A Highly Sensitive Child: a gift and a challenge for a parent

Perhaps you have already been in a situation when your child’s relatives, family, teachers or guardians have called it shy, too emotional, too fragile, anxious or oversensitive. Perhaps your educational methods have been questioned, you have been accused of being overprotective, you have been encouraged to use stricter and more resolute upbringing methods.

The experiences of parents of highly sensitive children usually follow a similar path. Initially, they are concerned that their child is “different” from its peers, that it cries more often, finds it more difficult to find itself in new places, start playing in a group, that it is disturbed by various sounds and rejects some tastes. They also experience the pleasure from their child’s school achievements, exceptional perceptiveness, insight and empathy. So what is high sensitivity, what does it involve and how is it manifested in a child’s behaviour?

What is high sensitivity?

In studies and publications (e.g. Aron, 2002; Aron & Aron, 1997; Jagiellowicz et al., 2016), the trait that we are describing is referred to as sensory processing sensitivity – SPS. It is a trait describing inter-individual differences in sensitivity to both positive and negative environments. SPS is a heritable temperamental trait, which means that it is associated with the structure of our nervous system, and not with a disorder, dysfunction or educational neglect (Greven et al., 2019). This trait is not a new discovery, but over the years it has often been understood and interpreted in different ways. The issues connected with sensory processing sensitivity have been noticed and popularised by an American psychologist, Elain N. Aron. She referred to the people with the SPS trait as highly sensitive, and the trait itself was commonly referred to as high sensitivity. According to the author (2002), due to the fact that highly sensitive people prefer to observe first before engaging in new situations, they are often called “shy”. Over the years, high sensitivity has also been referred to as inhibition, timidity or neuroticism. Some highly sensitive individuals may behave in this way (be timid, neurotic or inhibited), but this is not a basic trait that proves high sensitivity or is equivalent to it.

How can you tell that your child is highly sensitive?

Elain Aron (1997; 2002) has identified four aspects of high sensitivity understood as a personality trait. If a child does not demonstrate any of the traits mentioned, probably we are nor dealing with high sensitivity here. The characteristics are described with the DOES acronym. The acronym has been created from the first letters of the chief characteristics of highly sensitive individuals, that is:

D – Depth of processing
O – Overstimulation (the ease of being overstimulated)
E – Emotional reactivity and empathy
S – subtle stimuli (sensitivity to subtle stimuli)

D - depth of processing

Deep processing of information is about trying to grasp the essence and meaning of a given experience. Highly sensitive children analyse, think and reflect longer than their peers. In a child, sensitivity in this sphere manifests itself in such behaviours as:

  • diligence in doing,
  • intense emotionality,
  • detailed consideration of various activities (anticipating various, often unfavourable, pessimistic scenarios),
  • longer time of processing new information, compared to peers,
  • asking “deep”, thought-provoking questions,
  • using words that are sophisticated considering the child’s age, sense of humour,
  • difficulty making decisions due to considering too many options,
  • slow (compared to less sensitive peers) adapting to new people and situations (due to the need to take a closer look and reflect).

If you observe the above behaviours in your child, it probably means that it analyses, thinks and considers more deeply and more than an average child.

Mum of Michasia, aged 6*

“She wakes up in the morning and says she already knows the answer to the question about who came first: the egg or the chicken. And she continues that it is obvious it is the chicken, because it would be very unfair if the child grew up alone”

Mum of Franio, aged 4

“He will not play his role at the kindergarten, but he remembers each and every role of each and every person”

Mum of Jaś, aged 5

“The kindergarten teacher said that he is naughty, that he says he is bored while rehearsing for the play. And he really memorises quickly, although he looks as if he were suspended, detached”

O - Overstimulation

Another characteristic of highly sensitive children is being easily overstimulated. If you already know that your child processes information more deeply, analyses what is happening in and around it more intensely, then it probably also gets tired mentally and physically quicker than other children. Highly sensitive children notice everything new and think about it more intensely than their peers. A potentially attractive situation for other children, e.g. a trip, visit to a playroom, provides the child with too many stimuli. Their number and intensity may make it difficult for your child to function as the conditions require (cf. Aron, 2002). In other words, your child may be disturbed by what may be ignored by other children.

