Highly Sensitive Child is a term I hadn’t even heard of until about a year ago. My daughter, Marie, had always been quick to tears and sensitive to everything, but we never really thought it was more than just a baby/toddler thing. As time passed, we started making more and more connections between events and her reactions (or overreactions, as we had originally considered them). We would start the blender and she would be brought to tears from the sound. If a stranger looked at her, she would start to cry. She absolutely hated water near her face. Most of the reactions were tears.
So we had her hearing checked, but it was perfect. It wasn’t until my mother did a Google search of some of her sensitivities that we discovered this term: Highly Sensitive Child (also known as Highly Sensitive Person or HSP).
A Highly Sensitive Person is someone who has higher sensory processing sensitivity.
Basically they are more in tune with their 5 senses. They notice small nuances in their clothing, they hear things a little louder, they see/notice things the typical person may not, they are more sensitive to the taste of foods and therefore may be a little pickier, and they notice changes in smells more easily. Now, not every child displays all of these sensitivities. Some Highly Sensitive Children only display on or two of these, but they feel them REALLY strongly.
While we were on this journey of discovering this idea of the Highly Sensitive Child, we came across this test that could give you a rough idea of whether your child was a HSP. It was originally published in the book The Highly Sensitive Child (which is a FANTASTIC read, if you want more information on it). You can take the test HERE, it’s really quick. While this doesn’t necessarily diagnose your child as highly sensitive, it can help you notice some of the places that your child may display these sensitivities. I did the test for Marie and all of the questions applied to her. I was amazed. There were things that I hadn’t even thought of before learning about this process.
But knowing your child is a Highly Sensitive Child is only a piece of the puzzle. Figuring out how that affects your parenting and your life is a totally different story. Although not everything changed for us, it did give us a jumping off point and a better way to help others understand what was happening with her. Although some of them are a bit comical for us, we know that she is feeling everything really strongly, so we have to be sensitive to that.
Our Realities with a Highly Sensitive Child
~When we are driving, she will notice the tiniest plane in the sky and she can distinguish if it is a bird or a plane very quickly.
~She will smell things that we cannot. This typically results in her exclaiming “EWWWW! What is that terrible smell?!”, which will be followed by a series of freaking out and saying that over and over. She cannot let it go, so we have to remove ourselves from the situation. She now knows that we cannot smell everything she can, so she will follow that with “You can’t smell it because your nose isn’t as sensitive as mine, but it’s gross!”.
~Everything ends in tears. Her game messes up or frustrates her, tears. She falls, but is totally fine, tears. Someone looks at her wrong, tears. She smells something she doesn’t like, tears. She isn’t ready for a change, tears. We pick her up from someone’s house, tears.
~She feels things with every ounce of her being | Loves, anger, fear, etc…
~Change is a hard thing.
Marie loves ballet. She is super focused and interesting in learning what she is supposed to do. We recently switched to a new dance studio and the first day was a complete disaster! She wouldn’t go into the class and we sat in the hallway while she cried simultaneously from fear and from missing out on the dance class. Eventually we left, but the next class she ran right in and wasn’t afraid at all. It just takes her a little longer to process change.
~She has perfectionist tendencies. But she is also extremely smart. She notices things before other people which results in a strong understanding of the world, even at 4.
~Marie loves to play games, but if the game doesn’t swing in her favor she falls apart. We then have to take a moment to step away, let her be sad, then address how games work. Every. Time.
~She does best if she knows what is coming next. So basically some form of schedule or consistent habits. For Marie, these can be small things like:
Morning Cuddles right after waking up
Knowing her Ballet schedule
Having meals around the same time
~Gentle Parenting is a must. Kendall and I decided long ago that we would gentle parent (no spanking, minimal time outs, etc…). Then we met Marie and we realized how important that is for her. If we were to spank her, she would take it personally and it would break her spirit, and probably mine too. We have to be careful with how we speak to her when she does something “wrong” (and luckily, she is a really good kid), because everything we say she takes to heart. A great example of this happened the other day.
Marie had been using my phone to watch videos and play games when I received a phone call from a friend. She wanted to let me know that Marie had been texting her. She didn’t care in the least, and honestly it was really funny, but she wanted me to know. So I went to Marie and simply said, “Honey, you texted Mommy’s friend. It’s totally okay, but I just want you to know that those are texts. How about you watch videos through the Kids Mode app, instead.” She started profusely apologizing, which I had to stop quickly with another reminder, “You aren’t in trouble, I just wanted to let you know.”
I thought it was over but about 45 minutes after we put her to bed, she came into our room and says, “Mommy, I can’t stop thinking about what I did.” I had already forgotten and I said, “What do you mean?”. “I messaged your friend! I can’t stop thinking about it. It’s just stuck in my head and it won’t go away!” …
While this doesn’t happen every time, it’s a great example of how sensitive she is to correction. I barely said anything about the situation and honestly didn’t care that she had texted my friend, but she took even the smallest correction to heart. I can tell you she won’t do it again either because she has internalized my words.
~On that note, she apologizes for things a lot. It took me a while to figure out that most of the time she really isn’t apologizing to me, but to herself. She really struggles with a feeling of anxiety when she thinks she has done something “wrong”.
~She understands things so well and we have to give her credit for that. She processes information extremely well and therefore we have to allow her the opportunity to make those decisions.
~We try to refrain from using words like “bad” or “wrong”. Instead of saying “bad words” we say “adult words”. Instead of telling her she did that “wrong”, we try to help her understand the correct process for it.
~At the park, I have to remind her that it’s okay if she doesn’t want to play with the other kids.
~I have to recognize her emotions when she can’t so I can help her process them. An example would be disappointment.
We were at the park and she actually wanted to play with a little girl (which is rare for her) and the little girl didn’t want to play with Marie. She continued playing but just seemed “off”. So I walked up to her and said, “Marie, are you disappointed that she didn’t want to play with you?” Immediately she looked at me with a frown and said, “yes”. We then had to talk about how sometimes kids don’t want to play, just like she doesn’t always want to play. She then had a word for her feeling and could communicate it more effectively.
~I have to try not to yell at her. Yell is even a strong word. When I raise my voice, it usually results in her covering her ears or saying “Mommy! Don’t yell at me!”. I have then lost control of the situation. I find that correction is WAY more effective when I remain calm.
~It sucks being a Highly Sensitive Mom while raising a Highly Sensitive Child. Sometimes my emotions are so out of whack that I can’t effectively help her with hers. But it has also taught me more about my own sensitivities. (my poor husband has to deal with two extremely emotional girls. He is such a trooper!)
~Did I mention the crying? Because we have a LOT of tears in our home. I feel like a broken record at times telling her to use her words so we can help her.
While everyone’s experience raising a highly sensitive child is different, I hope that these can help you feel a little less alone in the process. I am by no means perfect. I screw up a lot in recognizing her emotions or losing control of my own. But by understanding who she is, I can help her grow into a person who is self-aware and strong.
We have already seen so many changes in her. She is starting to cry a little less, she can now communicate her emotions more effectively, and if we prepare her, she doesn’t freak out at noises. It’s amazing to watch my sweet, loving, emotional child enjoy the world in such a sensitive and emotionally charging way. I love the little girl she is and hope to help her process the world for the woman she will eventually become.
Peace and Love,