Highly sensitive children are keenly aware of themselves and their environments. They tend to be deep thinkers, emotional, and empathetic. They’re typically aware of slight changes in their environment and may become easily overstimulated. High sensitivity isn’t a diagnosis and therefore cannot be treated; instead, parents can benefit from understanding their highly sensitive children and learning ways to communicate and support them more effectively.
What Does It Mean to Be Highly Sensitive?
Highly sensitive people (HSPs) (children, teens, or adults) are more reactive or responsive to their environments.1 They may be more significantly impacted by their surroundings than others. High sensitivity is not technically a clinical diagnosis, but some highly sensitive people have other conditions like autism spectrum disorder or post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), that heighten their sensitivity to environments.2
“A highly sensitive child is one that is strongly attuned to the emotions of themselves and those around them,” says Dr. Laura Mraz OTD, OTR/L founder of Eyas Landing therapeutic clinic and Blue Bird Day. “They tend to notice even the most subtle changes in other people and their environment, such as when lighting changes or toys are rearranged. They express strong emotions at times, with what appear to be overreactions to minor environmental sensations. A highly sensitive child may also be sensitive to clothing textures, sudden noises or when anticipating a new event. Caregivers may find that standard behavior strategies, such as time out, do not work as effectively with their highly sensitive child.”
Almost one-third of children are believed to fall into the “high sensitivity” category.1 While they may face some challenges, there are also advantages. Rather than trying to change your child, approach high sensitivity like you would any personality trait. Focus on their strengths and help them learn ways to cope with overstimulation, negative emotions, and changes in their environment. With support and encouragement, your highly sensitive child can thrive.
4 Characteristics of Highly Sensitive Children
According to Elaine Aron, a clinical psychologist and prominent researcher in this area, highly sensitive children show four key characteristics related to processing, overstimulation, emotional reactivity, and awareness.3
Here are four characteristics of highly sensitive kids:
- Depth of processing: Highly sensitive children tend to be deep thinkers and may be especially curious. Parents and teachers may be surprised by questions they ask.
- Being easily overstimulated: Highly sensitive children are more aware of what is going on in their internal and external environments, which can cause them to experience overstimulation. Signs that a child may be overstimulated include displaying tantrums, irritability, and fatigue.
- Emotionally reactive and high levels of empathy: These children tend to feel their own emotions and those of others deeply. They tend to be closely tuned in to how others are feeling and can often pick up on a parent’s mood.
- Awareness of subtle stimuli: Children may notice smells, sounds, and other changes in their environment before others do.
Signs That Your Child Is Highly Sensitive
Highly sensitive children are especially tuned into their environments, emotions, and the emotions of others. This can cause them to become easily overwhelmed or startled. To avoid overstimulation, highly sensitive children often prefer to be alone, in small groups, or in settings with minimal noise and stimulation.
Signs that your child may be highly sensitive might include:3
- Finding clothing itchy or uncomfortable
- Wanting to change their clothes right away if they get wet or sandy
- Being easily startled by noise
- Noticing slight changes in their environment, such as odors or objects that are moved
- Feeling overwhelmed by surprises
- Responding better to gentle rather than critical feedback
- Having an advanced vocabulary for their age
- Having a hard time falling asleep after a lot of stimulation
- Picking up on others’ emotions
- Asking a lot of questions
- Sensitivity to pain or discomfort
- Feeling anxious or uncomfortable performing in groups
- Questioning the safety of something before taking action
- Trying to do things perfectly
- Preferring to play quietly alone than in groups
- Feeling their emotions deeply
Many children show some signs of high sensitivity, especially when they’re hungry, tired, or emotional. However, highly sensitive children show a significant number of these signs. If you suspect that your child may be highly sensitive, consider speaking with your pediatrician or a therapist for more information.
What Your Highly Sensitive Child Needs to Hear From You
While you will not always find the right words when speaking with your child, do your best to communicate warmth, support, and understanding. Note that highly sensitive children may interpret what you say differently than other children. They may be more sensitive to feedback and take constructive criticism negatively.
Here are four things your highly sensitive child needs to hear from you:
1. “It Is OK to Feel (Name Any Emotion).”
Highly sensitive children may be more sensitive to their feelings than other children. When your child is experiencing an emotion, they need to be told that their feelings are OK. Phrases like “Don’t cry” or “Calm down” may be well-meaning, but they can leave highly sensitive kids feeling misunderstood. Instead, a statement that reflects what they’re feeling, like “You seem angry right now,” can help your child become more aware of their own feelings, which is necessary for learning how to cope with their emotions.
2. “Take Your Time.”
Highly sensitive kids may take longer to prepare for things, process information, and make decisions. While this can be frustrating for parents, putting pressure on children to do things faster will only increase their anxiety. Instead, plan ahead when you know your child needs extra time and remind them to go at their own pace.
3. “Let’s Make a Plan.”
If your child is highly sensitive, social events like parties, playdates, or outings can be stressful. Your child may be highly anxious before and during these events. If that is the case, it can help to talk to your child in advance about what to expect. You can also empower them by brainstorming together what they can do to cope if they feel overwhelmed.
