Children complain (it’s a fact) — from seemingly little things like their veggies touching their mashed potatoes on their dinner plates to bigger issues like not getting along with other kids at school. Most of the time, it’s just a normal part of childhood, and while frustrating for parents, it could also be a sign that your child is highly sensitive. Of course, getting to the root of your kid’s emotional intensity can be downright confusing. Is this typical kid stuff, and you can resume parenting per your norm? Or do you, in fact, have a highly sensitive child on your hands who may need you to pivot your parenting approach a bit?
Scary Mommy tapped two children’s mental health experts to share their insights, along with tips on how to parent your (potentially) highly sensitive child.
What is a highly sensitive child?
“A child who is ‘highly sensitive’ is easily flooded with emotions when responding to internal and external stimuli, both positive and negative. A sensitive child can become overstimulated with excitement and struggle to stop ‘racing around and screaming,’ while another may cry every time they are startled,” said Bethany Cook, PsyD, MT-BC, mom and author of For What It’s Worth: A Perspective on How to Thrive and Survive Parenting Ages 0-2.
One way to differentiate between standard complaining — or even the occasional tantrum — and the response a highly sensitive child might have is by measuring the frequency and intensity of your child’s reactions to everyday situations, including emotional and physical stimuli.
Chloe Picot-Jacobs, LCSW, and founding therapist at Happypillar, says, “Some children have disorders that make sensory processing and emotional regulation challenging,” further explaining, “When sensitive kids need to contend with textures and feelings that cause them discomfort, like scratchy sweaters or uncomfortable food, they may have meltdowns or tantrums that aren’t clearly related to the discomforts they’re fighting against. To a parent, this may look like an extremely emotional kid or an excessively sad kid.”
Is high sensitivity learned or genetic?
Simply put, high sensitivity can be both — or either — learned or genetic.
“The world is filled with individuals who may ‘feel’ more deeply than others because it’s in their genetic code (ADHD, ASD, bipolar, just because) or due to external related responses to trauma, poverty, modeling or all of the above,” says Cook.
How can I tell if my child is highly sensitive?
Again, distinguishing between everyday frustrations and the reactions of a highly sensitive child can be tricky for parents. A child who is not particularly sensitive might have an equally intense response to a situation or feeling than a child who falls under the highly sensitive category. This could be anything from a fear of attending a new school to refusing to wear a specific pair of shoes.
Parents may need to observe and document their child’s behavior over time. And although every child is different, comparing the reactions to other children, like a sibling, can provide clues. “Highly sensitive children may also have reactions to situations that seem disproportionate to adults and even other kids. These children tend to be incredibly observant and may notice things other children don’t. They may also be extremely empathetic and be particularly concerned about the feelings of their loved ones. They may struggle to stay regulated, and therefore need extra support from their caregivers to co-regulate and concrete tools to help them calm down independently,” says Picot-Jacobs.
Signs of a Highly Sensitive Child
Cook shared this (non-comprehensive) list of the top traits, explaining that kids may exhibit just one, or sometimes several.
- Highly intelligent
- Struggles with anxiety
- Becomes overwhelmed with lights, sounds, noise, or fast-moving objects
- Sensitive to pain
- Highly aware of changes in routine or environment
Are highly-sensitive children prone to any other mental health challenges?
According to Picot-Jacobs, because the traits of a highly sensitive child often overlap with other mental health issues, they can actually indicate — or be mistaken for — symptoms in line with other diagnoses, including ADHD or anxiety.
Cook added that children who are highly sensitive could be susceptible to developing other mental health conditions. “A child with ADHD has an increased chance of developing depression and/or anxiety secondary to ADHD; they start to overcompensate for always being late by becoming anxious about time management. Or when peers stop hanging out with them because they are perceived as ‘annoying and talking all the time,’ they may become depressed,” says Cook.
Cook shared these tips that parents can apply today:
- Hold non-judgemental space (just sit and listen).
- Allow the emotions to be fully felt and pass rather than try to stifle or ‘solve.’
- Provide a rich vocabulary for the different types of emotions and feelings (download a feelings chart).
- If your child’s emotions are triggering for you, go to therapy and work through your stuff so you can calmly hold space for your child.
- Co-regulate with them. Don’t send them away.
- Teach them the box breathing method (see graphic below).
How else can you support a highly sensitive child?
While each family’s needs will vary and parents should develop their own unique parenting style, Picot-Jacobs says highly sensitive children can benefit significantly from consistent routines, visual aids, and watching their parents model healthy emotion management.
“Predictability and consistency are especially important for sensitive children because so much of their day-to-day life produces feelings of instability. For kids that become too overwhelmed to talk when they are overstimulated or upset, visuals can help. Print a page with ‘feelings faces’ or pictures of calming tools they can choose from, and practice using them to communicate simply by pointing,” suggests Picot-Jacobs.
In addition, she says that lots of emotional support and physical reinforcement like hugs and holding hands (releases calming hormones) are extremely helpful.