Highly-sensitive child parenting strategies might sound like a label that a mommy blogger developed to explain why her child’s tantrums are really just a form of expression, but rest assured, that is not the case. Highly-sensitive children are a recognized, documented phenomenon with statistical reference to back it up. In fact, experts estimate that 15 to 20 percent of children fall into the category of highly-sensitive, but with different focal points, needs, and strengths.
So what exactly is a highly-sensitive child? The quiz below can help you determine if someone in your household might have the traits associated with being highly sensitive, but here’s a very brief rundown of some typical traits shared by highly-sensitive people, or HSPs:
- Aversion to overstimulating things, like pajamas that feel funny or noises/TV programs that are too loud or “busy”
- Likely to become overstimulated by too much interaction, prolonged interaction, and overexposure to some of those sensory obstacles
- A craving for or a direct need for routine, while being somewhat reluctant to engage in changes to their schedules or surprise disruptions
- A need to do some things at their own pace rather than on-pace with their peers
This list is by no means comprehensive and it is not intended to be any sort of diagnostic tool. It is simply a reminder of some things that many HSPs have in common, although they are all unique, exciting people.
Highly-Sensitive Child Symptoms
The word “symptom” sounds as though there is something inherently wrong with a highly-sensitive child, or worse, that there is something that must be treated or “fixed.” That is not the case. However, the word symptom fits very well here. Think of an HSP as having a condition that must be navigated rather than corrected, while also understanding that highly sensitive child parenting strategies must be taught and learned in order to help your HSP be a happy, well-adjusted person.
Let’s think of these symptoms in terms of actual examples and the real-world consequences.
- This fabric is too scratchy, I can’t wear this.
Many of us despise uncomfortable fabrics, itchy tags, too tight sleeves, and other wardrobe malfunctions. The difference in some of us and an HSP is that we can usually plow ahead and eventually ignore the discomfort, while a highly-sensitive child may actually have trouble concentrating, experience bouts of inattention, or even express the discomfort with an outward emotional response.
It’s tempting to think, “Big deal, it’s just some pajamas. I’ll buy her a different pair.” And yes, every child deserves to feel safe and comfortable, especially at bedtime. But if your child never overcomes this sensory issue, are you limiting them in some way? Are you pre-determining that they will never be on the cheerleading squad, play in the marching band, or even join the armed forces as an adult, all because they never learned to overcome this aversion?
- I can’t go to Grandma’s house, her perfume smells bad.
While I do not identify as an HSP, I am right there in agreement with all HSPs who have aversions to smells, especially the overpowering sort such as perfumes and aftershave. In all honesty, I would rather smell someone’s sweat or mild body odor than be choked by flowery perfumes after someone has practically bathed in it.
Now imagine an HSP who is literally suffering under the overpowering assault of this sort of smell. It must be torture for them. But again, there has to be an ability to work through it, overcome it, or at least learn to speak up and request that someone not produce this smell. Will your child fail a class in school because a teacher’s perfume is too strong? Perhaps they quit a good job they’ve worked hard to get because their supervisor smells like a funeral home. Will they be ridiculed for refusing to wash their hands or bathe with a strongly scented soap—the only soap available—because the smell is more than they can accept?
The Highly Sensitive Child Parenting Strategies
Understand The Burden
Understand The Burden
One outrageous mistake that too many people make—especially parents and educators—is dismissing highly-sensitive children as weird, clingy, whiny, or another negative behavior trait. If those individuals would pause and take the time to learn more about HSP behavior, they would begin to notice some amazing characteristics in these children.
The Burden Of Empathy
First, you will not find a more empathetic, caring person than a highly-sensitive child. This is the child who stays behind in the classroom with a classmate who is crying, or the child who offers her sandwich to the student whose parents forgot to send lunch money again. HSPs are often accused of talking in class but it’s because they are happy to answer when another student needs help or can’t find their pencil.
The Burden Of Getting Targeted
Worse, these students often get targeted for their behavior. What are you doing in the classroom, you’re supposed to be out on the playground! Why are you talking again? Every single time I look up, you’re the one who’s talking! Their reward for being compassionate and generous is often to be singled out by the teacher, a relative, or even their parent for their behavior when in fact, that sort of spotlight attention is the very last thing they want.
