My three-year-old is very sensitive. I wouldn’t go as far as highly sensitive, a bit too early to conclude that yet for him I think.
But he’s definitely very sensitive. He is astonishingly aware and has been since he was a baby. He has an intuitive understanding of feelings, both his own and other people’s, and he processes the vibe or atmosphere in a room almost immediately.
This is great in lots of ways. He knows if someone loves him, he knows if someone likes him. He knows if he is genuinely being amusing or entertaining. And he knows if someone sincerely wants to connect or play with him.
But he also knows if he is being laughed at. If he is being talked about or patronised or disrespected. He knows if someone is coercing him, or assessing him, or being disingenuous.
In fact, he’s opened my eyes to how many adults feel it’s perfectly okay and ‘normal’ to behave like this towards children. Including myself too sometimes, to be honest. Particularly when a child is very quiet, it is disturbingly easy to forget that there’s a fully functioning, intelligent individual inside who deserves as much respect and equality as every adult.
For sensitive children it’s a double whammy; they are hyper aware that these things are occurring, and they are also hyper hurt and distressed by them. It makes my little boy feel so squirmy and self-conscious and yucky that he often gets an overwhelming urge to to run away and hide.
I worry for him because it adds an extra layer of complexity to an already highly complicated world. The average person is bombarded daily with a crazy amount of stimulation as it is. For a child with a highly sensitive nervous system who is attuned to subtleties and deeply processing everything, things can quickly become overwhelming. And also very frightening.
But I am also grateful that we are living in times where there is a growing awareness and understanding of these things. We now know that being highly sensitive is a genetic disposition, that is, there is a physiological difference in how the nervous system responds and is wired.
And most importantly, he’ll also understand and know about this from an early age. He’ll know there’s nothing ‘wrong’ with him and that calls to ‘man-up’ are both unhelpful and misguided. He’ll hopefully be able to build and focus on the incredible positives of this disposition; characteristics such as intuition, creativity, kindness, empathy and understanding of the needs of others, the list is endless.
And there’s also lots of things that we now know that we parents can do to help ease the path for our sensitive ones. Below is a list of just some of them. For more information or help with your sensitive child, please do contact me here.
- Choose childcare carefully
Even if you know of a really great day care facility or extra-curricular club that was loved by siblings or friends, bear in mind that it may not necessarily be right for this particular child. Sensitive children tend to find one-on-one relationships easier to cope with than groups, as there is only one lot of stimulation to navigate and adapt to. They thrive in warm and nurturing environments and with people who ‘get’ them and are responsive to their needs.
- Help make accurate interpretations
Sensitive children can be hyper reactive to criticism and can ‘read into’ situations too much and misconstrue them more negatively than is necessarily the case. They need both someone to listen to them and validate their feelings (see below), but also a calming objectivity to help them make sense of situations e.g. “Actually Jonny, Grandma wasn’t laughing at you. She was laughing at something she was watching on the TV behind you.”
- Be aware that they may lash out
Younger children, particularly, often resort to mild aggression when they feel overstimulated and overwhelmed. A soft play or toddler group full of other children, for example, can be a very scary place for a sensitive child, and lashing out may be the only way they can defend against the sheer terror and overwhelm. Knowing why this is happening is so helpful in guiding how we respond.
If you’ve downloaded your free ‘Betty Brain’ animation [link] you will know that these children are responding from the oldest, reptilian-like part of their brain. Their limbic system is super reactive to fear and the detection of ‘threats’ – and so their ‘fight-or-fight response is activated very quickly. Their upstairs brain (access to logic, rational thinking etc.) shuts down and they lash out (fight) to ‘protect’ themselves. Unfortunately, this is still not common knowledge and many children displaying this behaviour are misunderstood and punished/reprimanded, which results in more fear and a further spiral of defensive behaviour.
- Empathise and Acknowledge
The more you can help them to feel understood and validate their feelings the better. For example, “Yes, it’s very noisy isn’t it. It’s hard going somewhere this busy.” And it’s important to do this from a place of strength and trust that you know they will get through it, you know they will find a way to cope and thrive.
All children are responsive to their parent’s nervous systems, but sensitive children are, of course, highly attuned to them. For this reason, modelling strength, calm and inner certainty that you know they will be okay is extra important. If, for example, you are at a party cowering in the corner because you are scared to talk to anyone and are finding it overwhelming, do not be surprised that your child won’t leave your side! Sensitive children will pick up on even very slight changes in your behaviour or anxiety levels and respond accordingly.
- Try not to assume they will be shy or introverted
There’s a fair bit of confusion around these terms and incorrect ‘labelling’ can be pretty damaging (see here). In particular, it’s helpful to be aware that ‘sensitive’ and ‘introvert’ are often used interchangeably but this is not necessarily the case. Although many sensitive children are indeed introverts, not all are – and conversely, many introverts are not particularly sensitive. My son, for example, loves being with other people, gets energy from other people, and is extremely gregarious and fun-loving (he is more towards the extrovert end of the scale). But only once he’s got to know people, feels comfortable and relaxed and still has full access to his ‘upstairs’ brain (see here).