The consequences of overstimulation in highly sensitive children may be as follows:

  • difficulty falling asleep after an intense day, waking up in the middle of the night,
  • extreme reactions to change, to pain, to hunger,
  • intense reactions to noise, cold, heat, artificial light, discomfort (e.g. sand in a shoe, damp clothes, itchy clothing tag, dirty hands, seams in clothes),
  • reluctance to stay in crowded places,
  • desire for lonely (individual) quiet play,
  • reluctance to participate in team games,
  • reluctance to speak in front of the class (group),

Remember, however, that there are also individual differences among highly sensitive children. Some of the children may become furious, angry, aggressive, may avoid things that stimulate, irritate or overwhelm them. Others withdraw, do not come to attention. Some other redirect attention to other activities, e.g. they watch TV, read, stay in their inner world. Overstimulated children can be very active at home, giving the impression that they have attention deficits (while their attention is normal when they are not overstimulated).

Perhaps you have already noticed that each such “breakdown”, intense difficulty or stress in your child leads to rest or defusing the tension.

Mum of Jaś, aged 4

“Whatever difficult happens, he reacts with aggression, screams, stamps, sometimes you don’t know what’s it all about, and then when we start to think about it we come to the conclusion that maybe he is hungry. And we are usually right.”

Mum of Jaś, aged 5

“The kindergarten teacher said that he is not able to concentrate, that he is bored during the rehearsal for the play, that he becomes irritated”

Mum of Antek, aged 4

“I ask him why he doesn’t want to perform. It took a long time for him to admit what the problem was, because we would sit in the front row to support him, we would sit in the back row so he couldn’t see us, because maybe we made him nervous. And he said: Mum, there are too many people”

Mum of Zosia, aged 3

“She was so agitated when she came back from the kindergarten, she would beat us, her brother. Everything was great at the kindergarten, the teachers said she behaved well. And when we turned off the TV and gave

E- Emotional reactivity and empathy

Another trait of highly sensitive children is also connected with the first trait mentioned, i.e. the depth of processing. Emotions are information about what is going on inside and outside a person. Due to their greater interest in the surrounding reality and greater tendency to observe, sensitive children also show more intense emotional reactions. The research conducted in the USA by Bianca Acevedo and her colleagues (2017) reveals that in highly sensitive people activation of brain regions responsible for memory, attention, awareness and reflective thinking (reflexivity) is observed. These children are able to empathise, react to other people’s moods, as if they felt their pain. High emotionality can be identified by:

  • outbursts of crying,
  • reacting to the mood /changed mood of an adult,
  • increased vigilance to emotions of other people,
  • difficulty coping with someone else’s dissatisfaction, anger or sadness.

Due to the strong emotions accompanying performance of the tasks to be evaluated, a highly sensitive child is a perfectionist, tries to satisfy his guardians and reacts strongly even to minor mistakes. He notices the suffering and stress of other people (for example, peers, family members, strangers, sometimes characters from children’s stories or movies, as well as animals). If you observe this trait in your child, it may be a challenge for you. Overstimulation-based behaviours of a child can be cumbersome. What is more, adults easily attribute intentions to a child, e.g. that it extorts things, is disobedient, spoilt, treated too indulgently, inconsistently, needs discipline, etc., while the behaviours of highly sensitive children are the result of a specific nervous system, not the mistakes in upbringing. The reactions of children are intense because they are more aware of the situation and the consequences of specific actions compared to their peers, and they devote more attention to analysing things (cf. Aron, 2002). At the same time, their ideas about the consequences are significantly more complex than those of their peers. In other words, a highly sensitive child may be afraid of what will probably never happen.

Mum of Pola, aged 4

“She recently had to dance with a boy from the younger group and she said that she doesn’t like dancing with him. I ask her why, because he is small? – no, because he has little hands and he gets nervous and his hands are sweating. When I know that he is nervous and his hands are sweating, I am also nervous and my hands are sweating too”.

