Photo by Kayan Baby on Unsplash

When I was young, I despised sleepovers. Whether it was a group of girls getting together to watch movies and eat popcorn or sleeping over at a babysitter’s house, I missed the comfort of my own bed, going to sleep as soon as I got tired, and knowing how to get to the bathroom in the dark.

Looking back, I now know that my discomfort towards sleepovers was due to my highly sensitive trait.

American psychologist Elaine N. Aron, Ph.D. in 1991, coined the term “highly sensitive person” to identify the 20% of the population born with a tendency to notice more in their environments and feel deeper.

Think you might have a highly sensitive child (HSC)? Here is an overview of what it means.

What does it mean to be a highly sensitive child?

The scientific term of high sensitivity is “sensory-processing sensitivity” and is defined as:

“An increased sensitivity of the central nervous system and a deeper cognitive processing of physical, social and emotional stimuli” (Source

In both children and adults, highly sensitive individuals tend to be more empathetic, creative, and conscientious. They also tend to become overwhelmed and overstimulated much easier than a non-sensitive person, i.e., a non-HSP; not to be confused with being insensitive.

Most parents know sooner than later they have a sensitive child. Though any newborn can have sleeping problems or be colicky, sensitive babies get overwhelmed when too much is happening for too long.

How understood and accepted a sensitive child is by their parents and teachers influences whether or not an HSC will develop a strong sense of self-worth or low self-esteem.

To fully understand the HSC, there’s one crucial thing to note:

There is no such thing as “overly sensitive” and sensitivity found in a child is not a problem or a disorder that should be cured.

Since sensitivity is commonly misunderstood, let’s first debunk a few misconceptions. Here are some facts:

  • High sensitivity is gender neutral – studies have shown that there is absolutely no indication that sensitivity is much more common in females than male and that males are not sensitive at all (far from the truth!).
  • 30% of HSPs are extroverted – Though 70% of HSPs are introverted, extroverted HSPs enjoy social interaction and are often sensation-seekers, but they also value their time alone and need reflection. Whether extroverted or introverted, HSPs often benefit from deeper conversations and smaller group interaction.
  • Sensitivity is not the same as being shy or fearful – Children are born sensitive and shouldn’t be confused with shyness, timidness, and fear, which are emotions influenced by bad experiences and are not genetic.

“Your child is so shy.”

“Your son seems to think too much.”

“Your daughter seems to be overwhelmed in class.”

If any of the above statements are familiar, you might not have a shy or scared child at all but a highly sensitive one. A highly sensitive child is:

  • Highly empathic and intuitive: they tend to know how you’re feeling and they sense things you might not.
  • A deep thinker: they ask thought-provoking questions and find fulfillment in learning (especially in an environment that is less overwhelming).
  • Conscientious: often misunderstood as being shy or timid, an HSC will scan their environment first and take mental notes before diving right in.

High sensitivity is challenging to identify in a child because it’s often confused with hyperactivity or autism (if you think your child might be autistic, please seek out an autistic expert for help).

Here are some signs that your child is most likely not an HSC:

  • They are sensitive about one thing, especially if that one thing is expected of their age. For instance, most children have a fear towards strangers in the second half of the first year.
  • They didn’t show any sense of sensitivity until a major stress or change influenced their environment, such as a divorce, a new sibling, or a big move.
  • They’ve been diagnosed with attention deficit disorder (ADD). ADD is, in a lot of ways, the opposite of HSCs. Though HSCs can get distracted because they notice so much and process things much deeper, they have the ability to make decisions, focus, and reflect when their environment allows.

If you suspect your child is highly sensitive, I recommend referring to Aron’s questionnaire specifically designed to identify whether or not your child is highly sensitive.

Note: a proper diagnosis will take weeks, not hours. So be sure to speak with your child’s teachers, childcare providers, and other professionals who have gotten to know your child. Having these conversations will ensure you’re being steered in the right direction, so your child gets the support they need.

Raising an empowered sensitive child

Sensitive children, when empowered and seen, are more likely to strive in a multitude of meaningful careers, from scientists to teachers, to psychologists to historians, lawyers, and doctors, as well as artists and creatives.

It’s safe to say the world is not limited for the sensitive child.

Understanding your sensitive child not only helps them feel more confident, but you’re also doing a wonderful service for the 20% of the population that identify as being highly sensitive.

Today, I still feel the same way about sleepovers. Fortunately, sleepovers ended by the age of 13 (phew!). But as an adult, I still struggle with similar situations: open-space work environments, networking events, and anxiety while traveling, to name a few.

But as I gained awareness around my sensitivity, I’ve been able to design a lifestyle that works for me.

Be sure to look out for our next article on HSCs – 5 Tips to Parenting a Highly Sensitive Child – coming out next month!


About the Author: Shannon Callarman is a former marketing manager for startups and now founder of Tonia Moon Coaching. After discovering the highly sensitive trait within herself, she now coaches individuals and businesses on how to lead with their sensitivity. You can learn more about what it means to be highly sensitive by subscribing to Valid Feelings, a weekly newsletter for HSPs.