Parenting the Highly Sensitive Child

A friend of mine was telling me about how she discovered she may be a Highly Sensitive Person. Through our discussion of what this means, she pointed out that my oldest child may be highly sensitive, which changes the ever evolving lens through which I parent him. 

Parents are inundated with messages about the best way to raise their children. What I have found to be true in real life is that what works one day may not the next day. Children are growing through many different stages at a staggering pace and so the best advice I can give parents is just to get to know their child, maintain an open and affectionate bond, and be willing to adapt to all situations that present themselves. 

So when I began to consider the ways in which my child is highly sensitive, it does not create an earth shattering change in the way I parent, but it is new information I begin to integrate into my methods and the way I respond to my child. 

Research psychologist, Elaine Aron, coined the term “Highly Sensitive Person” in the 1990s following extensive study of highly sensitive temperament traits. Being highly sensitive can mean a lot of different things. It means the child or person perceives sensory stimuli at a more intense rate than what most people might. Highly sensitive people may also be incredibly observant or attuned to subtle changes in the environment. They may become overwhelmed more easily. They may process events with incredible depth.

What is most interesting is that my oldest son definitely possesses some of these traits, but not all of them. He is a very deep thinker, he notices everything, he is emotional and takes very literally to heart his social interactions. But he is not bothered by any physical stimulus. He likes loud music, he likes to get dirty, he thrives in the middle of a crowd. 

As a parent, it is important to carefully walk the difficult balance of allowing space for the child’s sensitivities but also teaching the child ways to cope with what challenges them personally. It is possible to be compassionate and considerate of any type of sensitivity while also not necessarily catering every interaction to it. 

For example, I have also learned about myself that I process things very deeply. I have a tendency to overanalyze, have concern or worry, and consider a multitude of possible ramifications of every action. This serves me well as a writer and communicator, I am deliberate with my words. It serves me well in my bookkeeping work, I stay on top of my tasks. But I also recognize that not everyone processes this deeply or needs to hear my comprehensive analysis if they ask me a question. I have learned to tailor my responses to be more concise where needed. This further improves my communication because neither others nor myself become bogged down in my thought process. 

My internal processing remains unencumbered, I can think as deeply as I want about a situation, but the outward expression I have learned over time to tailor to the situation. Learning to own your personal tendencies but also adapt them to the situation appropriately is a skill that all children will need with regard to some personality traits, whether they are considered highly sensitive or not. 

Being able to talk with your child about their personality traits will be an important piece to parenting them over every stage of life. Start the conversations early. Children are more capable of self-reflection than what we generally give them credit for. They can definitely begin to thoughtfully notice and respond to patterns of behavior that we deem “personality” by elementary school age. 

Scaffolding may be a useful technique for parents. Scaffolding is a method of teaching that uses what the child already knows to introduce a new concept. This tenet holds true beyond reading, writing, and arithmetic. Children can use their previous experiences to build new understanding of themselves, too. Keeping an open and ongoing dialogue about your child’s emotions and sensitivities can help craft future conversations when you need to bridge your child’s understanding of a difficult concept. 

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