The Highly Sensitive Child: What You Need to Know

highly sensitive child

As the parent of a teenager, I’ve known from the start that my daughter falls into the category of a “highly sensitive child” (HSC). So I have a solid base of experience to back up my recent research on the topic of highly sensitive children and how to help them blossom.

So what is a highly sensitive child? Highly sensitive children represent between 15-20% of children whose nervous systems, and therefore temperaments, are more reactive and sensitive to their internal and external environments. These children are more easily stimulated and overwhelmed, think things through more thoroughly, tend to show above average empathy for others, and take in a higher-than-average level of sensory information (tastes, smells, textures, etc.)  Many are introverts. They also often exhibit above average levels of intellect, creativity, and intuition.

Highly sensitive children’s responses and reactions can seem extreme to those who don’t share their sensitivities. Between meltdowns and tantrums, situations can be more challenging than not. But by learning more about children with these temperaments, it’s easier to understand their seemingly extreme responses and even predict situations that may be too much for them.

Highly Sensitive Child Definition

A highly sensitive child can be defined as one who exhibits above-average responses or reactions to both internal and external stimuli (emotional and environmental).

This can manifest in varied ways from child to child. One highly sensitive child may be jumpy and hyperactive from being over-stimulated. Another highly sensitive child may withdraw and seem extra calm for the same reason. Yet a third may simply have an emotional melt-down from the same stimulus.

The reactions are different, yet the root similarity is the cause: being over-stimulated by a situation that most children don’t even notice as anything out of the ordinary.  

Highly Sensitive Child Characteristics

Characteristics of highly sensitive children vary, yet some common traits are found in all children who are considered to have a “highly sensitive” temperament. Both common and varied characteristics include:

Shared Common Traits of Highly Sensitive Children:

  • Emotional reactions are felt more intensely
  • Experiences are processed in greater depth
  • Exhibits a higher-than-usual level of empathy for others
  • Easily emotionally overstimulated and/or overwhelmed
  • Highly sensitive to stimuli others don’t notice at the same levels

Sensitivities Relating to Emotional Responses

  • Intense emotional reactions – both positive and negative emotions are exhibited more intensely
  • Emotionally sensitive and brought to tears easily; feelings get hurt easier than with other children
  • Processes things more deeply than others – thinks things through more thoroughly
  • Caregivers may describe them as quiet or shy (most highly sensitive people, including children, are introverts)
  • Very empathetic and caring toward others
  • Easily overly-stimulated and needs more rest than their peers
  • Is typically highly conscientious about doing the right thing and is eager to please others whom they respect
  • Insightful and thoughtful for their age

Sensitivities Relating to Stimuli

  • Sensitive to fabrics and textures (clothes may feel itchy or rough and abrasive)
  • Things are just too “something” (too hot, too cold, too rough, too slick, too sandy, etc.) when peers don’t seem to be bothered or even notice
  • Notices and attempts to avoid environments that are too loud, too bright, or where there are too many people
  • Notices and attempts to avoid smells that are too strong when the same smells are barely noticeable or bothersome to others
  • Sensitive to pain – more so than other children seem to be
  • Picky and selective about food choices, including textures and consistencies
  • Notices subtle changes to environments – highly observant to small details
  • Intuitive and picks up on others’ moods, energy, expressions, and body language

Sensitivities Relating to New Experiences and Situations

  • Cautious about new situations, groups of people and environments
  • Can be easily overwhelmed in new or complex social situations
  • Sensitive to sudden changes and prefers getting used to changes more gradually
  • Takes more time than average to transition from one activity to the next
  • Thrown off by being startled or surprised
  • Takes more time than average to warm up to new people
  • Enjoys solitary time

Signs of a Highly Sensitive Child

If you’re wondering if your child is a highly sensitive child, here are some signs that may indicate you have a HSC in your life:

  • Deadlines and time limits cause a near (or actual) meltdown
  • They generally prefer quiet activities over loud or active ones
  • They don’t adjust to change quickly or easily
  • They are observant of the smallest details others don’t notice
  • They tend to have a larger-than-average vocabulary
  • They’re highly emotional and feel deeply
  • Generally intuitive
  • They ask deeper questions than their peers of the same age

Highly Sensitive Child Test

Is there a test to help determine if your child is considered “highly sensitive”? Actually, there is.  It was created by Dr. Elaine Aron, author of “The Highly Sensitive Person.” Dr. Aron is a psychotherapist specializing in sensitive children, sensitivity in general, and love using functional magnetic resonance imaging.

In the online test, questions were designed in a way that you simply check the boxes for traits that seem true for your child (based on your experience).  The number of boxes you check determines whether or not the test indicates your child is considered “highly sensitive.”

You can link to the test here.

Understanding the Highly Sensitive Child

Highly sensitive children thrive in environments and with people who understand them. They don’t want to feel uncomfortable or singled out by their responses. Because they exhibit traits that can seem either picky or extreme to others, it’s easy to dismiss their preferences, responses or reactions as being “difficult,” challenging, or simply wanting attention.

When dealing with HSCs, ask questions and respond with compassion. Over time, you’ll see patterns develop. For example, when my daughter was in middle school, she looked forward to going to school dances. Yet, the occasions when she attended, she always called to be picked up early.

By asking questions in a sensitive manner, I learned that even though she was having fun with friends, she would end up in the girls’ bathroom crying, trying to “regroup” and collect herself before going back out to join her friends. The loud music, strobe lights, and so much activity was too stimulating for her.

