If you’re not familiar with the trait of Sensory Processing Sensitivity, or High Sensitivity, you can read about it here. My adult clients are all-too familiar with what it can be like to navigate the already potentially challenging aspects of childhood, as a Highly Sensitive Child (HSC).
When I was a counselor working with children in the schools, the most common response by teachers and counselors to unhelpful, distracting behaviors was a diagnosis of ADHD and a prescription for medication. At the time I was unaware of the High Sensitivity trait (the research was being conducted at the time), though I was certainly aware of being considered ‘too sensitive’ or ‘over-reactive,’ and I struggled with being told that these children had a disorder and just needed to take their medication and have a weekly counseling session and the adults would wait for them to ‘get better,’ to fit in with standard expectations.
Looking back on those days I’ve often wondered just how many of these struggling children were just Highly Sensitive. HSCs can certainly be distracted by their environment, feel overwhelmed by expectations and performance anxiety and perfectionism, have a difficult time connecting with their peers and fitting in. They can experience intense feelings, but learn that it’s not ok to let them show, and begin to shut down or reach a boiling point and ‘act out.’ This isn’t necessarily indicative of an ADHD diagnosis, though there’s definite overlap.
How to Help
As with HS adults, Highly Sensitive Children can thrive if they have the right environment and tools available. Here are some ways to support them:
~explain that they’re just wired to be very sensitive, there’s nothing wrong with them and they don’t need to be less sensitive
~allow for a calm environment with minimal distractions
~offer an organized environment and establish a routine
~provide clear expectations outlined with doable baby steps
~allow for a lot of alone time rather than expecting constant participation
~provide a special, quiet, personal space to retreat to
~allow for ‘sensitive’ feeling expression…sadness, compassion, worry, etc., vs. expecting them to ‘buck up,’ ‘stop crying,’ ‘don’t be a wuss’
~ask often how they’re feeling, what they need (and encourage them to check in with themselves)
~allow for them to change their minds, opt out of activities
~ask what situations are like for them, rather than assuming and expecting something else from them
~allow for choices…what to wear or eat, how to organize their room, in what order to do things, etc.
~celebrate their differences without comparison to the ‘norm’
~don’t label them or assume/ask if they’re ‘shy’ or ‘afraid’ if they hang back to observe things
**~avoid saying, “You’re just TOO sensitive.”
Time to Celebrate
And there are so many positive characteristics of being highly sensitive that we can celebrate and reinforce in our Highly Sensitive Children, such as…
~creativity and artistic talents
~empathy and compassion
~ability to consider all sides, all potential effects
~heightened awareness and attention to detail
~strong imagination and curiosity and a thirst for learning
~knowing what’s needed in a situation or to help others
If HSChildren learn that they’re ok…different than 80% of others, but ‘normal’ or typical within the other 20%, and develop effective coping strategies, they’ll be able to thrive. If they’re valued for their unique offerings and different ways of seeing the world, they’ll be able to thrive. If they’re supported and encouraged to embrace their sensitivity, they’ll be able to thrive.
If our HSChildren are helped and allowed to thrive, the world will become a more amazing place! If you’re not sure if your child is Highly Sensitive, Elaine Aron has an inventory for children.
If you’d like to learn more about how to support your HSChild at home and at school, I offer parent consults. We can chat in a free discovery call.