(If you’re not sure you have a highly sensitive child, check out our previous article on HSCs, Do I Have a Sensitive Child?)
Elaine Aron, the author of The Highly Sensitive Child, has a motto for raising HSCs: to have an exceptional child you have to be willing to have an exceptional child. This means embracing the fact that your child might be considered “different,” and that’s okay.
Some teachers, peers, and family members will think your sensitive child’s differences are wonderful, and it’s being surrounded by these people that your child will gain self-esteem. With the right support, HSCs will demonstrate confidence despite their differences.
With a world that continues to suffer due to an ongoing pandemic, climate change, and racism, sensitivity is what has helped our society move towards positive change through activism, empathy, and awareness of the world’s suffering.
That’s why spreading awareness around sensitivity is important, so why not start with educating and empowering your sensitive child?
Understanding where your child is struggling the most with their sensitive trait can help you find ways to support them.
If you’re unsure if you have a sensitive child or unaware of what makes your child sensitive, I recommend Aron’s HSC questionnaire. This will help you have a better understanding of what specific challenges your child is facing.
To help further support your loving HSC, here are five tips for parenting a highly sensitive child.
1. If an HSC senses something you don’t, believe them
“My room stinks!”
“My shoes are too tight!”
“She doesn’t like me!”
If your child is communicating a strong sense of something, be sure your child knows that you believe them — even if you aren’t seeing or experiencing the same thing.
From there, help them come up with a solution. For instance, if your child is sensitive to clothing, ask them what exactly is bothering them. Is it the scratchy label? A certain fabric? Ask them questions to help both of you get to the root of the problem.
It’s also important to put limits on what you can be expected to do to solve. For example, if your child is sensitive to shoes, let them know ahead of time that you will try three times to tie them to their comfort with their instruction before giving up.
2. Manage overstimulation with preparation and practice
Since HSCs are deeply aware of subtleties, they tend to be easily overwhelmed. The overwhelming feeling can come from their external environment but also their inner world.
Many sensitive children have a deep inner world (in which they tend to hold on to for the rest of their lives), therefore, can cause them to feel “too much” even if their environment is free of intense stimulation.
When your child feels overwhelmed, it might come across as performance anxiety. If your child is great at hitting the ball at home, they might trip up and do poorly during the game. It might not be the act of performing that bothers them, but rather the noisy crowd and bright lights.
That’s not to say that overstimulation can be the cause of performance anxiety, however, it doesn’t necessarily mean your child isn’t eager to perform — what a conundrum!
The good news is that your HSC is less likely to get bored. And when it comes to performance and competency, they do very well with activities that require strategy, extra care, and deeper thought — whether that’s preparing a thoughtful speech or practicing a dance routine.
To help them cope with overstimulation, find an area of competence your child shows strong interest in. Once they show interest, make an effort to help them prepare and practice often. By reaching a level of competence sooner than later can help your child better manage stimulation that might otherwise discourage them from sticking with something.
Once they’ve completed a stimulating activity, ensure that your child gets downtime to recharge.
Along with an area of competence, you might also want to introduce noncompetitive activities, such as singing in the car, keeping a diary, or painting for fun. This allows your child to enjoy activities without the pressures of becoming a “pro.”
3. Coach HSCs on how to manage their deep emotions
HSCs feel deeply, which means they might show stronger emotional reactions in certain situations. In my opinion, this is the most challenging since HSCs, depending on the age, might not have the skills yet to identify, label, and manage deep emotions.
The upside is your child will have incredible moments feeling a strong sense of joy and happiness, but at the same time, when they feel badly they tend to feel miserable.
Though this can be the most challenging facet of raising a highly sensitive child, it does get easier as your child grows older — as long as you take the time to teach your child how to manage their emotions effectively.
If you have an HSC, learning the power of emotional intelligence and encouraging your child to express their emotions is key.
To teach them emotional intelligence skills, think about how you want your child to handle different types of emotions and be sure to lead by example the best you can (perfectionism isn’t encouraged here).
It’s also important to be attuned to your child’s positive emotions just as much as the negative. Give both positive and negative emotions the same level of attention. If your child is feeling sad, chances are you will ask why and be very attentive to their needs, so be sure to do the same with positive emotions.
Additionally, be careful not to squash a child’s happy mood by saying something like, “Since you’re happy, how about you clean your room?” which will only put a damper on your child’s enthusiasm.
For more insight on how emotional intelligence influences children, check out Marc Brackett’s book, Permission to Feel.
4. Be honest with how you’re feeling
Since HSCs feel deeply, your child might also showcase empathy more than their peers.
Empathy is a wonderful trait for your child to have. The downside is your child will be highly attuned to your feelings and your level of care.
Let’s say the family is going through a difficult time. Your sensitive child will be more likely to pick up on your feelings more so than your non-sensitive child. Ultimately, it’s hard to emotionally hide from an HSC.
The worst you can do is try to pretend everything is okay or tell them everything is fine. Your highly sensitive child will know better, or worse, they’ll turn inward and start to doubt their empathic abilities.
Be honest with your child about how you feel. This will help your child learn about the power of their empathy, as well as their intuitiveness.
If your child is showing empathy towards a cause, you can share ideas on how they can help, such as raising money, volunteering, or joining clubs or organizations that help support others.
Empathy is a wonderful trait that comes with great responsibility. It’s also important to teach your empathetic child the importance of taking care of their emotional needs first before helping others.
5. Allow them to test the waters
Think about your favorite story in literature or in film. In most cases, there is a protagonist who is bold and forges forward without thinking. By their side is always a mentor archetype.
How many bad decisions would Alladin have made if Genie didn’t feel empowered to advise him before making a bad decision?
Sensitive children notice potential danger sooner, and work well with non-sensitive kids to help develop strategies and plans of action. Having a group of both sensitive and non-sensitive kids working together is a wonderful combination.
However, being cautious is not always valued, and at the same time, being overly cautious can hold your child back from experiencing new things.
Be sure to always honor your child’s cautiousness. As the parent, it’s up to you to recognize what experiences you feel your child would regret missing out on, so you can encourage them to pursue the most valuable experiences.
If your child is given a wonderful opportunity that is out of their comfort zone, just like you would if you were teaching your child to swim, take it one step at a time. Enable your HSC a chance to experience small wins before diving right in.
And remember, think of your child’s viewpoint. You might have experienced the situation plenty of times before, but they might not have.
However, chances are there are some past, positive experiences that are similar or feel more familiar that you can refer back to. For instance, if your child is worried about performing in front of a crowd, remind them of the time they performed in front of a small group of family members and how well it went.
Where to find more resources
There is a lot to unpack when it comes to understanding HSCs. This article provides only a few out of several strategies on how to parent a sensitive child. For a more comprehensive resource, I recommend Aron’s book, The Highly Sensitive Child.
By empowering our highly sensitive children to be who they are, we can help strengthen our communities, families, as well as the workplace by encouraging them to share their sensitive gifts with the world.
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.