While some kids may delight at loud surprises, your child may become startled and upset. Other toddlers and preschoolers may jump from great heights on a play structure, climb the tallest ladders, and take risks going down the slide, while your child may step cautiously and carefully. Your child may be one of the estimated 15% to 20% of children who are highly sensitive.
Highly sensitive children, according to Elaine Aron, Ph.D., clinical psychologist and author of the book The Highly Sensitive Child, are characterized by a responsiveness to their environments, including the sights, sounds, and even the moods of the people around them. Something that is very attractive to some children, like an indoor bounce house playground, may prove daunting for the highly sensitive child. The looming bounce castles and slides, the screams of dozens of children, and the constant motion may be difficult for a highly sensitive child to process, as she may simply be more quick to take in the sights and sounds all at once. Beyond becoming overstimulated by visual and audio triggers, the highly sensitive child may also be especially tuned in to emotional cues. If a parent seems angry, what would seem like a moderately firm tone of voice to one child may be somewhat crushing to a highly sensitive child.
It’s this awareness that makes the highly sensitive child emotionally demonstrative, showing compassion at a young age. The fact that this child is tuned in to the sights and sounds around him may make him quite creative, and many highly sensitive children are gifted intellectually. In fact, while being highly sensitive can be a challenge for young kids, many parents look at their child’s temperament as a gift to be nurtured, and it has been shown that the response from parents and caregivers determines whether highly sensitive children tap into the gifts of their perceptiveness and rich emotions, or become insecure and fearful.
What can parents, grandparents, and daycare and preschool teachers do to make sure that highly sensitive kids are nurtured properly? First, partner with her instead of punishing. Sure, highly sensitive children are capable of grossly misbehaving just like any other child, and if the infraction is intentional and severe, discipline is necessary. If your child acts out due to stress, becoming emotional or throwing a tantrum when overwhelmed by a crowd or excess noise, work with them to solve the problem. Learning to avoid triggers, practicing breathing exercises when overwhelmed, and helping them to find a calming distraction are all tricks that should be up your sleeve. When you find that a particular solution works, remember to talk to your childcare provider so that your child’s caregivers can work with her to calm her down when she is distressed. Second, be aware of your child’s gifts. Every time your child becomes upset or overwhelmed, remind yourself of his capacity for genuine compassion, his creative talents, and his communication skills. Your child may experience his share of challenges, but being highly sensitive also bring with its some extraordinary gifts, and accepting your child for who he is will nurture your relationship and grow his self-esteem.
If your child displays signs of high sensitivity and you and he have trouble coping with them, ask your pediatrician whether seeing a behavioral psychologist might help your child manage his responses to stimulation and cope with his complex emotions.