Parenting a Sensitive Child
By Terri Goodwell
We’ve all known sensitive, shy kids. These are the introverted ones who hang on the fringes of the group. They are the ones we often call “slow to warm up” because they look very carefully before accepting new people, places, or things. They are the children who avert their eyes when spoken to by a stranger and shrink away from being the center of attention. Because they typically act quiet, clingy or anxious in unfamiliar social settings, the general consensus is that these kids are fearful and lack confidence. Unfortunately, by thinking of them as socially inept or weak, we fail to understand all that may be underlying this introverted behavior and often don’t appreciate the many positive attributes of having a sensitive, quiet nature.
My Personal Experience
When my daughter Sophi was about three, she started being classified as “shy” and “slow to warm up” at her preschool and other classes. I was constantly hearing comments like “Your daughter is so shy!”, “Does she talk at all at home?” and “She refuses to join the group”.
I tried pushing Sophi to be more social. I tried forcing her to join the group of children at school, and I constantly reminded her to say hello and answer people back, but all to no avail. I somehow thought that if only I gave her the proper social training, and she tried hard enough, her shyness would be eliminated. I couldn’t have been further from the truth.
Often when parents such as myself cannot get their child to change in order to fit in, they feel that something must either be wrong with their child or their parenting. It was this feeling, combined with my daughter’s strong and lingering emotional reaction to the death of our family cat, which sent me searching for professional help. Concerned about the sudden behavioral changes in our daughter, my husband and I took her to a local child psychologist. After the therapist helped her through her grief, she told us she thought Sophi was a highly sensitive child.
Since we did not know exactly what this meant, she strongly urged us to educate ourselves about Dr. Elaine Aron’s new research on shyness and sensitivity. This marked the beginning of my greater understanding of my daughter and her temperament.
This research sheds new light on shyness, challenging many sensitivity our society’s negative preconceptions about it. Rather than associating shyness with fearfulness, low self-esteem, or poor social skills, Elaine N. Aron, PhD., a clinical psychologist and psychotherapist, believes that shyness often results from an individual’s inborn temperament of sensitivity. In her two books, The Highly Sensitive Person and The Highly Sensitive Child, Dr. Aron describes what we typically call shyness as “the expression of a sensitive individual’s innate preference to pause and observe before proceeding.” Dr Aron describes highly sensitive individuals as “those who are born with a tendency to notice more in their environment and deeply reflect on everything before acting, as compared to those who notice less and act quickly and impulsively.” She believes that these sensitive individuals are more easily overwhelmed than the average person when confronted with large quantities of input arriving at once. When the sensitive individuals try to avoid this overload of information, by withdrawing or backing off, Dr Aron says, they seem to be shy or timid or ‘party poopers’.” When they cannot avoid the over-stimulation, they sometimes react negatively and seem to outsiders to be “easily upset” or “cry babies” or “too sensitive”.
These highly sensitive individuals are born with a highly developed nervous system that is extremely good at registering subtle nuances in their environment. Because of this, it makes perfect sense that when they are in highly stimulating or unfamiliar social settings, they need to take more time to process all the extra bits of information flooding into them. For example, an average child, with an average nervous system, will walk into a room, notice the people in it and maybe the furniture, and begin to investigate and interact. On the other hand, highly sensitive children, with their finely tuned nervous systems, will walk into the same room and notice, not only the people and furniture, but the general mood in the room, the feelings of the individual people in it, and anything particularly unusual or noteworthy about the room. Because it will take longer for them to process all this information, they will understandably take longer to investigate or interact.
Adapting Positive Views of Shyness and Sensitivity
In our current society, “shyness” is viewed in more negative terms, but this was not always so, and is not the case everywhere in the world. Fifty years ago, when children were expected to be “seen and not heard”, we regarded shyness as a positive trait. In fact, in other countries like Japan, China, and Sweden, being shy is still looked at in a positive way, with these introverted children being the most respected and popular. Today, however, in our success-driven society, we expect our children to be aggressive, ambitious, to “go for the gusto”, “just do it”, and “get what you can”. Our culture’s attitudes are especially hard on sensitive boys, who do not typify the macho “ideal” and are often teased for this.
Dr. Aron encourages us to view sensitivity and its resulting shyness, not as a defect or weakness, as society might suggest, but as a basic temperament that one is born with and that cannot be altered. According to Dr. Aron, fifteen to twenty percent of children are born highly sensitive. About seventy percent of these are introverted and the remaining are extraverted.