The Burden Of Stereotype
Next, the unfortunate truth about HSPs is that outdated gender stereotypes can have a very harmful effect on these children. Reprimanding a boy for crying over a very sad situation or goading a girl to “stop being shy” and go play with the other kids is as harmful as it is ignorant. Highly-sensitive children often exhibit outward behaviors that reflect their deep emotional connection to the world around them, and parents do a great disservice towards their development and sense of self-worth when they admonish their children for these displays of emotion.
Find Out Your Intentions
Find Out Your Intentions
Before you set about discovering if your child is truly a highly-sensitive person, you must ask yourself what you plan to do with that information. Do you intend to wield such a label over other children and their parents as a way of dismissing others’ needs because your child is somehow more special than everyone else’s? Certainly not. Do you intend to use the terminology as an excuse to avoid disciplining your child? Hopefully not. Is an informal label of HSP in any way supposed to condone your child’s tantrums, outbursts, or social awkwardness? In short, absolutely not.
Instead, discovering whether or not your child is highly sensitive is only a mechanism for better understanding them. If you do not intend to use the highly sensitive child parenting strategies for your child to adopt socially appropriate responses to their sensitivity, and if you intend to allow this to be some sort of excuse for failed parenting (“I’m sorry that little Johnny insists on watching this television show every day, but you see, he’s a highly-sensitive child and has unique needs…”), then it would be better for everyone involved—especially your child—if you stopped participating in this sort of discovery right now.
However, if you intend to work to better understand your child’s needs and steer them into appropriate avenues for their emotional responses and overall mental wellbeing, take a look at this quiz to see if you can uncover your child’s unique gifts.
Highly Sensitive Child Quiz
Highly Sensitive Child Quiz
Highly Sensitive Child Parenting Strategies Vs Dramatic Child Disciplining Strategies
“Oh, just ignore her. She’s such a little drama queen.” How many times have parents used those hateful words to describe their own children? Worse, how many times have those children been experiencing overwhelming emotions only to hear their parents dismiss them in this way?
To be sure, children can engage in dramatics and “acting out” their feelings and responses, especially when they’re mimicking behaviors they’ve witnessed or they lack the vocabulary to express themselves. But understanding that a highly-sensitive child may become overwhelmed by the flood of emotions they experience can help you help them… be your child’s support network to understand and process what they’re feeling, instead of your child’s harshest critic.
Highly-Sensitive Child Parenting Strategies for Helping the Highly-Sensitive Child at School
The educational setting can be a struggle for any child, but for one who experiences sensations and emotions on a different level than their peers, it can be a downright nightmare. This is only compounded by the fact that so many people do not understand what HSP means or what these individuals’ experiences are like, and even more people are completely unaware that HSP is actually a real thing.
Imagine the parent conference going something like this:
“Hello, Mrs. Smith. I want to talk about your son, Mike. He talks a lot in class and won’t hold still, and sometimes when I have to correct him, he just cries. It’s becoming a real problem, and the other students are starting to make fun of him.”
“Well you see, Mrs. Jones, my son is a highly-sensitive child, and—”
“I’m sorry, he’s a what?”
“A highly-sensitive child. It’s often called HSP for short. It means he can experience a wide range of emotional responses to any given situation, and—”
“Mrs. Smith, I cannot help your son if you’re just going to make up fake conditions and make excuses for him. You just need to teach him to man up and stop disrupting my class.”
Help The School Understand
Fortunately, there are a number of books and articles on the market that address not just the existence of highly-sensitive children, but what it actually means to be an HSP. Once you’ve done the proper research and understand your child better, you’ll be in a better position to help the school understand.
Establish Socially Appropriate Responses
At the same time, there is nothing wrong with helping your child establish socially appropriate responses to situations. Work with your child to uncover what it is they want from their school and their classmates, and to develop a plan to make that happen. Maybe your child wants a lot of friends, or maybe only a handful of really good friends. Maybe your child prefers reading alone on the playground instead of playing games with the other kids, or maybe they really do want to join in but just don’t know how. It’s up to you to discover your child’s wants and needs, and to help them work towards them.
