When you hear phrase sensitive child, you may bring to mind a kid who cries at the slightest provocation. That’s not what it’s about.
Parents of sensitive children know there’s far more to their child than meets the eye. In her acclaimed book The Highly Sensitive Child, psychologist Elaine Aron notes that sensitive children’s nervous systems predispose them to faster reactions and heightened emotional awareness, and that this temperament is found in 20% of kids. The technical term we’re looking at is sensory processing sensitivity (SPS), which differs from sensory processing disorder (SPD) in that the latter is a low tolerance for distress, far more associated with personality—as opposed to SPS, which is a disorder of the senses.
It’s far easier to tell if you have a sensitive child once you’re acquainted with the signs—so today I’ve laid out 7 of the most common to help you identify and understand your child’s disposition.
1. They process experiences deeply
Your child poses thoughtful, probing questions, and they’re precocious in their use of ‘big words’. They’re indecisive, too—because their vivid imagination means they can weigh up the pros and cons of every scenario. This applies not only to important decisions, such as how to spend their weekend, but also to seemingly inconsequential day-to-day decisions, such as what to have off the menu—even which of these two chocolate bars to have from the shop.
2. They’ve got empathy by the bucketload
Sensitive children aren’t just emotionally reactive—they’re extremely empathetic, too. They’re deeply perturbed when they see their loved ones upset, to the point where they may well get upset themselves.
3. Clothes are a pain—literally
It’s not just that they prefer their Spiderman T-shirt over their Batman T-shirt—your sensitive child may be fussy about the very fabric and texture of their clothes. Sensory processing sensitivity can make seams in socks and itchy tags absolute no-nos, for example. Some parents combat this problem by buying special-order socks to mitigate the daily dressing battles they so often face. A day at the beach is another challenge you need to prepare for well in advance. Sand-free toes on the way home are simply non-negotiable. Damp clothes could spell hours of torment—for everyone in the car.
4. They struggle with new activities, and require a gradual introduction
Sensitive children are often hesitant with new people, places, and experiences, so you need to immerse them slowly to avoid them becoming overwhelmed. Visit the new classroom ahead of time, before the big day. Go and say hi to their new coach a few days before football training starts. Prepare them for what’s to come, and talk about what it’ll be like. Patiently field any and all questions they can think of—in the long run, this won’t just keep them calmer when the moment arrives, but will also make your life less stressful, too, as you’ll be far more confident they’re going to have fun in their new activity!
5. Their senses seem almost… super-powered?
Standing on the platform, they can hear the train coming before anyone else. “Is something burning?” they’ll enquire, standing three rooms away from the kitchen. “I don’t think so,” you’ll respond in surprise—only to get a whiff of charred toast half a minute later. Sensitive children are also quick to notice changes in people’s or places’ appearances which are all but imperceptible to the rest of us: “Your hair was parted to the left when I last saw you”; “That armchair was facing the window last time I was here”. On the flipside, loud noises can overwhelm them: a siren, an alarm, a dog barking. They may even dread the sound of the toilet flushing, the cereal box being opened, the squeaky brakes on someone’s bike on the pavement outside.
6. Traditional discipline methods don’t work
Timeout. The naughty step. Raising your voice. Common ways of keeping kids in check just don’t have the same effect when it comes to sensitive children. Their incredible perceptiveness means they need a gentler approach—because everything you say and do is internalised, then amplified. Whatever you say, they hear it ten times louder, perceive it as ten times greater the reprimand. So speak calmly and matter-of-factly when disciplining your sensitive child, and be strategic in overlooking minor infractions in pursuit of longer-term harmony.
7. Bedtime at the end of an epic day is no easy feat
Sleep is crucial for sensitive children: their vibrant, busy minds need rest. But by the same token, their imaginations running rampant while replaying the day’s exhilarating adventures means getting them off to sleep can be a constant nightly battle. Try introducing a series of increasingly calming activities, reducing the intensity of the stimuli around your sensitive child in gradations. This should effectively help them wind down and drift off for a peaceful night’s dreaming.
Parenting a sensitive child can be challenging—but make no mistake: it is a gift
Sensitive children make you see the world in a whole different light, perceive the minutiae of the day-to-day in ways you never have before. This can make the daily tasks of parenting tough, of course, especially if you weren’t a sensitive child yourself. It’s all about being flexible and adaptable to your child’s needs—while still knowing when to constrain those needs to keep their expectations realistic in the confines of their broader environment: school, playdates, holidays, restaurants, extracurricular clubs. If they react to a stimulus with what you’d consider disproportionate intensity, don’t take it personally, and understand that every experience of this kind is formative for your child.Provide your sensitive child with a safe and stable homebase from which they can venture out and explore the world at a pace that suits them, and you’ll set them up to prosper, to realise every iota of their truly magnificent potential—while forging a profound relationship with them along the way.