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The Gift of a Sensitive Child

Tuesday, April 9th, 2019

by Kristi Miller, MS

“You are too sensitive!  Why are you so emotional and intense”? Have you ever said this to your child?  Did a parent or teacher or another caregiver ever say this to you?  Does the description “shy” characterize you or your child? These are common inquiries and labels a child or adult gifted with high sensitivity may encounter from well-intentioned others.  

According to Elaine Aron, PhD, high sensitivity is a largely unrecognized, unique, and remarkable inborn trait in approximately 20 percent of the population.  Extensive research including brain studies in humans and animals endorses this characteristic which tends to be genetic. Though descriptions vary, the highly sensitive child may appear creative, intuitive, empathetic, vigilant, and conscientious, think deeply, and notice environmental subtleties. This child may be extroverted (about 30 percent) or more introverted. The highly sensitive child, frequently labeled as “shy” in social settings, is likely assessing the situation before participating or jumping in. The attribute of intelligence may also be noted. Boys and girls can both be highly sensitive. Unfortunately societal expectations of “maleness” can create increased internal conflict for boys with this trait.

Sensitive personality traits may have challenges.  The child’s senses tend to soak in environmental information more acutely.  The child may feel overwhelmed, highly emotional, and tired in high-intensity environments. Some experiences may create an added challenge.  For example, a child with high sensitivity may be distressed and concerned about a dead animal on the roadside.  Or a child could perceive parents having a disagreement as an actual threat of divorce.  A classroom teacher scolding a peer may cause anxiety or distress. Some children with high sensitivity may appear unaffected or disengaged from stressors.  Unfortunately, this is likely an unconscious strategy to cope with intense stress too overwhelming or difficult to verbalize (fight, flight or freeze response).

The child with heightened sensitivity adds challenge to parenting.  It is important for parents to remind themselves that the child’s feelings are real (to the child) and deserve respect even if difficult to understand.  Intense parental discipline may induce anxiety or shame, and the child may feel overwhelmed by intense forms of discipline.  Such parenting mistakes will occur when raising a child gifted with high sensitivity.  However, a parent’s hug and apology enhances trust and soothes the child’s distress.  When parents are thoughtful about discipline and able to offer significant encouragement, the child does much better. 

With proper understanding and support, children with high emotional sensitivity are likely to grow up well-adjusted and fulfilled.  If you or your child are highly sensitive and want some help with your own sensitivity or with the challenges of parenting in this situation, we can meet you where you are and offer hope. Call 605-334-2696 today.