He cries more often than other children. She is labeled "shy." He doesn't like "change." Smells bother him, noises startle him, and he seems easily frustrated. She crumbles in frustration when her parents don't seem to understand. Speaking harshly or responding in anger only brings more tears and frustration. Perhaps, she's a "drama queen."
Before a label or definition is cast, consider this; the child may be a "Highly Sensitive Child."
Dr. Elaine N. Aron, in her book, The Highly Sensitive Child (HSC), states, "A highly sensitive child is one of the fifteen to twenty percent of children born with a nervous system that is highly aware and quick to react to everything. This makes them quick to grasp subtle changes, prefer to reflect deeply before acting, and generally behave conscientiously. They are also easily overwhelmed by high levels of stimulation, sudden changes, and the emotional distress of others. Because children are a blend of a number of temperament traits, some HSCs are fairly difficult--active, emotionally intense, demanding, and
persistent--while others are calm, turned inward, and almost too easy to raise, except when they are expected to join a group of children they do not know. Outspoken and fussy, or reserved and obedient, all HSCs are sensitive to their emotional and physical environment. Studies have found these children naturally have greater levels of activity in their amygdala (the emotional center of the brain), demonstrating that it is not a learned personality characteristic, but an innate, genetic trait." (http://www.hsperson.com/pages/child.htm, accessed Dec. 2011)
But Don't Be Mistaken...
Before rushing to label a child "Highly Sensitive," realize this is noted as a pattern of behavior. This is not just a fussy toddler, or a baby who cries, or a teen with mood swings. Dr. Randy L. Cale, Licensed Psychologist, explains, "Children may react emotionally in many situations; what's important is whether the intensity of the response is appropriate." Dr. Aron explains, "These people appear inhibited because their heightened awareness makes them cognizant of all the possible outcomes of a particular situation. Highly sensitive children feel, smell, taste, and experience things in their environment with a great degree of intensity. Noisy places are bothersome. Lumps in socks bring a host of complaints. Calming down after a busy day is difficult. A stern look can feel as if it left an open wound. In short, they take in and take to heart more than their non-highly sensitive counterparts."
Western culture, in particular, has a hard time understanding these children. It rewards outgoing, gregarious children. Adults love a child who will engage...they are viewed as delightful, well spoken and intelligent. Yet, reserved children, or one's who think before engaging are often viewed as shy, unsocial, or even rude. Dr. Aron states, "Most psychologists and parents tend to see only one aspect of some sensitive children and call this trait shyness, inhibitedness, fearfulness, fussiness, or "hyper" sensitivity. If one could see inside the mind of a sensitive child, however, one would learn the whole story of what is going on--creativity, intuition, surprising wisdom, and great empathy for others, even animals."
I recall my daughter telling me why a baby was crying, "he wants to be fed" or "he is tired of that position." She would tell me why the dog was barking, "she wants to be put in her room" or "she wants me to give her some attention." They were surreal moments. I recall asking her at young ages, how she knew. She would reply, "I just know." And often, as we reacted according to her intuition, the child or animal would calm. Jeremy G. Schneider, a Marriage/Family Therapist, encourages, "Sensitive children have different, or perhaps more exaggerated, reactions to things. They don't act the way you'd expect a typical child should in many situations. Unfortunately, in our society, this is often seen as weakness, but it's just the opposite. The reality is that sensitive children have a gift. They are able to experience the world at a higher level than average children." (http://www.education.com/magazine/article/Raising_Sensitive_Child/, accessed Dec. 2011)
HSC's grow up with lots of positive characteristics in their favor; highly creative, observant, intuitive, thoughtful, artistic, and empathetic. They have a lot to offer that others simply can't because of their innate makeup.
The best gift a parent can give these children is to parent them differently. "One style parenting fits all" will not serve the highly sensitive child's needs. This is a child who is trying to learn to function in a sea of emotions and sensations to which most parents could never relate. He may be gifted and brilliant but his sensory system is not yet under his control. There are many helpful tools for parents (See Breakout Box) but there are two key issues parents must address.
The Keys to Successful Parenting of the Highly Sensitive Child
First key: These children need structure and limits. The senses they are experiencing make them feel out of control. They become overwhelmed and they need limits to help them feel there is control in their lives. Structure gives them security and a sense of control. Parents need to respond with empathy and understanding when they are out of control. In those instances, highly sensitive children may need some parental intervention to regain that control. If parents overreact or act irrationally due to the child's behavior, it will add fuel to the fire. If parents remain in control and help the child control the upsetting environment, a resolution can be reached. As early as possible, the child should be involved in setting limits for himself. This will help him learn to manage his sensitivities.
"The child must know that he is a miracle, that since the beginning of the world there hasn't been, and until the end of the world there will not be, another child like him." Pablo Casals
Second key: "Encourage and Teach Self-Observation." Helping children learn to label their emotions fosters coping mechanisms. Only when the issue affecting the child is identified can it be accurately addressed. If a child feels "bad" about school in general, no real issue can be worked out. But, if she feels "angry" about a boy calling her names, she can figure out how to cope, not only with the feelings but the situation. It takes skill and effort for parents to help children in this process and a boat load of patience. Parents can help children talk about and deal with their issues and feelings. When children can pinpoint they find upsetting, they can learn coping mechanisms to feel in control. It may be a guessing game at first, parents suggesting, "do you feel mad at someone," or "are you afraid of something/someone," or even "did someone hurt your feelings?" etc. Working through this and arriving at the core issue validates his feelings and getting to that main issue are worth the time and effort. Parents then can provide an objective viewpoint and help the child find solutions to problems.
Frustration can be an understatement when it comes to parents dealing with a HSC but understanding the child's unique perspective will go a long way in helping the parent gain insight into his worlds/needs. These children have "eyes to see," "ears to hear," and "hearts to feel" things that most people will never experience. They have been gifted with skills to provide some of life's largest blessings. After all, who doesn't want an empathetic friend, an intuitive daughter, or a creative employee? Highly sensitive children offer the world what a large majority cannot: a very sensitive heart.
Please Note for the health of your child: If you notice that your child's sensitivity is severe and getting in the way of normal functioning, then please seek out an expert opinion. Other disorders exist that carry some of these same characteristics. Talk to your doctor to assess the situation.
#1 – "There are children playing in the streets who could solve some of my top problems in physics, because they have modes of sensory perception that I lost long ago".
~ J. Robert Oppenheimer (http://www.quotegarden.com/inner-child.html, accessed Dec. 2011)
#2 – (http://thinkexist.com/quotations/children/, accessed Dec. 2011)