Is your Child 'Over-Sensitive'? Or Simply a Highly Sensitive Child?

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Up until very recently, I often wondered in a rather self-disparaging way why I:

1) Found it difficult to cope when there were too many things happening at the one time (not so helpful for a parent!).

2) Got seriously over-whelmed in crowded places and/or shopping venues with aisles crammed full of choices (again, not so helpful on the parent front).

3) Found it hard to sleep after a lively night out (never helpful!).

4) Have always tended to think about things really deeply, to the extent that I would drive myself around the twist.

5) Always tended to ‘take-on’ other people's emotions and ‘stuff’ and carry it around with me (again, really unhelpful as a parent).

6) And why (oh why) I always seemed to get so upset about things that seemed to pass other people by.

To be honest, I just thought I was ‘over-sensitive’, I took things ‘too personally’, and I was making something out of nothing. I thought that I should probably just ‘get over it’ and be Resilient and Strong and Capable – all those qualities that we are constantly being told to aspire to in this society.

Turns out, I am simply a Highly Sensitive Person.

No fanfare, no justification or explanations to anyone needed.  Just a bit of validation for myself that actually, I’m not inherently unable to cope, or too-sensitive, or fragile or anything like that. I simply have the High Sensitivity trait. And so it seems, do my children.

According to research (see http://hsperson.com/research/ for more details) carried out by psychologist Dr. Elaine Aron and her colleagues, I likely fall into the 15-20% of the population that can be considered Highly Sensitive. This statistic is found to be consistent across cultures, gender, race and across many species in the animal kingdom. It is not a disorder, it is simply a trait, like being born with green eyes.  However, it is a trait that underpins a lot of our adaptive, social and emotional functioning, and so it has more implications for how we live in the world and how we relate to ourselves than a more neutral trait, such as eye colour.

And that seems to be where simply having a high sensitivity trait can get pretty complicated.

What Does Highly Sensitive Mean?

But first, what does highly sensitive mean? How do you know if you or your child have this predisposition?

There are different ways to describe the main characteristics of the Highly Sensitive presentation. I like the acronym 'D.O.E.S' that Elaine Aron uses to describe the four main clusters of qualities/tendencies of the highly sensitive presentation. According to Aron, Highly Sensitive People (or HSPs) tend to present with these four over-arching characteristics/tendencies (to a greater or lesser degree):

D – for Depth of Processing: HSPs tend to neurologically process information at a deeper level than non-HSPs. Research has shown that the brains of HSPs develop, and also process information differently. Not better, just differently. What that means is that HSPs tend to take in and process more information from their environment than non-HSPs. So they naturally seem to notice more, wherever they are. It also means that they have a tendency to think about things deeply, and so it is not unusual for a HSP or Highly-Sensitive-Child (HSC) to ask a lot of questions and tend towards the more existential ponderings of life. HSPs tend to be highly perceptive, taking in the subtleties of social situations and naturally reading non-verbal language, without really realising how or why.  It has been hypothesised that HSPs are the way they are due to evolutionary purposes: because they tend to scan the environment for information and stimuli at such a deep level, they are best placed to read approaching dangers, and register and evaluate the risk before they act.  This trait likely is (and was) very useful for hunter-gathers, and likely explains why the trait is found across cultures and species and has endured across the ages.  It is always helpful to have a few people around who can alert the tribe to incoming dangers.

O – for Over-whelm or Over-stimulation: Aaron suggests that HSPs tend to become over-whelmed quiet easily probably because their brains are taking in a great deal of information a great deal of the time. Our brains are constantly processing stimuli through all the senses (there are more than 5!) in our waking moments. Our sensory system is ‘run’ by a series of complicated and finely co-ordinated processes in the brain that help read various incoming sensory pieces of information, and co-ordinate them in such a way as to help us to feel regulated in our bodies/minds and  in our environment.  Sometimes this co-ordination in the brain tends to get over-worked: this happens for everyone, not just HSPs, but it seems to happen more for HSPs.  And so, HSPs can tend to struggle to multi-task, or be OK in busy shopping centres, or struggle to stay grounded when too many things are going on at the one time - to name but a few ways in which over-whelm can show up.