She couldn’t explain it very well, and her friends didn’t understand at first. Yet, over time, as they got to know her, eventually they joined her in the girls’ bathroom on those occasions and would just hang out and talk until ready to join the larger group again.

The same thing happened when we took her and a friend bowling. The loud environment and strobe lights were overwhelming, and she couldn’t focus on the actual fun of bowling. The evening ended (fairly quickly) with a silent crying meltdown in the girls’ bathroom.

So if you notice your child reacting in more extreme manners than other children during situations, ask questions. Learning the “why” behind the reaction can help understand what he or she is feeling and also help to make choices that are a better fit for your child. As they get older, they tend to develop their own coping strategies. But until then, having an understanding support system is invaluable.

Highly Sensitive Child Parenting Strategies

HSCs are more responsive to a sensitive parenting style. As parents, you will be more successful offering firm yet gentle guidance and giving “requests” rather than harsh or strict punishment. If you partner with your child as a style of parenting, he or she feels part of the process, feels more in control, and helps to avert meltdowns, tantrums, etc.

HSCs still need boundaries and limits, yet they are often so hard on themselves already that a softer style works best.

Here are a few tips and strategies to help:

  • Transitions are more challenging for HSCs, so build extra time into your schedule to avoid rushing them. (This is not coddling your child. Rushing an HSC will backfire and end up taking MORE time than necessary.)
  • HSCs thrive in a routine-oriented environment and home life.  If their home life is too unstructured, they feel out of control (feeding a sense of overwhelm).
  • Create a space for them at home that matches their temperament where they can have their down-time. Whether it’s filled with soft pillows and calming colors or quiet games and books, learn what is most calming to him or her and match their space to their preferences.
  • Accept his or her uniqueness rather than trying to change their temperament. Learn to work with their strengths and help with coping strategies for dealing with challenging situations.

Parenting a highly sensitive child can seem more challenging, yet can also be more rewarding. Understanding your child’s needs and temperament is key. Offering guidance and coping strategies along the way will help you both to navigate challenging situations.

Highly Sensitive Child Sleep Problems

HSCs often have difficulty with sleeping enough or sleeping soundly. They actually tend to need more sleep than their peers.

Common sleep challenges include: their mind racing and unable to calm down enough to get to sleep; being sensitive to anything new (a light, sound, shape or shadow, etc.) which can activate their imagination or simply be bothersome to the point it keeps them awake; and being overly tired which can lead to difficulty relaxing.

Here are strategies that can be helpful for your highly sensitive child to get enough quality sleep:

  • Have a “getting ready for bed” routine. You’ll want to start the routine EARLY (about an hour before actual “bedtime”). Involve your child in setting the routine. Since HSCs fare better when they feel in control, offering choices and allowing them to be involved in decisions is helpful. (For example, asking what order they want to do activities in, such as brushing teeth, taking a bath or shower, etc.)
  • Keep the atmosphere relaxed during this time frame. HSCs already have though times with transitions moving from one activity to the next, and the “being up and awake” to being “asleep” transition is a big one. Providing a relaxing atmosphere helps your child to transition from being active, to being calm, to being relaxed, and then finally asleep.
  • Instill bedtime rituals. At any age, your HSC will benefit from having a bedtime ritual. Ideas for this are reading books together; meditation or prayers; listening to relaxing music; or talking quietly about the day.

Emotionally Sensitive Child

Emotionally sensitive children may not exhibit other traits that HSCs do, yet may simply be sensitive to the emotional aspects of life. Being considered “emotionally sensitive” refers to the ease or difficulty related to how your child responds emotionally to circumstances and situations.

There are two areas of emotional sensitivity, and a child may exhibit one or both: 1) How your child navigates his or her own emotions; and 2) how your child navigates others’ emotions.  The degree in which he or she is in tune with emotions is key to understanding this trait.

An emotionally sensitive child may exhibit some or all of these traits:

Relating to self –

  • Feel things very deeply
  • Express his or her feelings very clearly
  • When reading a book or watching a movie, do their responses seem more intense than their peers? (Excessively scared, sad, excited, etc.?)
  • Cries easily and often
  • Has difficulty letting things go and moving on
  • Takes things personally (more so than peers) and gets upset when criticized, disciplined, or singled out

Relating to others –

  • Noticing how others are feeling
  • Empathizing with others’ feelings
  • Being sensitive to and picking up on others’ “energy” (if someone else is nervous, or sad, or scared, your child feels it too by association)

Related Questions

How do you help a sensitive child? As a parent, you can help by using these tips: Accept and appreciate your child’s sensitivities; learn to work with your child’s strengths and do not try and change his or her temperament – but rather embrace it; teach coping strategies, especially for social situations; give extra time for transitions from one activity to the next; partner with your child to create routines and rituals, offering choices so that he or she feels in control; and ask questions (compassionately) to better understand your child’s responses and reactions.

Why is my child sensitive? Highly sensitive children simply arrive that way in the world. It’s not the result of how they are parented, their environment, or anything else. It’s the particular temperament many children (15-20%) are born with.

How do you discipline a highly sensitive child? Partnering with your child and being respectful (including about his or her choices) tends to be most successful with highly sensitive children, rather than using strict or harsh discipline. Set clear boundaries and offer reminders in a firm, yet kind and respectful manner. When your child pushes limits and isn’t respecting boundaries (or doing what was asked), the best strategy is to ask your child what he or she thinks would work. Surprisingly, by showing that you respect his or her judgement, you will most likely – together – come up with a strategy and logical consequences that works to reach your parenting goals.

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