Recently, a family we know was invited to a birthday party that took place at an indoor bounce house emporium. Bouncy castles, bouncy slides, cheers, screams, and laughter abounded. But this family entered the party with trepidation, because they knew that their three year old son might be overwhelmed by the noise, the energy, and the bright visuals. Their son was reluctant to try the bounce houses, and was happier spending time in a quiet room off to the side, playing air hockey. Does this sound like your child?
Up to 15-20% of the population is considered “highly sensitive”, reacting to sounds, sights, and even the energy level of those around them in a heightened way that causes anxiety and fearfulness. Highly sensitive children may amaze and even delight you with the “little things” they take notice of, like a subtle scent in the air, a peculiar noise on a windy day, or a change in temperature. But in super stimulating situations, highly sensitive children may become so overwhelmed that their anxiety and fear sends them right over the edge into a meltdown, and many parents of sensitive kids struggle with managing these meltdowns and avoiding situations that might provoke them.
One way to help highly sensitive children to cope with certain situations is to give them choices. Ask them if they would like to go to the zoo, explaining what they’ll encounter throughout the day, or the playground. If a child understands what kind of activity they’ll be involved in and what to expect, and is given a chance to make a choice on their own, she’ll feel more empowered when she enters into that particular situation.
And remember to allow your child a certain amount of downtime. While some kids might be able to play at the local pool for hours on end, your child may need only an hour of pool time, followed by quiet time at home. Ask your daycare provider or preschool teacher to keep an eye out for times when your child might become overstimulated. Your childcare provider may be able to provide a quiet spot for downtime in order to avoid overwhelming your child.
Crowds are notorious for triggering anxiety in highly sensitive children. Try to avoid the mall on days like Columbus Day and Black Friday. Go to the aquarium in the late afternoon instead of the morning, when visitors begin to pack it in and go home.
Get creative! Many highly sensitive kids find relief from stress when engaged in a creative project like finger painting, sculpting with clay, or playing music on a simple instrument. Giving your child time to lose himself in creative play can be soothing.
And similarly, getting close to nature can be a great way for your child to decompress. Going for a walk in the woods, by a waterfront, or just spending time in the backyard, will help your child become attuned to the subtle sights and sounds of nature.
If you take precautions to limit your child’s exposure to overwhelming situations, you’ll reduce her stress. And if you do find yourself in an overly stimulating situations, remind your child to take deep breaths, and make sure she understands that becoming anxious is OK, not dangerous, and that the anxiety will pass. And most of all, celebrate your highly sensitive child’s ability to pick up on sounds and visuals that will enhance her life and her understanding of the world around her. Being highly sensitive can be challenging, but also a blessing in disguise.