Research show that this inborn trait of sensitivity is found in all species of animals. The trait has survived so well over time because it has clear benefits to society and evolutionary advantages. Think of the “cautious” fish that outsmarts the fisherman because he doesn’t readily swim into his trap, or the “sensitive” deer that hears the twig snap under the approaching hunter’s foot and flees to safety. By thinking of sensitivity in these more positive ways, we can start to appreciate its many advantages.
Understanding My Daughter's Challenges
Since now I understand that my daughter is an introverted, highly sensitive 6-year-old, I completely understand why she has always found social situations like school so challenging. “Everyone has an optimal level of arousal and stimulation,” says Dr. Gary Linker, PhD., a psychotherapist in Santa Barbara, California, specializing in the field of sensitivity. He states “below this optimum level, a person is bored, and above it, they become anxious and stressed. For a highly sensitive child, this optimum level of arousal and stimulation is considerably lower than for the average child.” Highly sensitive children simply can’t take as much stimulation without getting stressed. This is why my daughter always tended to dislike, avoid, or feel discomfort with crowds, parties, meeting strangers, noisy places or new, risky situations. Pushing her in these situations, as I did, probably only added more stimulation for her overloaded system to deal with and only made things worse.
Finding Tools for Social Challenges
With this new knowledge and understanding, my husband and I have become empowered to find tools to prevent or deal with our daughter Sophi’s over-arousal in stimulation social settings. For instance, when we are out in public, we now gently encourage her to practice saying hello or speaking with people she doesn’t know. We are hoping to get her used to “speaking up” in public and answering people back. I try to encourage friendships by arranging numerous play dates at our house with girls in Sophi’s class. This way she can warm up to them in the comfort of her own home and on the one-on-one basis she finds most pleasing.
Becoming familiar with a couple of children in her classroom seems to provide her with island of comfort there and lessens the amount of new, unfamiliar stimuli to process, with eases her anxiety. With birthday parties, we try to arrive early, before the major “hubbub” begins, and then my husband or I stay awhile in the background, as a safety net. Usually by the time the party is over and our daughter has thoroughly checked out everything and feels comfortable, she is having so much fun that she doesn’t want to leave! Typically, as soon as highly sensitive children find and maintain their optimal level of stimulation, they are fine.
Making a quick decision can be very difficult for highly sensitive children because they process so thoroughly all the information coming to them. Understanding this, I may narrow the decision down to two possibilities or try to find ways to help her organize her thoughts to quicken her decision-making. Because she had trouble picking a school library book on Library Day, I went with her a couple of times to get her better acquainted with it, then made a list of books and topics she liked in order to help her choose a book more easily in the future. Lisa, mother of Nicholas, an 11-year-old gifted and highly sensitive boy, says “decisions are so tough for him. He takes so long choosing a birthday gift for a friend from the toy store that I sometimes end up choosing it for him, which seems to bring him great relief.
Recently, Nicholas struggled right up to the last minute with the decision of whether or not to go snow boarding with his friends. He was afraid of not succeeding at it, so he decided not to go, but later tried it on a family outing and excelled on his first attempt. Making decisions may be hard for him, but, because he thinks things through so well, he never makes stupid decisions!”
As they grow up, sensitive children may forego a number of tantalizing opportunities, because they can see beforehand the potential for discomfort or negative outcomes. At times, they may need gentle pushing or prodding, so they don’t regret missing out on once in a lifetime opportunities. Providing them with a comfortable, non-threatening way to ease into something new can make all the difference. The positive side of this cautious reflective nature is that it tends to make highly sensitive children generally “good kids” and easy to bring up. Because they reflect so much, they tend to better understand the consequences of behaviors and stay out of trouble.
Making Allowances for the Physical Aspects of Sensitivity
Having a better understanding of my sensitive daughter socially has helped tremendously at school. Acquainting myself with the physical sensitivities typical of her trait has helped clear up mysterious issues on the home front. I was surprised to learn that Sophi’s general fussiness with regard to her body had to do with this inborn trait of sensitivity. After having learned of the typical skin sensitivities of these children, I no longer hassle my daughter endlessly about wearing socks, heavy non-stretchy jeans, or constricting jackets, except on the coldest of days. In addition to skin discomforts, highly sensitive children have greater sensitivity to pain overall. When they fall down, or hurt themselves in any way, they may cry more because of the greater pain they feel.
