Welcome to the moment I learned about the highly sensitive child. This term, this trait, changed my parenting forever. A few months ago, I mentioned to a friend that we were really struggling with our daughter’s behavior. Our toolbox of ideas had run out (read more here) and we were feeling defeated.
Our daughter’s behavior was getting increasingly hard to deal with- screaming fits, physical aggression, poor listening, and it was wearing on us.
This friend of mine happens to be a fellow blogger (she blogs over at TwinMomandMore). She’s never met our 4 year old in person (or me for that matter), but from reading my blogs about her and from talking to me about her personality, it was clear to her that our daughter is a highly sensitive child, and that I needed to read The Highly Sensitive Child book.
When I heard that phrase “highly sensitive child”, I had no idea what it even meant. Unfortunately, in our society today, that terminology translates into “highly emotional child”. While, she is emotional, there is so much more to being a highly sensitive child (I’ll discuss below).
So, if you are reading this and have never heard of The Highly Sensitive Child book, I’d like to change that.
The Highly Sensitive Child book is a book that was written by a doctor. She is a psychologist that originally studied child temperament. Elaine Aron PhD was among the first to research high sensitivity children.
Early research was focused on
“…shyness, introversion, inhibitedness, being slow to warm up, or plain fearfulness.”The Highly Sensitive Child by Elaine Aron (page xii)
“Although a sensitive child might become shy, introverted, fearful, and so forth, none of these captures the underlying trait, which usually cannot be seen in just one behavior. A better term for it may come along- the genes do not come with labels- but ‘high sensitivity’ is [Dr Elaine Aron’s] attempt to capture it.”The Highly Sensitive Child by Elaine Aron (page xii)
She took the trait that had been previously identified and gave it a more accurate name “high sensitivity”.
Through her extended research, the HSC (highly sensitive child) trait has been identified.
This trait is so much more than what the term “sensitive” might make you initially think of.
(I’ll explain some key things to look for in your child below).
I bought the book immediately upon hearing my friend’s suggestion to do so. She has a post detailing the signs of a highly sensitive child here.
I knew it was going to be a good fit for us just from the title of the book:
The Highly Sensitive Child: Helping Our Children Thrive When The World Overwhelms Them
Our daughter is so easily overwhelmed. Her view of the world is just different.
There are many things that make our daughter fit into the highly sensitive child category. These qualities make her an incredible person.
So let me start by saying this:
Having a highly sensitive child is incredibly rewarding.
It is NOT something that should be viewed as negative. The benefits far outweigh any challenges.
At the same time, it’s one of the most difficult challenges we’ve faced as parents. It can be overwhelming for us, and exhausting.
Parenting strategies that would work for the typical child just don’t work for us. We’ve gotten to the point that we feel as though we’ve exhausted all of our options and don’t know what else to try.
As a result, we’re starting by just taking a step back and getting to understand our daughter better, and figuring out what this whole “Highly Sensitive Child” thing really is.
What is a Highly Sensitive Child?
Understanding the highly sensitive child is key to being able to parent one effectively.
There are 4 main aspects that are present in a highly sensitive child.
Elaine Aron uses the acronym “D.O.E.S” as an easy way to remember them:
Depth of Processing
Depth of processing is basically saying that your child has “deeper thoughts about things.” (page xiii)
This can present itself in a variety of ways. As with anything, this is not an all or nothing situation. Your child might show some of these signs, but not all.
Things like having thought provoking questions and using big words for their age is a sign of this. These children can be seen as wise and mature for their age as a result.
These children may appear to be shy or nervous around new people and new situations. They are are pausing to think.
“…when HSPs (highly sensitive people) are trying to see the difference between two slightly varied pictures, they show more brain activity than non-HSPs in areas that do just that- consider the complexities and details in a perception, not simply the superficial aspects. That is, they employ more of those parts of the brain involved in ‘deeper’ or more elaborate processing.”The Highly Sensitive Child by Elaine Aron (page xiv)
Our daughter doesn’t ask why. She asks for more specifics.
Today I told our 4 year old daughter that our bodies need to be exposed to good bacteria to keep us healthy.
She didn’t ask why, why, why to every statement I made.
No. She asked “How can we get rid of the bad bacteria, and keep the good bacteria? How do we know if we are keeping enough of the good bacteria for our bodies?”
I’ve always been amazed by her questions.
At two and a half she was learning and asking questions about chromosomes because her unborn baby sister had an extra one. She wanted to know all the details.
Our 4 year old uses words like “plethora”, and “especially”, “disintegrate”, “produce”, “phenomenal”, “specifically”, and “literally” in her everyday discussions.
If I mention a word once, she starts using it immediately.
Sometimes I will notice she hears me say a word one day, and the next day it’s almost her “word of the day” and she uses it correctly over and over.
