We hear a child’s temperament being labelled by society in a variety of ways. “They’re shy”, “they’re exuberant”, or “they’re highly sensitive”. As a parent you are tuned into how your child’s emotions play out in every day scenarios. But do you manage to figure out and manage what their big feelings are telling you about their needs? Do you use any specific highly sensitive child parenting strategies?
Are you worried that your child is highly sensitive? Perhaps you or others feel you have an emotional child? Actually there is no such thing as being ‘over sensitive’. Having an emotional child with high sensitivity is not a ‘problem’ or a ‘disorder’.
However, a highly sensitive child may need extra support to help them cope with, understand and regulate their feelings and big emotions in order to keep them healthy, happy and thriving. That’s what you’ll learn about in this article!
Do You Have a Highly Sensitive Child?
If your child is highly sensitive, you are likely to have noticed characteristics in your child from a young age. Your child will have had stronger emotions than their peers or siblings. You will have had to give extra consideration to planning for their needs, for example when going out on a day trip. They may also have been extremely caring and thoughtful, in comparison with siblings or peers.
Does this sound like your child?
A highly sensitive individual can be anyone. For example, studies have shown that there is no evidence that sensitivity is more prevalent in males or females.
Are Children Born Highly Sensitive? Nature Vs Nurture?
Some children are born sensitive. It can be inheritable and is linked to the structure of the nervous system.
Often when taking a developmental history I find that parents of highly sensitive children remember them as being sensitive souls from the very beginning. For example, they were generally unsettled, needed a lot of skin to skin contact and wanted to be held most of the time. Perhaps they didn’t enjoy the hustle and bustle of parent and baby groups and stuck to you like glue.
A child’s environment as they grow up can certainly affect whether they are seen as sensitive however. If a child grows up in a a very calm household where they are held frequently and there are lots of adults around to support and meet the child’s every need… their sensitivity may never come up as an issue. Their needs are met. They may then go to a very small, nurturing school where teaching staff can flexibly meet children’s individual needs. The result: a happy and thriving child!
If however a child grows up in a chaotic or stressful environment where their needs are not consistently met, they may develop heightened sensitivity as a survival mechanism. In this case, their sensitivity may be seen as a weakness or vulnerability. In actual fact it is a strength that has helped them navigate their challenging environment.
Whether nature, nurture or both are contributors for your child, it’s important for us to recognize and support the unique needs of our sensitive children, in order to help them thrive.
What is a Highly Sensitive Child?
“Sensitivity” can refer to two key areas:
- Sensory sensitivity.
- Emotional sensitivity.
Sensory processing sensitivity refers to a person’s innate trait of perceiving and processing sensory information in a heightened and deep manner. It is distinct from a child’s emotional reactivity, which can be influenced by external factors such as upbringing and experiences, and can result in introverted or extroverted behavior.
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Spotting the Signs of a Highly Sensitive Child
To determine if your child is highly sensitive, observe their behavior and reactions to different stimuli. Highly sensitive children may:
- Be easily overwhelmed by loud noises, bright lights, or strong smells.
- Need more time to adjust to new situations.
- Be more empathetic and intuitive.
- Have stronger emotional reactions to both positive and negative experiences, which can feel very intense for them and others. They have a smaller window of tolerance to emotional situations.
- Experience life as more stressful than their peers and can be more prone to meltdowns.
- Their brains often find it hard to turn off as they are busy trying to process the sensory stimuli they are exposed to.
- They may have a more intense need for control which can lead them to be rigid and inflexible in their thinking and behaviours.
- They may be cautious and worried about new situations.
- They might find meeting new people difficult.
Sensory Processing Sensitivity
SPS is not a disorder and is not the same as sensory processing disorder (SPD). It is defined by ADDitutde magazine as a:
‘personal disposition and biologically based trait characterised by having an increased awareness and sensitivity to the environment’.
The way that a child processes sensory stimuli, internally or externally tends to be stronger and deeper than most other people, making a sensitive child’s emotions far more noticeable.
Here are some examples you might see:-
- Sensitivity to loud noises such as fireworks, hand-dryers, loud and unexpected bangs.
- Can become easily frightened or anxious when others scream or shout.
- Finds textures of some foods difficult to eat.
- Is afraid to try things with associated risk.
- May find particular clothing too scratchy or itchy.
In adverse childhood environments and due to their sensitivity, highly sensitive children are more prone to experiencing anxiety and other mental health problems. Their sensitivity may be placing a barrier on their ability to socialise, function, thrive and engage in healthy relationships. If you are concerned, it is important to seek professional help.