E – for Emotional Responsiveness and Empathy: HSPs tend to feel things more deeply too. While the emotional range of experience is wide and varied for all of us, HSPs tend to experience emotions more intensely. And so, they often tend to show their emotions more intensely too (unless they have learned to inhibit or minimise their experience of their emotions, which is common). Things just seem to hurt so much (or feel really, really sad, or frustrating or unfair, or indeed happy or exciting – whatever!), and sometimes for longer. Perhaps not surprisingly then, HSPs tend to be able to feel other people’s emotional experiences more readily too. As mentioned, they can be skilled at reading the subtleties of emotional experience in others and be predisposed to more accurately reading non-verbal body language and cues when compared to non-HSPs.

S  - for Sensitivity. HSPs tend to be just more sensitive to their environments. There is typically at least one sensory modality that they appear to be hyper-responsive to, that is, they tend to experience the sense in a more intense and over-whelming way than the majority of people. This over-responsiveness could show up through one or more of the sensory modalities[1] 1) Touch/tactile (light touch, pressured touch, clothes against the skin, crunchy foods, dry foods, soft food, slimy foods etc.) 2) Taste (spicy food, salty foods, sweet foods, etc.,) 3) Auditory ( loud noises, high pitched noises, low humming noises etc. ) 4) Smells and 5) Visual ( bright lights, flashing lights, arrhythmic lights etc.). These experiences often tend to wax and wane, that is, they tend to be felt more intensely at one point more than another, and like all of these traits, most of us have had experiences of sensory over-responsiveness at some points, or in some domains (The finger-nails on the blackboard is a common experience of auditory sensory over-responsiveness that most of us can probably relate to!).

These four domains are like the broad brushstrokes that have been used by Elaine Aron and her colleagues to help people develop a framework for understanding how they, or someone they know, might be experiencing the world. Like any of these psychological descriptions, not every HSP presents with all of these tendencies. Likewise, non-HSPs experience many of these tendencies too at points in their life. We are all unique, and indeed, over time, we change and adapt. At times one particular domain may seem more dominant – at other times another domain may require more of our attention. These descriptions are not considered criteria to be used when making a diagnosis of a mental health disorder – rather they are here to simply allow people to get a sense of whether this might be a useful lens to understand their world through, or that of someone they know, such as their children.

Understanding the World of Highly Sensitive Children

In my work with children and their parents, difficulties relating to the experience of being a HSC in this busy and not-so-sensitive world often predominate. From reading the about the qualities associated with the four different domains of the Highly Sensitive presentation above, we can infer that many of the following difficulties that children and their parents tend to struggle with may be at least partially related to the highly sensitive predisposition[2], including:

Difficulties tolerating certain types of clothes; getting hair washed or cut; getting dirty, being in water, sand, muck; brushing hair or teeth; food refusal, ‘picky’ eating; aversions to loud noises; ‘melt downs’ ( a.k.a.., sensory over-whelm) in shopping centres etc.; anxiety, separation anxiety, school-related anxiety and refusal, ‘shy-ness’, social isolation, introversion, ‘tantrums’, acting out, bottling-up emotions, prolonged episodes of emotional displays ( crying, shouting, screaming, arguing etc., ), fluctuating self-esteem, low-mood, difficulties falling asleep, difficulties staying asleep, difficulties maintaining friendships,  etc., etc.

Using the Highly Sensitive Lens

While you could be forgiven for thinking that the above list of difficulties paints a pretty negative picture of the world of a HSC, I see is as a wonderful opportunity for re-adjusting our lens on how we choose to view ourselves or our children: it invites an understanding that this way of being in the world is actually quite common, and is not a disorder, or pathological in any way – it is simply how 15-20% of the population naturally tend to experience themselves and the world. With this understanding, or shift in orientation of how we see things, we can then open up to supporting ourselves and/or our children in a way that allows for compassion, space, permission and empowerment.