Being Easily Overstimulated
“For all children, so much is new in every moment, and we deliberately introduce new things as they grow, so that they often get overstimulated, tired, and distressed. However, this is much truer for HSCs (highly sensitive children), who are built so that they notice and think about everything new much more than other kids.”The Highly Sensitive Child by Elaine Aron (page xv)
Every parent knows this – an overtired or overstimulated child is a child that is going to have meltdowns, tantrums, do poor listening, act out, etc. Add in hunger, and it’s the trifecta for disaster in a young child.
Unfortunately, highly sensitive children can get overstimulated very easily.
These children go to birthday parties and everyone comes home exhausted. They have this huge depth of processing that was mentioned above. They take in EVERY single detail.
The balloons swaying the in the wind, the tablecloth that is about to come loose and fly away, the new people, the kids running around chaotically, the scent of the perfume of the lady who just walked by, the bees buzzing the flower near by, the food that was dropped on the ground, and on and on and on.
With this depth of processing, these children notice every detail. As a result, their mental stimulation is on overload.
After a whole day of taking in all of the details, they are overstimulated. Heck, after a few minutes of a chaotic situation like a party, they are overstimulated.
These children may struggle at parties, in classrooms, in sports, or when being tested.
Taking our daughter to a birthday party is quite the task. I know that the other children will be running around enjoying themselves, and that she will be attached to my hip- even at 4 years old.
She wants to enjoy herself, but she is genuinely nervous and scared of so many things. She’s scared that the tablecloths might fly off of the table.
She’s scared that other children might run into her. She doesn’t understand how other children play. She wants them to focus on her and play with her- not just run around aimlessly the way 4 year olds without a care in the world tend to do.
She’s terrified of new people and having to socialize and interact with them, or even be near them.
Add all of that up, and birthday parties are stressful for both of us.
We go, and we figure it out, and we even have fun (as evidenced in the splash park photo above). But- it is hard.
Emotionally Reactive and Having High Empathy
“As a parent of an HSC, you know what this emotional responsiveness and empathy looks like, as when your child feels everything so deeply; cries easily; ‘reads your mind’; is a perfectionist or reacts intensely to making the slightest error; or notices the distress of others, including school friends, family members, strangers, and sometimes animals especially…”The Highly Sensitive Child by Elaine Aron (page xvii)
This quote stood out to me so much.
Our daughter has always been able to finish our thoughts for us.
She is passionate. So passionate.
From the very young age of 2, she was able to identify her emotions and communicate them to us so well.
She can look at someone’s face and body language and know exactly how they feel. There is no hiding anything from her.
She is a perfectionist and always has been. I used to joke that, even as a baby, she would practice things in her crib before she’d show her skills to me. She’d perfect it, then show me.
She practiced pulling herself up, rolling, sitting, etc. Only once she’d mastered it would she show me out of her crib. It was fascinating to watch on the video monitor.
She flat out refused to say names for the longest time. My husband and I hated it, because it’s simply not polite. We worked with her on this over and over. Only when she knew she could say it correctly, perfectly- then she would say it. She was simply scared to fail.
When doing something like writing practice, she will get very upset if she does something incorrectly, or she’ll simply pretend she doesn’t know how to do it at all, since she doesn’t want to do it any less than perfect.
I could go on and on.
She has all the feels.
At 2.5 she could look at me, know that I was sad, and offer me hugs. She’s got an incredible capacity for loving others with all of her heart, and knowing just what they need from her.
Being Aware of Subtle Stimuli
“…parents know about their HSC’s sensitivity to subtle stimuli, as when their child notices even slight changes in the appearance of people or places, as when a piece of furniture has been moved or removed; a “funny” odor that makes them refuse to enter a place…”The Highly Sensitive Child by Elaine Aron (page xix)
“They notice a tone of voice, a glance, a snub, or a small sign of encouragement.”
I feel like this is an underlying aspect of everything already discussed. It’s the heart of it all really, to me anyways.
These children have deeper thought, because they notice every single little detail.
These children get overstimulated, because they notice every single little detail.
These children have higher emotional reactivity and empathy, because they notice every single detail.
They are essentially on sensory overload.
They are in tune with the world around them. They know how they feel, they know how others feel, and they see every social cue that most people don’t notice until much later in life after many lessons.
We are to the point in our journey that we are trying to give our daughter the extra support that she needs, and we are trying so hard to learn how to support her better ourselves.
Part of that extra support is in the form of play therapy. She’s done this once before (after her sister died).
I remember telling people that she was too smart for the therapy. She knew what the therapist was trying to get out of her and just politely did what seemed to be expected through subtle cues.
When the therapist asked her to draw a picture of her family, she knew full well that the therapist was wanting to see if she included her sister, April, in the drawing.
And when her new therapist was paraphrasing her question, instead of answering it, she told me that it was frustrating.
Our 4 year old said, “The therapist wasn’t confused. Her face looked normal. It was like she wasn’t answering me on purpose. She didn’t not understand my question, Mama.”