Highly Sensitive Children and Autism
High sensitivity and autism are both examples of neurodivergence but high sensitivity can be difficult to recognise as sometimes, children are incorrectly labelled with hyperactivity or autism. This is not surprising because many (but not all) autistic people are also highly sensitive.
Autistic people can experience sensory differences and be both hypersensitive (over-responsive) and hyposensitive (under-responsive) to a wide range of stimuli. This can sometimes cause distress or discomfort.
The highly-sensitive autism spectrum child may have these common traits.
- Asks lots of enquiry questions.
- Can be a perfectionist.
- Can be inflexible to change and find change overwhelming and stressful.
- Can be particularly sensitive to pain.
- Is very tuned into the distress of other people.
- Often finds big surprises stressful and over stimulating.
- Can find relaxing and winding down difficult.
- Finds extremes in temperatures, or temperature changes difficult to regulate.
- Becomes anxious in bright or flashing lights and noisy places.
Key Differences Between Highly Sensitive People and Autistic People
If your child is a highly sensitive person (HSP), they may have been compared to an autistic person. There are differences though. While both highly sensitive people and autistic people may have sensory sensitivities, HSPs do not have the social and communication difficulties that are characteristic of autism. HSPs are less likely to have obsessions or intense interests, or to be very black and white in their thinking.
Highly Sensitive Children and School
It’s no coincidence that – in my experience – a relatively high proportion of highly sensitive children end up being home-schooled.
School life can be particularly challenging for highly sensitive children due to the overstimulation and sensory overload that can occur in a busy and noisy environment. The chatter, bright lights, and chaotic atmosphere can be overwhelming and exhausting for highly sensitive children. This can lead to anxiety, stress, and physical symptoms such as headaches or stomach aches.
Highly sensitive children may also struggle with certain social demands of school life. Although they often have a huge a mount to give in friendships (e.g. caring, thoughtful) they may find it hard to deal with areas such as conflict or teasing. They may also be more affected by negative feedback or criticism from teachers or peers, influencing their self-esteem.
For these reasons, some highly sensitive children may thrive better in a quieter and more controlled environment, such as homeschooling. This allows them to learn at their own pace, avoid overstimulation, and have more control over their social interactions.
Flexibility and Nurture: Key Ingredients to Support highly Sensitive Children in School
Flexibility and nurture are essential components for highly sensitive children to thrive in a school environment. Flexibility allows for the child to have some control over their learning environment, allowing them to adjust to changes and avoid overstimulation. They need thoughtful classroom accommodations such as a quiet space for the child to retreat to when feeling overwhelmed, or allowing them to take breaks as needed. A flexible approach to learning can also allow for the child to learn at their own pace, without the pressure of keeping up with their peers.
Nurture is equally important for highly sensitive children to thrive at school. This involves emotional support, validation, and understanding of their needs. By nurturing highly sensitive children, teachers will be contributing towards the development of a resilient child with a positive self-image. This will help them navigate the challenges of school life in the future. Overall, a flexible and nurturing approach can help highly sensitive children thrive in a school environment and reach their full potential, but not every school can adapt and flex enough to meet your child’s needs. Choose their school carefully. My best advice is to visit and get a gut feel for their culture of the school and its pastoral support resources.
The Great Things About Highly Sensitive People
The good news is that high sensitivity generally comes with some fantastic positive traits and characteristics such as:
A sensitive person can experience intense emotions. Whilst these can be difficult for them and others to deal with at times, the good thing is that they can develop greater empathy for others. This can help to build trust in relationships.
Experiencing intense emotions can mean that life feels more colourful and vivid for highly sensitive people. The highs can be very high! Conversely however, the lows can feel very low.
Sensitive people often enjoy social connection, being in the natural world and spending time with animals.
Highly Sensitive Child Parenting Strategies
An important thing to remember is that your child’s sensitivity is something that you probably understand better than anyone. Parenting successes are often mixed with parenting challenges. So what is the best way to parent and meet your child’s needs so that they can thrive and get the most out of life?
Young children in particular may need significant support to help build up their confidence and self-resilience. Explore some different ways and approaches that will help them with their sensitivities.
Here are some strategies you should consider.
Help them to manage big changes by giving notice and explaining what will, or needs to happen
1. Talk About and Normalise Your Own Feelings
Talking about and normalizing your own feelings helps sensitive children develop emotional intelligence and a healthy relationship with their own emotions. When parents model healthy emotional expression and communication, children learn that it is normal and acceptable to feel a range of emotions, and that it is important to express them in a healthy and constructive way.