Mum of Adam, aged 4

“I laugh that my child is a barometer. Whatever happens to me, he shows it. I’m angry, a little nervous, he is too. When I am sick, he comes again and again to check on me, not like the older daughter who doesn’t care”. He soaks up like a sponge”

Mum of Kasia, aged 8

“My daughter cries. She comes home from school and cries for no reason. And it is not even this ridiculous reason that makes her cry, but because something happened at school. Then, whenever she reminds of that, she cries that someone told her something a week ago.”

S - Subtle stimuli

Awareness to subtleties is identified as becoming aware of details, subtle sounds, touch, smell and taste. In children, this trait manifests itself among others in:

  • paying attention to changes in the appearance of people or places, e.g. moving of the furniture
  • paying attention to subtle smells, because of which, for example, a child does not want to go somewhere, participate in something, eat something
  • paying attention to gentle sounds (e.g. birds singing), works of art
  • noticing (and often reacting to) changes in the tone of the voice, “passing glances”, minor gestures.

Mum of Karolinka, aged 5

“My daughter is sensitive to the touch of clothes, some tights, she doesn’t want to wear underwear. She hates tights with the under-foot seam, she pulls them up to her toes so that the seam doesn’t touch her”

“When she chooses clothes, the colours have to match […] She doesn’t want to wear dresses, because she says that her tights will rip”

“When she sees the hairbrush, she screams ‘ouch, don’t pull my hair”

Mum of Karol, aged 5

“He did not want to go to karate training because he says it’s loud there, and in fact music is playing. But he doesn’t react to machines, e.g. at the construction site, which are loud”

A gift and a challenge for a parent

Numerous studies show (Ellis & Boyce, 2011; Greven et al., 2019; Lionetti et al., 2018; Pluess & Belsky, 2010; Pluess & Boniwell, 2015; Slagt et al., 2018; Tillmann et al., 2018) that although high sensitivity itself is not a disorder, in negative, unfavourable and not understanding conditions, the behaviour of a highly sensitive child may resemble disorders, e.g. attention deficits, hyperactivity, social phobia. However, in a favourable environment, highly sensitive children do better than their peers: they get better grades at school, have more constructive moral attitudes, have better self-control, have higher social competences, a higher level of self-regulation, a greater sense of security resulting from experiencing the love of their closest family and friends. Michael Pluess (2015) writes about differential susceptibility to environmental influences and the so-called vantage sensitivity. The result of the same sensitivity is greater stress as well as greater insight, sensitivity to art or beauty. In the same child, there may be a combination of deep fear of the unknown and the unexpected as well as courage, openness and empathy. Conversations with the parents of highly sensitive children show that the experiences related to raising a child can be very tiring and extremely rewarding.

If, after reading the examples of behaviours of highly sensitive children, you feel that you are raising one of them, remember that you are not alone. About 15-20% of the population is highly sensitive. Thomas Boyce has compared highly sensitive children to orchids, and their peers being a majority to dandelions. The purpose of this analogy is to show that an orchid is an amazing flower, but it needs appropriate conditions to bloom.

What we can do to support highly sensitive children:

  • accept high sensitivity it as a natural trait, characteristic of our child
  • see sensitivity as a gift, not as a curse. Sensitivity characterises many well-known figures from the world of culture and art, which helped them become successful in what they do
  • use a calm form of discipline instead of strict orders and bans
  • focus on strengths resulting from sensitivity (e.g. perceptive thinking, intuition, reflectiveness, empathy), 
  • build a child’s stable self-esteem
  • develop the calming/comforting skills, both with regard to ourselves and the child (calming down, attentiveness to signals coming from the body). By doing that, we prepare them to coping with their own tension.

A highly protective or highly caring parent (because this is how we could describe them) does not do things instead of the child, does not protect it from experiences (even those difficult ones),  but tries to prepare it for living using adequate methods.

