Imagine leaving your home and feeling in-tune with everything occurring around you. Any sound, scent, or sight feels incredibly strong, and every interaction leaves you feeling what the person felt. Yet, instead of believing you’re gifted, you consistently feel overwhelmed by all the stimuli around you. This scenario is a daily occurrence for a highly sensitive child. While they’re often misunderstood, their empathetic and perceptive traits are gifts. Therefore, it isn’t a condition that needs treatment. Instead, it is encouraged to learn how to parent a highly sensitive child to help them gain self-acceptance and feel better navigating their world.
What Is a ‘Highly Sensitive Child’?
Highly sensitive children are acutely aware of themselves and the world around them. This awareness includes being sensitive to the sights, scents, noises, and thoughts and emotions of others. Thus, navigating the outside world is more challenging and overwhelming with a keen perception of any subtle change in their immediate environment.
According to Elaine Aron, the psychologist who coined this term, around 15-20% of the population are highly sensitive or what she refers to as having sensory processing sensitivity. While it isn’t a diagnosis, it is a personality trait that, in the right environment, children will thrive and flourish.
14 Signs You Have a Highly Sensitive Child
Other than having a highly sensitive nature, your children might display these common signs. However, it’s important to understand that not all children will experience these challenges or show these signs. Indeed, each child is unique.
- Highly reactive
- Sensory sensitivity to lights, sounds, etc.
- Intuitive and perceptive
- Often labeled highly emotional or shy
- Prone to meltdowns
- Has rigid rules and tends to control
- Cautious in new situations
- Prone to perfectionism
- Don’t like being corrected
- Struggles with stress
- Easily frustrated
- Tend to be self-conscious
- Prefers quiet play
How to Parent a Highly Sensitive Child: 10 Tips
1. Build acceptance
Firstly, building acceptance is the best tip for learning how to parent a highly sensitive child. Instead of trying to change their temperament, accepting who they are will strengthen your bond. For example, what you may perceive as “overly sensitive” or “whiny” are real responses to stimuli that are difficult to cope within a highly sensitive child. Thus, building acceptance for them will also cultivate self-acceptance and self-love within themselves – two psychological states children need to learn.
2. Set limits
Although you might be concerned about disciplining your child in fear of hurting their feelings, setting boundaries will help them. Clear limits teach them how to be adults and provide growth opportunities. However, harsh parenting shouldn’t be your intention. Instead, use a gentler approach, practice time-out alternatives that work and teach them about the consequences of breaking rules.
3. Provide down-time
It’s easy for highly sensitive children to become overwhelmed and overstimulated by their environments. For example, loud sounds, overcrowded areas, and bright lights can be painful. Therefore, refrain from overscheduling play dates, school activities, or errands to prevent overstimulation. Also, allow time for them to decompress and unwind after any public or school outing to recharge their batteries.
4. Teach emotions
All children benefit from learning how to communicate their feelings and healthy ways to cope with their feelings. From a young age, begin teaching your children how to name their feelings. A few ways to do this is through flash cards, asking “How are you feeling?”, and by identifying their feelings with their action (i.e., “You are so excited” when they clap their hands or run around happily). Or you can follow these 15 tips to teach emotions.
5. Highlight their strengths
If a child behaves in a way that’s outside the norm, they may internalize this difference and feel like they’re not good enough. Therefore, reminding them of their strengths will enhance their confidence, self-esteem, and self-worth. What subject do they love at school? Do they like to paint or play a sport? Positively reinforce their skills, traits, and teach them how wonderful they are just as they are.
6. Refrain from labeling
It’s normal for a parent to become frustrated or annoyed by their child’s behavior – it’s part of the human experience. However, it’s also important to avoid labeling your child. For example, if they don’t follow an order, say “I’m hurt you didn’t (insert action)”, rather than “You’re so lazy”. If your child hears a label, they may negatively internalize the experience and feel unworthy or that there is something wrong with them.
7. Be aware of yourself
Parenting a highly sensitive child is not always easy. It may test your patience and your ability to stay calm. But providing time for yourself to unwind is just as important as any other parenting tip or strategy. When you prioritize your self-care, you are also less likely to react, use harsh discipline or make a mistake that negatively affects your child. When possible, take a bath, attend an exercise class, socialize with friends, or practice these 15 self-care tips and ideas.
8. Create a safe place
Coping with stimuli and being perceptive to the emotions of others can be overwhelming. Therefore, highly sensitive children will feel more relaxed and happier if they have a safe place to retreat. For example, you can create this haven by designating a small part of their bedroom that gives them the control and freedom to decorate as they wish. Or by any area of the house, you feel comfortable designating. This tip encourages self-expression, creativity, and understanding of their sensitive nature.
9. Teach them to problem solve
Sensitive children struggle to navigate stressful situations and become overwhelmed. In these situations, it’s important they learn how to respond to their anxious feelings instead of running away or avoiding them. One way to do this is by learning to problem solve. For example, if they’re stressed about a problem at school, sit with them and discuss how to solve it step-by-step. It will also be a great opportunity to practice their feeling words.
10. Help them adapt
As your child gets older, they will need to learn how to cope with the world outside their comfort zone. At home and within their immediate environment, teach them how to stand up for themselves, advocate their boundaries, and use their voice. While speaking up and expressing themselves will be difficult, doing so in a safe place will build more confidence as they get older.
Your child may need more support and will benefit from consistently learning how to communicate their feelings and healthy ways to cope with their changing emotions as they grow. Learning how to parent a highly sensitive child will also provide more awareness, knowledge, and experience as you manage the highs and lows of parenthood.