Imagine a child’s birthday party. Balloons everywhere, music playing, children yelling and laughing. Your child sits at the head of the table when he’s presented with a cake, candles, and a loud, rousing rendition of “Happy Birthday”. Some children may love the attention and look forward to the cake. Others may grow upset and overwhelmed, though, at the noise, the stares, and the commotion. 15% to 20% of children are considered highly sensitive children, and may be more overwhelmed by stimulation, more cautious in their behavior, and more emotional than other kids.
According to Elaine Aron, Ph.D., clinical psychologist and author of the book The Highly Sensitive Child, highly sensitive children are highly responsive to the world around them, including then noise level, the visual stimulation, and even the emotions of the people surrounding them. If your child responds with tears when entering a loud, crowded space, is cautious on the jungle gym when others are bold, or senses your tension and irritability, responding with a meltdown, he may be highly sensitive.
But it’s important to be aware that highly sensitive children contain just as many gifts as they do challenges. Their heightened emotional awareness allows for a greater capacity for compassion than is found in most young children. And many highly sensitive kids may be very creative, enjoying music, drawing, and other forms of expression. These kids are often very gifted. Appreciating these strengths is key, as the reaction of parents, grandparents, and teachers at daycare or preschool can make a real difference in highly sensitive children. They can easily grow up to be insecure and very fearful of the world around them, but when nurtured in the appropriate way, they can be compassionate, thoughtful, uniquely talented adults.
What can caregivers do to make sure they respond in a way that strengthens the highly sensitive child? First, remember to decide whether to discipline your child or partner with her, depending on the situation. If your child is deliberately naughty, discipline may be in order. But if your child is simply melting down as a reaction to a trigger she is sensitive to, help her to calm down by using breathing exercises, distracting her with a calming activity, and remembering to prevent those types of triggers in the future. Discuss the techniques that work with your child’s daycare provider, and they may have approaches to share with you as well, after decades of working with kids of a variety of different temperaments and needs. Second, embrace your child for who he is. Yes, there may be challenges ahead of you both, but keeping your child’s emotional awareness and creativity in mind will help you to nurture his self-esteem, and your relationship with him.
If you think your child may be highly sensitive, and you are having trouble managing her needs, speak with your pediatrician. You may be referred to a psychologist who can give you both coping techniques that will make the road ahead easier to weather.