And so, being highly sensitive is not necessarily problematic in itself.  It just is what it is. However, how specific cultures (including micro-cultures such as families and schools etc.,) and societies regard, value and relate to sensitivity appears to be one of the primary factors in influencing how a HSP/HSC experiences their world. That is, they are likely to experience their way of being as something to be honoured, celebrated and nurtured if they grow up in an environment that supports, understands, and scaffolds their experience. On the other hand, if they grow up in an environment that does not appreciate or make space for their way of being, they may receive messages that their innate way of being in the world is somehow not OK or that they need  to be toughened up in some way so that they can become more robust and ‘able’ for the vicissitudes of this life.

For many HSPs/HSC, they have likely received a mix of messages from the external world about how to 'be' ( as we all have). This is not to invite blame, it is just how it is. Modern Western society, perhaps until recently, has simply not known to put on the highly sensitive lens to help understand a portion of the population from this perspective.

Celebrating High Sensitivity

By the very nature of their presentation, HSC/HSPs tend to have so many gifts to offer the world: their empathy and deep connection with themselves and others, their ability to see things more laterally, their appreciation for life’s beauty, their tendency towards helping others, their capacity to experience and perhaps express the full range of emotional experiences, etc.  Research has shown that HSPs tend to be highly creative and when they are in an environment that fully accepts and supports their way of being in the world, they tend to blossom and thrive in their relationships with themselves, others and in the various roles they find themselves in life. Of course, this is true for all of us:  when we are supported and nurtured and encouraged to Be what we really are, then we thrive.

Supporting Highly Sensitive Children to Blossom and Thrive in an Often Over-whelming World

If any of these descriptions above sound familiar to you, it might be helpful to check out Elaine Aron’s website www.hsperson.com. There you can complete a self-report standardised measure to explore whether you or your child might share some of the characteristics of high sensitivity. There are lots of resources and book recommendations on the site that might be helpful guides for you in learning more about navigating the world through the lens of high sensitivity ( I also found this short and accessible booklet helpful: Understanding the Highly Sensitive Child, Williamson, Jamie).

In my own experience, I have adopted various ways, strategies and approaches that have helped give me and my children more latitude, space and compassion when navigating the often topsy-turvy world of potential overwhelm.  As always, these following pointers are just that - pointers.  I invite you to feel into what might resonate for you and your child/children, and to play around with different approaches.

