Moderated noise levels.
- Zero access to violent TV shows (including the news) , violent movies or computer games.
- Structure and routine.Having a daily routine helps children to self regulate as they have a sense for what is coming next. Their day becomes predicable and in an uncertain world the predictability and certainty of home provides deep comfort.
We’ve been having lots of talks lately about dealing with uncomfortable content in the world around us , see my post on helping your children process news of terrorist attacks here.
There are no easy solutions: this is the world we live in. How do we shield our children appropriately, without being overprotective?
I feel that teaching and enforcing personal boundaries for all people , teaching consent and about giving everyone their personal space , is a good place to start.
We aim to teach our children resilience and a respect for their own boundaries , how to recognise when they start to feel overwhelmed and how to find that balance again , through connection with family , meditation and plenty of rest.
I am mindful to emphasise the perks of sensitivity.Highly sensitive people are :
- gentle and compassionate,
- natural peacemakers,
- responsible and intuitive.
- empathetic listeners
- They have a sharpened sense of awareness and are often gifted intellectually, creatively and emotionally demonstrating genuine compassion at early ages.
Highly sensitive children need a parent who will show them compassion and empathy as they learn to navigate their path. So that they can learn how to see their sensitivity as a strength and begin empowering themselves with tools to tap into the “upside” of their sensitivity while simultaneously learning how to manage their rich emotional lives in socially acceptable ways.
Parenting a highly sensitive child can be extremely rewarding however some parents admittedly find it exhausting. Raising a healthy, happy and well-adjusted sensitive child is possible however it takes “sensitive parenting skills” to succeed such as these mindset shifts :
- Mindset shift 1- View Sensitivity as a Gift – It’s easy to get frustrated with your child if they continually cry, withdraw and shy away from regular social situations. Instead of viewing your “sensitive” child as being flawed it is more helpful to see your child as having a special gift. Creative artists, innovators and children who are talented in varying ways are typically sensitive. Some of the greatest thinkers like Carl Jung, Abraham Lincoln and Eleanor Roosevelt are believed to have been highly sensitive.
- Mindset shift 2 -Focus on Strengths – Training yourself to see your child’s strengths first like their incredible creativity, perceptiveness and keen intellect is important because it helps you accept their challenges (i.e. highly emotional, picky, shy or overly active).
- Mindset shift 3 – see your child not their behaviour. – Focus on supporting your child and giving them the skills they need to live within our society.Instead of comparing Johnny (highly sensitive child) who melts down on every shopping trip out of the house , to Sally who smiles sweetly at every passer-by and seems to adapt and adjust easily to every situation thrown at her , trouble shoot the issue at hand. Johnny isn’t anti-social or a naughty kid , he just finds the bright lights , hard seat of the shopping trolley and hustle-bustle of the shoppers overwhelming and over stimulating.
Conventional parenting styles cause disconnect between parent and child.For highly sensitive children this is amplified. Highly sensitive children need compassionate , gentle and empathetic parents who focus on connection rather than punishment . Because connection leads to co-operation.
If you have a high needs baby or highly sensitive child I hope you have found some value in my words. Click through the links at the top of this post to the books by Dr . Sears and Elaine Aron (I’m not affiliated with either in any way but highly recommend both as they helped me on my journey so much)