For highly sensitive children, who may be more prone to intense emotions and feelings of overwhelm, this can be particularly important. By seeing their parents express and talk about their own emotions, they can learn to identify and regulate their own feelings. This help thems build resilience and self-esteem.
Normalizing emotions reduces the stigma and shame that can sometimes be associated with sensitivity. When children see that their parents value and accept their emotions, they are more likely to feel confident in expressing themselves and seeking support when needed.
2. Provide Them With Structure and Routine
Providing highly sensitive children with structure and routine is an important parenting strategy because it can help them feel more secure and in control of their environment. Highly sensitive children may struggle with change and unpredictability, and may feel overwhelmed by too many choices or demands. By providing a consistent routine, you can help reduce stress and anxiety, and provide a sense of stability and predictability for your child.
A structured routine can also help highly sensitive children develop good habits and coping strategies. For example, if a child knows that they have a set time for homework or quiet time, they can plan accordingly and avoid feeling overwhelmed by too many tasks at once. Similarly, if a child has a consistent bedtime routine, they are more likely to get enough rest and feel more energized and focused during the day.
3. Allow Your Child’s Feelings to be Heard and Validated
Highly sensitive children may experience intense emotions and feelings that can be difficult to process and express. They may feel overwhelmed by their own reactions. By allowing them to express their feelings and validating their experiences, you can help them feel seen and heard.
Validation involves acknowledging and accepting a child’s emotions, without judgement or criticism. This can be done by actively listening to their concerns, reflecting back what they are saying, and offering empathy and support. When children feel validated, they are more likely to feel safe and secure, and may be more willing to open up and share their thoughts and feelings.
4. Give Your Child Access to a Safe Space
Highly sensitive children may become easily overstimulated by noise, crowds, or other sensory input. They need breaks from these stimuli in order to recharge and feel more calm and centered.
A safe space can be a physical location, such as a quiet room or a corner with soft lighting and comfortable seating. It could even be a mental space, such as a visualization or breathing exercise. Wherever their safe spaces are, they help children learn to recognize and reflect when they are feeling overwhelmed, and take proactive steps to manage their emotions.
Having a safe space can also help children feel more in control of their environment. When children know that they have a safe and supportive place to retreat to, they are more likely to feel confident and secure in their environment. Ultimately this results in higher emotional well-being and a stronger sense of self.
5. Don’t Shield Them From Everything in the Outside World
All children need to develop resilience, adaptability, and coping strategies. While it is important to provide a safe and supportive environment for highly sensitive children, it is also important to expose them to a variety of experiences and challenges in order to help them develop the skills and confidence they need to navigate the world. They may need more time, nurture and flexibility than their peers.
A rule of thumb I like to use is thi: How scary or stressful do they rate the situation, out of 10, with 10 being the most scary or stressful? If it’s 3 or less, encourage them to go ahead. If it’s 4-6, give them a bit of extra support or do some extra planning or practise. If it’s 7-10, they’re not quite ready for this situation. Putting them in this situation may be too traumatic for them. Break it down into smaller chunks or steps to work towards, but don’t give up.
By exposing highly sensitive children to new experiences and challenges, we parents can help them develop coping strategies, problem-solving skills, and emotional resilience. This can help them feel more confident and capable in new situations, and help them build a sense of self-efficacy and self-esteem.
Shielding highly sensitive children from everything in the outside world can be counterproductive, as it may reinforce their fears and anxieties. By gradually exposing them to new experiences and challenges, parents can help them learn to manage their emotions and sensory input in a healthy and constructive way.
6. Factor Quiet Time into Your Child’s Day
Highly sensitive children need an opportunity to recharge and process their emotions and experiences. Quiet time can take many forms, such as reading a book, engaging in a calming activity like drawing or coloring, or simply sitting quietly and reflecting. Developing this into a consistent habit will help your child develop a sense of self-awareness and self-care.
7. Avoid Harsh Discipline
Highly sensitive children are much more affected by negative feedback or criticism. They are more vulnerable to self-doubt and low self-esteem. They also tend to be more attuned to their parents’ emotions, and may feel disproportionately hurt or upset by harsh words or actions.
Instead of using harsh discipline, use positive reinforcement and gentle guidance to encourage positive behavior. This can involve setting clear expectations and boundaries, and using natural consequences to help children understand the impact of their actions.
