Sensitivity in life is often seen as a negative. Being too sensitive emotionally can cause problems in relationships, friendships, social situations, and at work.
Physical and chemical sensitivities can make life hazardous, causing illness, irritations, or even life-threatening complications.
And while sensitivities are often seen as personal failings, there are many people who suffer from them through no fault of their own.
Genetic, environmental and psychological factors all contribute to developing these conditions, and as they occur in varying degrees of severity, it can be hard to tell who has a serious issue and who would simply benefit from greater self-control.
A prevalent condition
Sensory processing sensitivity, the official term for high sensitivity, is quite common. It occurs in about 15-20% of the population, with sufferers known as highly sensitive persons or HSPs. Even though around one in five people is an HSP, many have no idea it’s a genuine condition – so there’s a lot to learn and teach about high sensitivity.
HSPs need accommodation and understanding in some cases and complete control of their environment and interactions in others. But all HSPs need recognition and respect. High sensitivity is real and genuinely affects the sufferers, as well as those around them.
So how do you know if you have a highly sensitive child? And what steps can you take if you do?
Here are some common characteristics of highly sensitive children:
- Sensitive to tastes, especially spicy, sour and subtle flavors
- Sensitive to textures
- May severely restrict food variety and reject trying new foods
- May experience food aversion with nausea, vomiting, and dizziness
Sensitive to physical touch:
- It may cause pain, discomfort, tingling, burning, stinging, or other strong sensations
- It may cause relaxation, comfort, bonding, attachment, or other pleasant feelings
Sensitive to fabrics and cuts of clothing, often requiring modification like removing tags.
- Sensitive to smells, primarily chemical and noxious odors
- Sensitive to irritants, like additives, chemicals, dyes, bites, scratches, stings, etc.
Sensitivity to light:
- Fluorescent lights may cause headaches, migraines, nausea, vomiting, depressed mood etc.
- Bright lights are bothersome
- Standard watt bulbs are too bright and cause discomfort
- Need to wear sunglasses in sunlight, or indoors
Sensitivity to sound:
- Loud noises can be painful and frightening
- May need to wear earplugs to maintain calm
- Can hear very quiet noises others cannot, which may be distracting or irritating
- Chewing, coughing, sneezing, throat clearing, mouth noises, and bodily functions can be annoying or cause extreme anger or sadness
- Greatly affected or influenced by feelings of others, especially negative feelings
- Highly emotional, with frequent and unpredictable mood swings
- Easily overwhelmed in crowded or loud locations
- May become highly anxious or have panic attacks in social settings or in tense or stressful situations
Highly sensitive children feel more intensely than other children. So it can be hard to gauge how experiences and sensations will affect them, and how they will react. They also carry memories with them and can have a hard time letting go of bad experiences. They will feel scared and threatened by incidences you found innocuous and forgot long ago.
Be conscious of how you behave in front of and towards a highly sensitive child. If you are careless with your words or actions, they will take it personally and internalize their treatment. They will interpret agitation as aggression, frustration as screaming and screaming as a slap.
When discipline is necessary, make sure it is coming from a place of correction, not necessarily punishment. Adjust your parenting style to accommodate your highly sensitive child’s needs. Use discipline to help them learn instead of making them suffer.
Mood and behaviour
Since highly sensitive children are so greatly affected by the world around them and their own inner life, their behavior can appear erratic. Wild mood swings can turn a happy child into an angry tantrum thrower or a sobbing puddle of tears. It can be hard to parse high sensitivity from true emotional instability or imbalance.
These children are susceptible to depression, anxiety, and other psychological distress. They are likely to receive negative feedback and criticism for their sensitivity, which they will feel intensely and carry with them. It is important to help highly sensitive kids to maintain their self-esteem and teach them self-acceptance.
Please refrain from admonishing or teasing highly sensitive children. This sensitivity is not something they can change, so don’t tell them not to be so sensitive either. They already feel different and singling them out will encourage them to question their worth and value. Highly sensitive kids especially need protection from bullying. The effects are even more pronounced, and the impact can be life-long.
These special children are also particularly susceptible to headaches, stomach aches, digestive problems, and other stress-related issues. So whether they’re complaining of aches and pains that don’t seem to have a root cause or discomfort from something that appears normal, listen. They need to feel heard to develop and maintain their self-esteem.
Raising or living with a highly sensitive child can be difficult and confusing. But as much as these sensitivities may bother others, it certainly bothers the child more. These kids are smart, talented, and spirited, but easily misunderstood and overwhelmed. So be sensitive to and supportive of them.
Learn what their specific sensitivities are and accommodate them as much as you can. Buy cleaner foods, softer fabrics, and lower watt bulbs for them.
But also prepare them for a world that may not accommodate them. Stock up on staple foods, earplugs, sunglasses, and irritation creams. And teach meditation, self-soothing, and stress reduction techniques to keep highly sensitive kids sane when they can’t modify their environment.
Sensory processing sensitivity is too common to be considered a disorder. Sensory processing disorder is a more severe and less common condition, but sensory processing sensitivity still deserves acknowledgment and understanding.
It is a part of who the child is and not something to change or shame. Love sensitive kids, and they’ll love you back 10-fold.