Monday, 24 June 2013

Understanding Highly Sensitive Children

Our parenting theme of 2013 so far surely has to be 'authentic', being true to who we are and letting our children be who they are. We refuse to mould them into the right shaped peg to fit the holes that others create because it is easier.

HSCs are often creative and artistic
Photo: Robin Hindle
We have been in a long battle dialogue with my eldest son's primary school about highly sensitive children and their needs in the classroom. My six year old is a highly sensitive child (HSC) which is an amazing character trait to have. HSCs grow up to be the artists, the musicians, the peacemakers amongst us. They have an affinity to the natural world, to animals and living, growing things. They are conscientious (there is a reduced chance that I will spend time nagging my son to do his homework in later years) and have an innate sense of justice and right and wrong. They are creative. They are emotionally tuned into the world around them. They are intuitive. They are incredibly affectionate, caring and loving as well as wise for their years. But it also means their heads fill up quickly, especially in busy or new environments.

The first hurdle for many parents of HSCs usually involves overcoming a lack of knowledge, understanding or interest in the idea of highly sensitive people (HSP). Being highly sensitive does not mean there is something wrong. It is not an illness or a disorder, nor is it a behavioural problem.  But most HSCs have a specific instruction manual. And we all know that if you make an expensive technological purchase and try to operate it without the instruction manual you are asking for problems. Either you don't understand half of the functions so are not able to get the best out of your equipment or worst still you may even do damage to your purchase. And so it is with a HSC.

A HSC is in essence one of the 20% of children that intensely experiences the environment around them. The senses of an HSC are easily overloaded: cooking smells can be unpleasant to the keen nose of a HSC; the feel of sand on a HSC's hands can be distinctly uncomfortable; a wet sleeve can lead to a drama; loud noises can be intensely frightening; a scratchy label on a new T-shirt can be highly irritating. A highly sensitive toddler can therefore come across as an extremely fussy child, whereas in reality he genuinely experiences physical discomfort.

And physical sensory overload is just the tip of the iceberg - that sensitivity that we can actually easily see if we care to look close enough. Look below the surface of an HSC and there are pools of emotion of a depth well beyond a child's years. They feel the emotions in a room: they know when a parent is unhappy or a teacher is feeling below par; they read through the words spoken to the meaning behind them and quickly sense when the two don't match. They are good readers of people and are alarmingly capable of taking on the emotions of others around them, taking on the burden of another's problems as if they were their own. It's a lot of responsibility to take on, particularly for those so young.

The majority of HSCs are introverts (30% are not) who are often labelled as shy or fearful. HSCs scan and observe before they participate. They are more cautious about tackling the climbing frame in the playground or jumping from the bench in the gym. They are very unsure of new environments and new people. They are the toddlers clinging to their mothers' legs and refusing to play with the others at the mother and toddler group, the children screaming the new classroom down on the first day of pre-school and the children reluctant to start at primary school. They need to know it is safe before they take action. They need time to warm up to places and people. It's about self preservation and trust.

Perfectionism is also a trait of HSCs. If something they work on is not perfect in their eyes they feel like a failure. They are upset by their perceived lack of ability to complete the task to their high standards. However, to put 110% into everything you do to get it to a 'perfect' state is mentally and physically exhausting.

For a HSC a classroom can be overwhelming
Photo: Elias Minasi
Transfer all of this to the classroom and you hopefully have an idea of how a HSC feels at the end of the school day. Therefore HSCs need a lot of downtime. They are the children you often find spending long periods of time alone in their bedrooms. They need time to clear their head out after a busy day. They need a break during the school day to give everything they have experienced a place. They need quiet time.

20% of the population is highly sensitive. HSCs grow in to highly sensitive adults. It's something I know firsthand - oh did I not mention that high sensitivity is a hereditary trait? It's an inborn character.

The degrees of sensitivity are as varied as children themselves. As children grow older some sensitivities disappear, some are managed better and some sensitivities are unfortunately suppressed because they don't fit with the demands of modern society (the consequences of which are anxiety and depression and a lack of authenticity but that's a whole other blog post in the making).