When discipline is necessary, use a calm and respectful tone. Focus on problem-solving and finding solutions together.
It goes without saying that you should never resort to physical punishment.
8. Avoid Power Struggles
Your sensitive child may be more destabilized by conflict and stress than “typical” children. Above all else, they need to feel safe and secure at home in order to have positive mental health. Instead of engaging in power struggles, use a collaborative and respectful approach to problem-solving and decision-making where possible. This can involve active listening, empathy, and compromise, and can help children feel heard and valued.
This doesn’t mean that you should act as a “friend” rather than a parent. You should still have clear rules and boundaries to help keep your child safe and feeling secure, and to ensure they understand what’s expected of them.
You can also provide choices and options for your highly sensitive child, which can help them feel more in control of their environment. For example, “It’s bath day; do you want to have your bath before dinner or after dinner?” By giving children a sense of agency, you can help your child develop self-confidence and self-efficacy, which can lead to greater emotional well-being and a stronger sense of self.
The Emotional Toll of Parenting a Highly Sensitive Child
Parenting a highly sensitive child can be emotionally intense for parents and can also be draining. It can feel isolating, with frequent doubt and guilt, frustration and envy. You see other parents and their more easy-going children going about their lives seemingly without much thought. But know this: every life stage is different. Your child may have higher needs at the moment, but they may flourish when they are older and be just as happy and accomplished (or more so) than those laid-back kids!
You can be the parent who is there for them unconditionally, who keeps them safe, loves them and doesn’t judge. This will strengthen your bond. When faced with challenges in the outside world, knowing you are their safe base really is the most important thing you can give to your child. Your child will thrive best in a secure attachment environment.
Do Sensitive Kids Grow Up to Be Sensitive Adults?
“Will my child grow out of it?”
It’s a common question for parents of highly sensitive children. It’s very likely that your sensitive child will grow up to be a sensitive adult. They will be able to harness to positive aspects of their sensitivity as they mature.
The personality traits of high sensitivity children can change and shift as they develop into adulthood. Responses to stimuli can lessen in intensity. More importantly, we have more control over our environment as we get older. If we know that we thrive in quieter environments for example, we may choose a career that enables this.
Life experience will help your child write a new narrative around their sensitivity and particular needs. With support, your child can learn to self-regulate and develop good self-care habits that will help them thrive as they grow up.
If You Need More Help With Parenting Your Highly Sensitive Child
15-20% of the population is highly sensitive, so you are not alone. Do you feel you’d benefit from some practical or emotional support to help you parent your highly sensitive child?
Here are a few great options of where to ask for help:
- Family and friends. Talk to people who accept your child and can offer practical help or advice.
- School and club activities. Talk to your child’s teachers, tutors and coaches. It’s vital that they can be nurturing and flexible towards your child’s needs. Perhaps you each have insight and perspective on your child that you will find mutually beneficial.
- Talk to your doctor. If necessary they can help with a referral for emotional support e.g. therapy. Counsellors, psychotherapists and clinical psychologists can all support sensitive people to find ways of flourishing in their everyday lives.
- Self-help books (see below), forums such as Facebook groups, articles and other resources.
- Online parent courses and memberships. Take a look at the parent courses we offer here at They Are The Future.
A nurturing, positive parenting style is especially necessary for highly sensitive children. Providing a safe base and accepting that your child experiences the world in different ways is crucial to their developmental and emotional well-being.
By embracing the positive traits that come with being a highly sensitive child you can help them to develop into sensitive, healthy, happy and fulfilled adults.
Books About Highly Sensitive People
The Highly Sensitive Person by Elaine Aron
The Highly Sensitive Child by Elaine Aron
Positive Parenting Solutions to Raise Highly Sensitive Children by Jonathan Baurer
Hayley Vaughan Smith is a Person Centred Counsellor accredited by the National Counselling Society. She is the founder and counsellor at The Ridge Practice in Buckinghamshire, and Counsellor at Everlief Child Psychology.
Hayley has a special interest in bereavement counselling and has worked as a bereavement volunteer with Cruse Bereavement Care since 2019. Being a mum to 3 girls is hard work and rewarding in equal measure and gardening and walking in nature is her own personal therapy. Hayley believes being in nature, whatever the weather, is incredibly beneficial for mental health well-being.
Join They Are The Future’s free Facebook group for regular tips on supporting teens and pre-teens with their mental health! Join the group: Parent Tips for Positive Child Mental Health UK.