by Jen Perry, MA, MSEd, LPC
Is your child highly sensitive? Does your child seem easily overwhelmed and over-reactive? High sensitivity is a personality trait distinct from other personality traits like introversion or agreeableness. High sensitivity means a person has a sensitive nervous system and processes sensory information more deeply and intensely than their less sensitive peers. They have a keen awareness of the world around them and their inner worlds, noticing many details that go unnoticed by others. They literally see, smell, hear, taste, and feel more in their environment than others. They are often very empathetic, so they are also picking up and processing subtle emotional tones of others. They can't turn this off ~ it is integral to how they experience the world. Perceiving more in the world and experiencing it more intensely, children with high sensitivity easily become overwhelmed and appear to overreact to everyday situations. It isn't hard to imagine the parenting challenges this presents. (Uncertain if your child may be highly sensitive? There is an online test here: http://hsperson.com/test/highly-sensitive-child-test/)
Highly sensitive children often have parents that worry something is "wrong" with their child, after all, their child's peers seem to be handling challenges in the environment just fine. Because high sensitivity occurs at a rate of only 15-20% of the population, many people with high sensitivity carry feelings of there being something "wrong" with them their whole lives. When parents are educated about high sensitivity, they have a profound opportunity to support their children in developing greater life-long self-acceptance, since many of these negative beliefs begin in childhood. If you think that your child is highly sensitive, the researcher of this trait, Elaine Aron, PhD, has written a book called The Highly Sensitive Child: Helping Our Children Thrive When the World Overwhelms Them. Educating yourself and your child about temperament and personality traits can help make your journey together far less confusing and conflictual. Without an understanding of this personality trait, these children are at risk of being seen as abnormal or their behaviors misconstrued as behavioral problems motivated to "manipulate" the parent. As a result, many parents worry that something is "wrong" with their parenting, their child, or both.
Compounding the parenting challenge is the fact that highly sensitive children respond poorly to conventional parenting wisdom. Remember, these children are taking in more sensory and emotional information and processing it more deeply than others. They can't turn this off - it is a personality trait and integral to how they experience being in the world. Children with high sensitivity often take their parents words to heart and can become very hard on themselves as a result. Harsh or shaming parenting can compound their feelings of "wrongness" and can be harmful to their self-esteem.
Fortunately, there are parenting strategies that can help children and their parents better understand themselves and how to be highly sensitive in a world where 80% of the population isn't. Parenting techniques that are based in empathetic responding can help a child not feel "wrong" and can help create a sense of being on the same team between a parent and child. Jamie Williamson has written a beautiful little book, Understanding the Highly Sensitive Child: Seeing an Overwhelming World Through Their Eyes that can be helpful to parents who struggle to see the world through the eyes and experience of their highly sensitive children. Additionally, seeing yourself as your child's emotion coach to help them understand themselves and the world and framing challenges as learning opportunities to help a child grow instead of mis-behavior in need of punishment is incalculable in its positive impact on the child. Two of my favorite authors and researchers in brain science supporting these gentler, more peaceful parenting techniques are John Gottman, PhD, Raising an Emotionally Intelligent Child and Daniel Siegel, MD, No-Drama Discipline: The Whole-Brain way to Calm the Chaos and Nurture your Child's Developing Mind.
Raising confident, healthy, and happy kids is the goal of every parent. Parents of highly sensitive children may need extra support in understanding this personality trait. Education is important so that they can strive to meet the needs of their highly sensitive child instead of attempting to control their behavior with the expectation that they become like their less sensitive peers. Recent brain science and research has given us insight into how to best support all children in growing in understanding of themselves and the world around them. By keeping calm, helping an overwhelmed child calm themselves, connecting in the spirit of teamwork between parent and child, responding empathically and empowering the child to grow into peaceful solutions to problems is a set of skills that can be learned and practiced.
Great parents get great support - there is help out there in your parenting journey. Jen Perry is a Licensed Professional Counselor, Parent Educator and Peaceful Parenting Coach with her practice at The Resiliency Center in Flourtown. She loves working with parents of highly sensitive children. More about Jen and her work can be found at www.HeartfulnessConsulting.com.