I have also learned that highly sensitive children have accentuated taste buds and food preferences. Now, I simply deal with my daughter’s needing one shape noodle over another, her having to eat one food thoroughly before starting the next thing on her plate, her refusal to eat anything bruised, misshapen, or imperfect in any way, and her avoidance of mixing foods at all costs. Lisa, the mother of Nicholas, says, “for years now he’s been a picky eater, at one time agreeing to eat only 7 or 8 foods, and refusing to try anything new.
The hearing of sensitive children may also be accentuated. As a result, they may have strong reactions to loud noises. My daughter Sophi would always cover her ears in agony whenever we would be where there would be loud music or excessive noise. Now when I know we’ll be in a noisy environment, I steer clear of the speakers and bring cotton balls for her ears. In re-accessing all of Sophi’s physical and social differences, I’ve come to a new conclusion. These differences are physiological, not psychological. What I had thought was my daughter’s fussiness or clever manipulation at best, or outright defiance and disrespect at worst, I now know to be nothing more than my sensitive child’s way of establishing a comfort zone for herself in a stimulating world that too often overwhelms her body and soul.
Appreciating Their Sharp Minds
Along with the challenges of my child’s sensitive nature comes a real “special ness” that sets her apart in a positive way from other children. Like typical highly sensitive children, my daughter Sophi is a very deep thinker. She is highly sensitive and a real Sherlock Holmes about noticing the subtleties most people miss. She’s usually the first one to see the miniscule bug that’s appeared on the ceiling and quick to notice when I’ve moved her washcloth, or trimmed my bangs. Being so highly observant, most highly sensitive children are filled with interesting perceptions of the world around them. All children do clever or imaginative things, but highly sensitive children tend to say and do them more. Vicki, mother of a gifted, highly sensitive 11-year-old girl, Emma, says “she is constantly inventing complicated, imaginative games to play with her brother or friends, and is great at making up interesting stories.” Because creativity and imagination are so prevalent in sensitive children, they tend to have strong artistic abilities. Their perceptive, highly observant nature often leads to scientific or athletic abilities and skill at mental games. Lynn, mother of an 8-year-old sensitive boy, says “Pete is extremely good at chess for a child his age. His chess teacher was so impressed that he gave Pete a book on chess strategies and encouraged him to enter tournaments.”
Another positive aspect of the trait is that highly sensitive children tend to have excellent focus and a lengthy attention span. In school this helps them to be good listeners and quick learners. In fact, highly sensitive children are quite often gifted. Linda Silverman, an expert on gifted children, found that the brighter the child, the more likely he or she will be introverted. Highly sensitive children usually have a strong desire to please and “do the job right”. Vicki says of her daughter Emma, “when she was learning to write, I remember her homework had to be perfect in her eyes or she wouldn’t want to do it at all.”
Highly sensitive children tend to have very inquisitive natures and ask thought-provoking questions. Lisa, the mother of Nicholas, marvels at her son’s persistent need to have all the answers. “When it comes to something he is interested in, like Nintendo, he will spend hours on the Internet researching endlessly how to win at the game.” Vicki, mother of Emma says, “my husband and I notice more things because Emma notices so much and asks so many questions. When she was interested in astronomy, we all learned a tremendous amount about the stars and planets through her interest. Her inquisitive nature gives us a fuller sense of life.”
It is now hard to understand why some of our world’s great thinkers have quite likely been highly sensitive, like George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, Eleanor Roosevelt, Albert Einstein, Leonardo da Vinci, Carl Jung, and Victor Frankl, to name a few.
Valuing Their Tender Souls
While having an exceptionally observant mind is a wonderful advantage to being highly sensitive, have a tender heart is in my opinion even more important. Being so sensitive to other’s feelings, highly sensitive children are often remarkable fro their thoughtfulness and empathy. They are unusually anguished by injustice, cruelty, or irresponsibility. My daughter is the only one I know who picks up rollie pollie beetles from off the sidewalk and puts them in the grass, so they are not accidentally stepped on. Lynn says of her son Pete, “he is so caring and kind, always thinking about what is happening with other people. When his big sister forgets to do a chore, he often does it for her just to be nice. He loves animals very much and once declared to me in tears, ‘I can’t eat animals, because to eat them, they’d have to be killed, and I don’t want to kill them!” Vicki, mother of Emma, also describes this inherent kindness and generosity. “Emma is very un-materialistic and empathic. When her school had a Food Drive for local hungry families, she insisted on donating $50.00 of her own money, nearly all her savings.” It is not difficult to see that our world would be a better place if more of these sensitive, tender-hearted individuals grew up fully free to be themselves and express their natures.