*The quotations come from the transcriptions of focus groups conducted in groups of parents of highly sensitive children in preschool and early school age.

REFERENCES

Acevedo, B. P., Jagiellowicz, J., Aron, E., Marhenke, R., Aron, A., & Acevedo, B. (2017). SENSORY PROCESSING SENSITIVITY AND CHILDHOOD QUALITY’S EFFECTS ON NEURAL RESPONSES TO EMOTIONAL STIMULI. 15.

Aron, E. (1997). The Highly Sensitive Person: How to Thrive When the World Overwhelms You (Reprint edition). Broadway Books.

Aron, E. N. (2002). The Highly Sensitive Child: Helping Our Children Thrive When The World Overwhelms Them. Harmony.

Aron, E. N., & Aron, A. (1997). Sensory-processing sensitivity and its relation to introversion and emotionality. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 73(2), 345–368. https://doi.org/10.1037/0022-3514.73.2.345

Ellis, B. J., & Boyce, W. T. (2011). Differential susceptibility to the environment: Toward an understanding of sensitivity to developmental experiences and context. Development and Psychopathology, 23(1), 1–5. https://doi.org/10.1017/S095457941000060X

Greven, C. U., Lionetti, F., Booth, C., Aron, E. N., Fox, E., Schendan, H. E., Pluess, M., Bruining, H., Acevedo, B., Bijttebier, P., & Homberg, J. (2019). Sensory Processing Sensitivity in the context of Environmental Sensitivity: A critical review and development of research agenda. Neuroscience & Biobehavioral Reviews, 98, 287–305. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.neubiorev.2019.01.009

Jagiellowicz, J., Aron, A., & Aron, E. N. (2016). Relationship Between the Temperament Trait of Sensory Processing Sensitivity and Emotional Reactivity. Social Behavior and Personality: An International Journal, 44(2), 185–199. https://doi.org/10.2224/sbp.2016.44.2.185

Lionetti, F., Aron, A., Aron, E. N., Burns, G. L., Jagiellowicz, J., & Pluess, M. (2018). Dandelions, tulips and orchids: Evidence for the existence of low-sensitive, medium-sensitive and high-sensitive individuals. Translational Psychiatry, 8(1). https://doi.org/10.1038/s41398-017-0090-6

Pluess, M. (2015). Individual Differences in Environmental Sensitivity. Child Development Perspectives, 9(3), 138–143. https://doi.org/10.1111/cdep.12120

Pluess, M., & Belsky, J. (2010). Differential susceptibility to parenting and quality child care. Developmental Psychology, 46(2), 379–390. https://doi.org/10.1037/a0015203

Pluess, M., & Boniwell, I. (2015). Sensory-Processing Sensitivity predicts treatment response to a school-based depression prevention program: Evidence of Vantage Sensitivity. Personality and Individual Differences, 82, 40–45. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.paid.2015.03.011

Slagt, M., Dubas, J. S., van Aken, M. A. G., Ellis, B. J., & Deković, M. (2018). Sensory processing sensitivity as a marker of differential susceptibility to parenting. Developmental Psychology, 54(3), 543–558. https://doi.org/10.1037/dev0000431

Tillmann, T., El Matany, K., & Duttweiler, H. (2018). Measuring Environmental Sensitivity in Educational Contexts: A Validation Study With German-Speaking Students. Journal of Educational and Developmental Psychology, 8(2), 17. https://doi.org/10.5539/jedp.v8n2p17

Author

Monika Baryła-Matejczuk, PhD

Monika Baryła-Matejczuk, PhD

Coordinator and an author of the content of ‘E-MOTION. Potential of highlysensitivity’ project. Author of the book “Non-routine Teachers. Psychological determinants of varied professional activity of teachers”. Cooperates with the Center for Education Development (unit of the Ministry of National Education). She is the author of publications on personal and professional functioning of teachers, highly sensitive children, non-routine professional activity, quality of relationships (marriage and cohabitants), positive psychology, psychological support. As a professional and practitioner psychologist she is committed to humanistic psychology and positive psychology, a holistic approach to humans.

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