Nothing gets past her. This is an amazing quality. It’s also a very hard to learn how to parent a child like this and support them in the best ways you can.
Parenting a Highly Sensitive Child
Raising a highly sensitive child, means that you need to be willing to let them be highly sensitive and embrace it.
It means that you need to understand what it means, and then be willing to support your child and help them navigate an overwhelming world.
I fully believe that it is on us, as parents, to learn how to support our children, and not on our children to learn how to fit in to our idea of what should happen.
“Your HSC is ready – more ready than others – to respond to everything helpful and wise that you have to offer.”The Highly Sensitive Child by Elaine Aron (page xxv)
We have to find the ways to support our children, because they are ready. They are wanting our support.
We don’t know yet how to fully support our daughter. We are working on that. I imagine it will be a continual learning curve for us through the many stages of our parenting journey.
I do know a few things that have helped her, and a few things that seem to make things worse.
What has helped our HSC thrive
Openness and honesty.
Explanations. Giving as much information and knowledge to our daughter as is age appropriate.
Giving her a heads up as to any new situation we are about to encounter. What will be there, what will happen, what my expectations are, etc. I have to paint the picture in detail ahead of time to best mentally prepare her.
Letting her have her big feelings and hearing her. Showing her that we understand her feelings.
Apologizing and choosing our battles. I have at times realized that I chose the wrong “battle”. I have also reacted wrong. I’ve yelled at times. I’ve made mistakes.
In those moments, we apologize to our daughter. We explain that we were wrong and made a mistake. We show her that we can come back and fix our mistakes and build our relationships back.
And then there is a whole slew of parenting tactics that we’ve used that worked for awhile, or at a younger age, but then stopped working.
What Is the One Thing We Have Stopped Doing with Our HSC?
Praising her for a job well done.
It makes her upset. She doesn’t think she deserves the praise. Praise can actually cause a fit to happen.
We’ve learned that the hard way.
Now, we simply thank her for doing her best. We don’t focus on how amazing of a job she just did- even though it is typically pretty amazing.
Is My Child a Highly Sensitive Child?
By now you probably know if you have a highly sensitive child or not. The words above spoke to you if you’ve read this far.
Not every single aspect is going to apply to each child, however.
Elaine Aron has created a test that you can take here, to see if your child is likely considered to be highly sensitive.
There are 23 questions to answer. If your child scores 13 or higher on this test, he or she is probably highly sensitive.
I scored our daughter at a 20, and my husband scored her at 23. In other words, regardless of our small discrepancy in score, she is definitely a very highly sensitive child.
What’s Next in Our Journey?
Our daughter is going to play therapy, with a therapist that specializes in high sensitive children.
Most importantly, we are learning about our HSC. We are learning about how to best support her.
We will be taking a parenting workshop, with a therapist that specializes in highly sensitive children. The workshop is designed to teach us how to handle our HSC.
And, we’ll be reading and rereading the book. Together.
Parenting doesn’t work very well unless you do it as a team. You have to be on the same page.
We are literally going to be on the same page, as we read this book out loud word by word, page by page.
Luckily, my husband is not only willing to figure this out with me, he’s the one that found the outside support for us. He thought to look up therapists that specialize in highly sensitive children!
I am more in love with this man every single day for things like that. What an amazing father and teammate to have on this crazy parenting ride.
We’re struggling right now a bit. We don’t fully understand how to support our daughter.
But we’re going to figure it out. One way or another. We are determined to be the parents that she needs and to help her as much as we can.
Because she’s incredible.
We have a 4 year old that is wise beyond her years, and has such a kind heart. She’s smart, she’s intuitive, she’s fabulous. And she deserves everything this world has to offer.
Frequently Asked Questions about The Highly Sensitive Child Book
Highly sensitive child.
The Highly Sensitive Child by Elaine Aron can be found at amazon or any major bookstore. It is a book that explains the highly sensitive trait in children. This trait has 4 aspects that contribute to this behavior in children.
There are 4 aspects that all highly sensitive children have: Depth of processing, Easily Overstimulated, Emotional Reactivity and Empathy, Sensitive to Subtle Stimuli. Read more in this post.
Get your copy of The Highly Sensitive Child book by going to amazon here. This book is PACKED full of information. It has a chapter for toddlers and preschoolers. It has a chapter for school aged children, and one for adolescents. It even has 4 keys to raising a joyous HSC- fully explained. It is a must read. I have read it, and plan on rereading it a few more times!
Our Favorite Parenting Books:
Highly Sensitive Child Resources
An update on play therapy. We've been doing play therapy at home for 1 full year now! I'll give you all the details and how to make it work for your HSC in the comfort of your home!
Back Before We Knew Our Daughter was a Highly Sensitive Child...
Follow along in our struggles and as we noticed our child's unique quality, before we realized she was a highly sensitive child, or even knew of the trait...
Below are some of the posts I wrote about behavior struggles, and also positive things like her unique ability to express emotions at a young age.