Like all types of children, highly sensitive children have their strengths and weaknesses. Unfortunately, sensitive children have a tougher time because of our society’s negative attitudes toward them. They are often not understood or accepted by their family, friends, or teachers. Parents need to bridge the gap between their sensitive child and the outside world by providing a comfortable home environment that allows their child’s social skills to develop naturally. This is important, because, as Dr. Aron’s research shows, “it is primarily parenting that decides whether the expression of sensitivity will be an advantage or a source of anxiety.” Teachers can also help by understanding their needs and accepting them for who they are, not try to fit them into the mold of the average child. When sensitive children are older, they will be able to adapt to the world, if, when they were younger, their world adapted to them.
As Dr. Aron is fond of saying, “to have an exceptional child, you have to be willing to have an exceptional child.” And by the same token, “to be an exceptional parent, you have to be willing to be an exceptional parent.” In other words, we often need to make exceptions, both for our highly sensitive children, and for our parenting of them, so that they can excel.
I personally feel blessed to be the mother of such an exceptional, highly sensitive child. With the knowledge I’ve attained, I intend to be an exceptional parent and bring my daughter up to be not only exceptional, but happy, healthy and well-adjusted.
Is Your Child Highly Sensitive?
To find out, take Dr. Aron’s short test on sensitivity. Answer TRUE if the question is true or at least moderately true of your child for substantial time in the past. Answer FALSE if it has not been very true of your child or if has never been true.
T/F - startles easily.
T/F - learns better from a gentle correction than strong punishment.
T/F - notices the slightest unusual odor.
T/F - seems very intuitive.
T/F - doesn’t do well with big changes.
T/F - notices the distress of others.
T/F - prefers quiet play.
T/F - asks deep, thought-provoking questions.
T/F - notices subtleties (something that’s been moved, a change in a person’s appearance, etc.)
T/F - considers if it is safe before climbing high.
T/F - performs best when strangers aren’t present.
T/F - feels things deeply.
If you answered TRUE to seven or more of the questions, your child is probably highly sensitive. If only one or two questions are true of your child, but they are extremely true, you might also be justified in calling your child highly sensitive.
What You Can Do
1. Accept you sensitive child’s inborn temperament for what it is. Trying to force him out of shyness only makes matters worse. Allowing him to integrate at his own pace gives him the confidence to proceed.
2. Look at her temperament in positive terms so that others will too. Don’t call her “shy” because in our society, this has negative connotations and you don’t want your child to feel flawed. You can say “reserved” rather than “shy”, “focused” rather than “quiet”, “reflective” rather than “slow to warm up” and “over-stimulated” rather than “stressed”.
3. Plan ways to prevent unnecessary over-arousal and find tools to help him manage and recover from over-stimulating situations. Keep the arousal low and allow ample quiet time and breaks. Minimize extracurricular activities and under rather than over-schedule the week.
4. Recognize when certain undesirable behaviors are due to your sensitive child’s current state of over-arousal. When over-aroused, some may become withdrawn, dull, forgetful, distracted, unmotivated, depressed, anxious, or timid. Others may become teary, irritable, defiant, overly emotional, or in some cases hyperactive or aggressive. When the stimulation is reduced, the child is fine.
5. Educate you child’s teachers about her sensitive temperament and how best to deal with over-arousing classroom situations.
6. Never use harsh discipline with your highly sensitive child because it only distresses him. Being so rule-conscious, he’ll usually require only gentle, private reminders.
7. Help you highly sensitive child make at least one or two good friends, since she may be slow to do so on her own. Plan frequent activities and one-on-one play dates with special friends, have her best friend added to her class, or introduce her to other highly sensitive children.
8. Balance pushing and protecting. Since highly sensitive children usually take time to get used to new things and don’t like to take risks until they feel safe, sometimes a gentle push is required, and even appreciated.
For more information on the trait of high sensitivity and Dr. Aron’s tips, visit www.hsperson.com.