Understanding Highly Sensitive Children (and why it’s okay!)
We’d simply be lying to ourselves if we said being a child at school wasn’t difficult. We were all there, at one point, forced as unwilling participants to partake in cutthroat classroom politics. It was a place where every action, every spoken word, and every facial expression was closely judged and critically analysed by a room of our peers; deciding amongst themselves what clique, if any, we were best suited to.
Or, maybe, these were just the experiences of a highly sensitive, anxious, and insecure child. Either way, the stress brought upon young children by school is undeniable and those who suffer more, often do so in relative silence.
Of course, we’re told at the time that we will grow out of this unfortunate period. That it’s just a phase everyone goes through before finding themselves. One day, the sun will rise anew; shining its’ divine light through the cracks of the strong outer shell we’ve formed around ourselves to ward off our social discomforts, and grant us a brand new perspective on life… If only it were that simple.
Sensitivity is not something children simply grow out of, nor should they– they do, however, learn to adapt and channel their emotions differently from their classmates. According to Psychologist, Elaine Aron, and her book, The Highly Sensitive Child, there are 5 common traits we must consider to better understand these behaviours:
- Emotionally responsive children tend to digest information far deeper than their peers; going to exhaustive lengths to attempt to understand things from multiple perspectives. Although this can make them seem indecisive, it is actually believed to be the rich foundation of their creativity, sincerity and passion.
- It’s also been theorised that they process more sensory information than usual– identifying sounds, smells, colours and markings more so than other children. This ability can elicit both positive and negative reactions.
- Sensitive children are, unsurprisingly, capable of extreme empathy. This is often seen as a double-edged sword; both granting them incredible insight into how others may be feeling, whilst also directly impacting their own emotional well-being.
- Being sensitive requires great mental effort, which can result in exhaustion. Sometimes misinterpreted as laziness or a reluctance to conform, this is the true reason overly anxious and compassionate children often tire more easily.
- Experiencing a strong influx of emotions on such a regular basis can also result in overload, causing tantrums and fits of upset. These usually manifest in situations which children might perceive as high-stress, such as birthday parties or other events which require them to socialise.
Due to their shyness, lack of self-esteem and social discomfort, sensitive children are more inclined to live within their own heads; although this grants them a strong level of emotional intelligence, they also spend a lot of their time doubting and questioning many of their abilities. Dr. Aron refers to this as the ‘internalisation of shame.’
This shame is, of course, completely unwarranted to anyone on the outside of the looking glass, but remains a prevalent and sometimes overwhelming trait of the highly sensitive child.
So how do we support these sensitive children? How can we help these thoughtful, kind, agitated, anxious, intelligent and sympathetic kids deal with their constant internal struggle and develop the confidence they desire?
Firstly, it is important to value them for who they are. They may well experience the world differently to other children; often leaving their peers uncomfortable and perplexed by their behaviour, but that doesn’t mean what they feel is not real. Emotional children are not manipulative or spoilt, they’re confused, and attempting to have them conform to a more mainstream or ‘sociable’ way of thinking, or chastising them for ‘misbehaving’ only confuses them further.
As well as valuing your child, you must also allow them to feel acknowledged and validated. In the event that they fail or feel inadequate, it’s important to remind them of their many other strengths. I, for example, always struggled with maths. I detested the idea that there was always a definitive answer to everything; finding far more joy in critical thinking and imaginative writing. So when I got a D in my SATS, although unsurprised, I was terribly disappointed. I believed this failure defined me; completely disregarding my other talents. It was only after talking to my always supportive parents, that I was able to put things into perspective.
Why refuse to let victories go to your head, but allow failures to attack your heart so easily? This is a consistent issue with emotionally vulnerable children, and one which requires your love, care, and patience to dispel.
With so much of your child’s self-worth tied up in the opinions of others and past associations, it’s important to provide a lot of encouragement when they attempt to do new things. It is equally important, however, not to push your child into situations where they may feel insecure. Although you may believe this to be effective in the long run, it is thought to simply reinforce the false idea that the child is not good enough.
It’s believed that these children associate routine with comfort, hence why often display such a reluctance to practice extrovertism. This is why it’s important to be patient and give them time to learn, adapt, and evolve at their own pace. It’s good to remember that standardised learning is not suitable for everyone, and they may well identify a passion they wish to pursue with confidence in the future.
These children are some of the the most empathetic, selfless and kind-hearted amongst us. Their sensitivity is not a hindrance, but a gift, and it’s about time we treated it as such.