  • For You: Inviting Acceptance and Allowing: Just like the approach of allowing the emotions to happen that I pointed to in the blog post, 'When Big Strong Emotions Happen: How Can Parents and Children Befriend their Feelings?', when we can invite in acceptance that we, or our children, may have some or many of the High Sensitivity characteristics, it may allow for more space to open up in how we relate to ourselves ( I have ditched the self-disparaging inner talk - mostly ;) ) and our children. When my pre-school aged daughter refuses to put on leggings or whips them off her in a frenzy screeching, 'THEY ARE TOO ITCHY MAMA', I usually take a deep breath, and let go of the inner voice nagging me that she is going to die from the cold and I say 'OK'. Usually. Not always. But when I do, it doesn't feel like she has won some battle between us, it feels like I am inviting in compassion for her ( I have no way of actually knowing what leggings feel like against her skin) and giving us both some space. It feels easier and more spacious. And we can both go about our day with less intense emotion floating around inside us.
  • For Your Child: Adapting to the Potential Over-Whelm: Knowing how and when over-whelm happens for your child (or you) is a big one. It tends to happen most mornings in our house when around getting dressed ( see above ;) ). Birthdays and Christmas are huge ones for us: the excitement, the build-up, the continual questions about presents or Santa, the rehearsals for Christmas concerts, the parties, the extra outings, the buzz, the pre-occupied parents, and on and on.... Unless we attempt to pace events in the lead-up, down-play aspects of the occasion and bring in lots of down-time, it just gets way way too much for my school aged daughter. She starts to sleep fitfully, she wakes early, her mind buzzing with thoughts and questions, she is tired, she gets a look in her eyes where it is difficult to sustain her attention and the emotions come fast and frequent. When this happens, we try make early bed time a priority ( doesn't always happen!) and we try to become more discerning in where we go and what we do. And when the outbursts happen, we now know that they need to happen: the over-whelm needs a release.
  • For You and Your Child: Inviting in more Groundedness: Finding ways to feel grounded and settled in the body is really important for HSPs/HSC and their parents. It is such a simple yet often forgotten approach that we all benefit from. There are many ways to help us feel more 'in' our bodies: focusing on the breath ( especially belly breathing), bringing attention to the feet as they connect with the ground, practising a few mindful moments at the start of the day and throughout, running water on our wrists, giving ourselves permission to take a few minutes away from whatever we are doing, going outside, spending time in nature, turning off technology at least 30 minutes before bed, including a meditation ( from your imagination or from an audio) before bed. Some children can respond really well to deep pressure when they are feeling over-whelmed - it seems to call them back into their bodies. Ask  permission from your child if they would like a tight hug, or a relaxing massage, or they may respond well to a weighted blanket around their shoulders or on their bed. My school aged daughter loves wheel-barrow walking, which we encourage when she seems a bit all over the place, not knowing where to settle herself or her attention. It seems to help, in some way.
  • For You and Your Child: Tuning into your Wisdom and your Child's Wisdom: I have found using the High Sensitivity lens really helpful as it has been a great compass for tuning in when something doesn't feel quite right. Take swimming lessons for example. I wasn't really sure why my daughter disliked them so much. Until I really reflected on it through the High Sensitivity lens: the sensory over-whelm that is involved in going to a busy swimming pool ( the noise, the heat, the changing of clothes, the water, the shrieks, the whistles, the showers, the hair-dryers..), the pressure to follow the instructions from the instructor, the self-pressure to get it right ( yes perfectionism seems to be a trait found in HSC), plus her possibly feeling and carrying other children's anxiety too...all at the same time. And then I realised how over-whelmed I felt when taking her  - for most of the same reasons! Of course! Only by listening to her wisdom in her telling me that she didn't really want to go, and by then listening to what was going on for me, did we realise that we didn't have to do this. There are other gentler ways to learn swimming.
  • For You and Your Child: Balance, Balance, Balance: HSC often struggle with change.  At times they may begin to wish to control their environments as much as possible because they are trying to avoid over-whelm. So understandable. Anxiety might happen, or a rigidity around not wanting to do certain things.  This happens with me sometimes.  I avoid busy super-markets, I don't take up invitations at night sometimes because I feel worried that I might not sleep when I come home. Understandable. So I ask myself: when does something feel like too much, and when might I be letting anxiety and worry run the show? Easier said than done, but feeling into what works for me helps me to feel into what might be happening for my children when they say they don't want to do something. Sometimes the only cure for avoidance is to go and do whatever it is that they're avoiding - it empowers your child to know that they can actually cope and reinforces their coping skills. But sometimes they may just be too over-whelmed. And as far as I can work out, it is trial and error feeling into which is which. The balancing act of being a parent :)

Since I have started to use this lens for myself, my children and in my professional work, it has allowed for much more space and compassion for myself and others. However, I use the lens lightly - that is, I use it as a light and flexible working model to understand my world and the world of others when it's called upon. I try not to attach too much to it.  It is what it is. Having said that, my sense is that we would all benefit from knowing about High Sensitivity. Certainly those who care for and/or teach our children would likely benefit hugely from learning about this lens: according to the stats, in a class of 30 children, at least 4-5 children will present with these tendencies. There are many simple strategies that can make a huge difference in supporting these children in whatever setting they are in.

I love imagining what it would be like if we could all apply this lens when seeking to understand those we know who might be highly sensitive.

Let's make that more than a possibility.

Julie Meehan © 2017

Image credit: N. Coen

[1] You may notice some similarities between what is described here and Sensory Processing Disorder.  My understanding is that while they share commonalities, and may be at least partially modulated by the same neurological processes, there are also differences.  This is explained well on http://hsperson.com/faq/spd-vs-sps/ .

[2] There may be many other reasons and factors why a child might present with any of these difficulties described, and I do not wish to exclude or minimise any of these possibilities, however, understanding a child’s world using the Highly-Sensitive model as a framework, might help you and your child view things from a different and more empowering perspective.