Highly-Sensitive Child Parenting Strategies for Dealing with Emotional Sensitivity
Now, as a parent, it’s comforting to know your child isn’t just weird or badly raised, isn’t it? Don’t pat yourself on the back yet. Just because there’s a recognized name to go along with what your child thinks, feels, and responds to, that doesn’t mean your work is done. You still have the very difficult task—some might even say insurmountable—of raising this very sensitive child.
Listen, Validate, and Accept
Fortunately, your parenting toolbox for any child looks very similar to the one you need for raising an HSP. You must first learn to listen, validate, and accept this child before you can ever hope to discipline or correct key behaviors.
Melissa Noel Renzi, author of “7 Things All Highly Sensitive Children Need to Hear,” has written a very insightful explanation of what that listening and validating might look like. It encompasses everything from helping your child develop much-needed self-esteem to understanding why your child might become emotionally overwhelmed by something like a devastating earthquake in a far-off country.
But don’t forget this very important point: your work does not end at listen-validate-accept. You then have the crucial task of helping your child develop acceptable responses to the things that trigger their emotional states. Screaming hysterically at a news report of that earthquake is not acceptable; yelling in class because the air conditioner is making a humming noise is also not acceptable. Having those feelings about those and other topics is acceptable, but the response has to match the severity and be socially useful.
Highly-Sensitive Child Parenting Strategies for Dealing with Temper Tantrums
So what discipline strategies do you rely on to help you raise a highly-sensitive child? Again, the strategies that help you interact with and guide your HSP are the ones you should be using for any child. Redirecting them when necessary, seeking out the underlying causes of inappropriate behavior, listening when they are attempting to explain their needs or their feelings, and other tools will help you.
But sometimes, it’s just not going to work. Even worse, the sensitive child who cries when a classmate gets hurt or who is very withdrawn in a place that is overstimulating can suddenly turn Jekyll-and-Hyde with you. Your usually emotionally-driven child is now relying on one emotion: rage.
Ah, the temper tantrum.
No matter the age, doesn’t it feel like the entire world has stopped and there’s an intergalactic spotlight shining on you when your child loses control of themselves? And why is it almost always in public, unless of course it’s happening at your mother-in-law’s house?
Focus On Communication
The root of all temper tantrums is an inability to communicate. It might be a developmental issue, in which the child literally lacks the ability to express their wants, needs, or feelings. For slightly older children, it might be an inability to articulate it; they have the language ability but cannot process the feeling well enough to use the sort of words you would understand. Even older children or teenagers who lash out—suddenly shouting, “I hate you!” at their parents, for example—are unable to communicate the thing they’re dealing with, and you get caught in the crossfire.
Redirect and Give Space
So help your child with this communication deficit. If you notice the frustration starting to build, redirect them. Also, if your child asks for a toy or candy in a store and is upset by your answer, completely redirect with a whole new line of conversation. If your older child is struggling to find the words, back off and give them some space for a minute so they can explain without you interjecting. Finally, if they’re still struggling, tell them you will ask some questions and they can answer so that you can understand, but do not pepper them with rapid-fire questions when they’re already struggling to articulate.
Final Thoughts on Disciplining a Highly-Sensitive Child
There are countless terms and labels that get thrown around when it comes to addressing children and their needs. Is he on the spectrum? Is she just high-strung? Could it be ADD? Are there underlying mental health concerns that we aren’t aware of? Does the child struggle to make friends at school or worse, is bullying a problem?
As parents and educators, we can be in too big of a hurry to diagnose and “fix” a problem that we tend to overlook a crucial truth: all children are different. They are unique individuals with different wants and needs, different expectations, and very different personalities. Even siblings raised in the same household can be so vastly different as to be polar opposites, as any parent of multiple children can attest to. And this is certainly no truer than for highly-sensitive children.
The most important thing your highly-sensitive child can ever hear you say is, “You are important. You are enough. What you’re feeling is real and it matters to me.” But your child doesn’t only need to hear these words, they need you to believe them as well. When you truly accept that highly-sensitive children can experience the world in a way that you may or may not understand, you can stop being confounded by their responses and start being amazed by them. Your child is awesome, and you’re a really special parent, too.