However sensitivity manifests itself the first step for the parent of a HSC is usually to educate those around them. Hence this blog post. I, hand in hand with my husband, have spent the last eighteen months trying to educate my son's educators about what he needs to thrive in a busy classroom. Our attempts have fallen on deaf ears. Fortunately every other person in my son's world so far does understand. And, more importantly, they accept my son for who he is. They allow him to be authentic, and don't require him to change to fit in with them. Which is lucky, because we have another two sons who have shown signs to a lesser degree of being HSCs. And thank goodness - because the world sure is a better place with HSPs in it!

Do you know a HSC? Are you the parent of a HSC? I would love to hear from others who have had similar experiences as a parent.

If anything is this blog post rings bells for you check out Elaine Aron's website for more information on the is topic, as well as a check list of HSC traits to help you determine if your child(ren) is(are) in fact HSCs.

11 July 2013: As of today I have created a Facebook group called "Happy Sensitive Kids" for anyone who is involved in raising HSCs. My goal is to create a supportive, safe place to share tips, experiences, challenges and the joys of bringing up HSCs. It's a closed group so you need to request membership but it also means that the posts can only be seen my members. 


  1. I'm the mother of a HSC/P - I also think I'm a HSP - found out more about when I was in the US couple of years back.

    So I empathise with what you've gone through with your son.

  2. Tell me about it... I am a HSP and probably a mom to such children. I am just reading Elaine Aron's book on this, and you are so right. Schools are not made with HSP's in mind. I also think I may have SPD (which may or may not have anything to do with my being highly sensitive). But I have heard it my whole life: "You're too sensitive", "You worry too much", "Don't be so negative"...I hope I'll be able to make sure that my children are recognized for the wonderful persons that they are...thanks for htis post.

  3. Wow - that's great! The more you talk about it the more people you get to know who are also HSP! If I listened to my son's school I would really believe I am totally nuts and HSP doesn't exist!!!!

    It's a dual edged sword with so many amazing sides to it - but it can be difficult to to find a balance so our children can thrive as sensitive souls.

    Elaine Aron's book is a brilliant resource. I've just read The Strong, Sensitive Boy by Ted Zeff which was also helpful as a guide to what I should avoid doing with my son(s).

    Thanks for sharing :-)

  4. Hi Amanda
    I think I have a Daughter who is a HSC. We have not sought professional help yet. But we try to follow the suggestions. But sometimes its very hard. And she started the dutch school which made it more harder. Thank you for the post.

  5. Hi Saylee,

    HSCs don't necessarily need professional help by any means but they and you thrive with good support & attention for sensitivity.

    I would love to hear in what ways it's hard - and particularly with regards to Dutch school. :)

  6. I have one of these children and it can be a battle. It sometimes requires a lot of patience - not only with him but also people he interacts with. Trying to get people to understand can be so challenging for us. Teaching him how to cope in situations he cannot control can be hard too but is getting better as we understand what makes him tick.

  7. I saw a link to this post on twitter and read with interest, then subsequently did an online analysis. One of my children certainly seems like she is a HSC and the 'symptoms' that she doesn't have are the ones her sister does. It's made me reevaluate the way I 'deal' with them. Thanks so much for writing about this.

  8. Ammanda, I am so happy I am playing this Scavenger Hunt. Probably I would have never found your post! My eldest boy is very sensitive, we homeschool my kids so he does not need to deal with people all the time, just on Fridays and we had to remove him from one of his classes because of his reactions. He is amazingly smart, he is an avid reader and has an amazing memory. Besides his music skills are very good.

  9. Hello Amanda, I just stumbled upon your blog and I'm so happy to see that other moms are spreading the word. I have a wonderful HSC myself, and we didn't always knows that's what he was, and we didn't know of any others either. So it's been a difficult journey, but we have all grown so much in the past year.

    I started my blog Sensitive and Extraordinary Kids ( hopes that I can reach out to other parents who are going through the same thing, if anything to reassure them that they are not alone, and that their kids are just fine! I will be following you as I would love read your stories. I hope you can stop by as well and send me your thoughts.

    Have a fantastic weekend!