For example, they might want to bring a book or noise-cancelling headphones or agree to step outside and get fresh air. You may even come up with a code word that your child can say to you if they need a break. Having a plan can help you both feel prepared and increase the chances of having a positive experience.
4. “You Are Not Alone. I Am Here For You.”
Being a highly sensitive child can feel lonely at times. These children may be aware that they are different from their siblings or peers and feel embarrassed, ashamed, or judged. Reminding your child that they’re not alone and you are in their corner can help them learn to accept themselves.
9 Tips for Parenting a Highly Sensitive Child
Highly sensitive children often require special attention in certain areas, which means that parenting or caregiving comes with its fair share of challenges. However, as a parent or caregiver, you also need to care for yourself to prevent burnout.
“The key to parenting a highly sensitive child is to build empathy for your child by accepting that their reactions are often neurologically-based, rather than behavioral or ‘by choice,'” says Dr. Laura Mraz. “Empower your child to communicate their feelings openly so that you can help them navigate strong emotions without telling them their feelings are wrong or not true. Refrain from shaming your child’s response and instead provide structured choices to navigate power struggles. Do not minimize or tell your child that their feelings are not true.”
Here are nine tips for parenting a highly sensitive child:
1. Help Them Name Their Emotions
All children can benefit from learning how to talk about their emotions. This is a core component of emotion regulation, which is the ability to cope with one’s feelings. Teaching your child about emotions can start in infancy by naming feelings (e.g., saying, “You are so happy” when your baby smiles).
As your child gets older, continue to help name their emotions, but don’t assume that you’re always correct. With an older child, it may be helpful to say, “You seem upset today, am I getting that right?” You can also incorporate education on emotions by selecting books and games that help teach children this important skill.
2. Give Your Child Time to Unwind
Highly sensitive children may become overwhelmed more easily than other children, especially when it comes to social situations. It’s important to give your highly sensitive child time to unwind. For example, you might schedule quiet time for an hour a day where your child can do a relaxing activity like reading or artwork. If they have a hectic day planned, consider scheduling extra unwinding time to help make up for it. Remember that for many highly sensitive children, quiet time is a way to decompress and recharge their batteries.
3. Maintain Consistency
All children benefit from consistent and appropriate limits. Children need to know what is expected of them and what the consequences will be for not complying. Setting limits while being responsive to your child’s emotions, like authoritative parents do, is optimal for their emotional well-being.4
Highly sensitive children especially benefit from clear and direct communication about limits and consistency. You can achieve this by posting a list of house rules, discussing expectations and consequences, and always reminding your child that rules are intended to help rather than hurt.
4. Avoid Harsh Discipline
Harsh discipline involves physical punishment, like hitting or spanking, as well as emotional tactics like guilt tripping or shaming. All of these forms of discipline can have negative effects on children and should be avoided.5 If your child misbehaves, you can respond by providing a consequence that is appropriate for their age and their misbehavior.
For example, if your toddler throws a toy, you can remove the child from the situation, place them in a safe area, and say, “We do not throw toys. The toy is going in time out until after dinner.” This sends the message that your child’s behavior is unacceptable and provides an appropriate consequence.
5. Resist the Urge to Label Your Child As Difficult
Raising a highly sensitive child can be challenging. You may find yourself frustrated or angry with their reactions or behavior at times. You may think that your child is difficult, annoying, or rebellious. While it is normal to have these thoughts and feelings, it’s important to avoid labeling your child based on their behavior.
When your child hears a label placed on them, they may internalize this and experience negative feelings like guilt and shame. Instead, give yourself time to manage your own frustrations and focus on describing behavior vs. labeling their personality. For example, you can say, “That hurt my feelings when you said that,” rather than “You are so mean.”
6. Create a Safe Space For Your Child
Highly sensitive children often benefit from having a safe space they can retreat to when feeling overwhelmed. This can be an area of your home that is quiet, has gentle lighting, and offers a few relaxing activities. Encourage your child to decorate this space so it feels special and inviting.
7. Highlight Your Child’s Strengths
All children can benefit from being reminded of their strengths from time to time. Think about what areas your child thrives in. Does your child excel in a certain sport, art, or school subject? Is your child especially kind, caring, or funny? Reminding your child of their strengths can help enhance their confidence and self-esteem.
8. Practice & Teach Acceptance
When a child behaves in a way that is different from the norm, there may be pressure to change what is believed to be “wrong” with them. Unfortunately, this approach can backfire and cause children to feel like they’re not good enough. It is more helpful to work with them to accept themselves and find ways to highlight the advantages of high sensitivity. You could also help them figure out how to cope in stressful environments.
9. Keep Yourself Calm
Parenting a highly sensitive child can be difficult, and it may test your patience. These feelings are normal and signal the importance of caring not only for your child, but also for yourself. Finding time for self-care can help balance the stress of parenting. Whether it is taking a bath, exercising, or spending time with friends, taking a break for yourself is just as important as other parenting strategies.
Final Thoughts On Highly Sensitive Children
Raising a highly sensitive child can be both rewarding and challenging. These children may benefit from more support in certain areas, and as a parent, you may benefit from extra self-care. Most importantly, arm yourself with knowledge on how to raise a highly sensitive child. Awareness and understanding will equip you to better understand your child and help them thrive.