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Highly Sensitive Child is a term I hadn’t even heard of until a few years ago. Our daughter, Marie, had always been quick to tears and sensitive to everything, but we never really thought it was more than just a baby/toddler thing. As time passed, we started making more and more connections between events and her reactions (or overreactions, as we had originally considered them). We would start the blender and she would be brought to tears from the sound. If a stranger looked at her, she would start to cry. She absolutely hated water near her face. Most of the reactions were tears.
So we had her hearing checked, but it was perfect. It wasn’t until my mother did a Google search of some of her sensitivities that we discovered this term: Highly Sensitive Child (also known as Highly Sensitive Person or HSP).
A Highly Sensitive Person is someone who has higher sensory processing sensitivity.
Basically, they are more in tune with their 5 senses. They notice small nuances in their clothing, they hear things a little louder, they notice things the typical person may not, they are more sensitive to the taste of foods and therefore may be a little pickier, and they notice changes in smells more easily. Now, not every child displays all of these sensitivities. Some Highly Sensitive Children only display one or two of these, but they feel them REALLY strongly.
While we were on this journey of discovering this idea of the Highly Sensitive Child, we came across this test that could give you a rough idea of whether your child was an HSP. It was originally published in the book The Highly Sensitive Child. You can take the test HERE, it’s really quick. While this doesn’t necessarily diagnose your child as highly sensitive, it can help you notice some of the places that your child may display these sensitivities. I did the test for Marie and all of the questions applied to her. I was amazed. There were things that I hadn’t even thought of before learning about this process.
But knowing your child is a Highly Sensitive Child is only a piece of the puzzle. Figuring out how that affects your parenting and your life is a totally different story. Although not everything changed for us, it did give us a jumping-off point and a better way to help others understand what was happening with her.
A quick note: As my daughter has gotten older, some of these sensitivities have changed. But mostly we have just learned ways to navigate them in a more efficient way. I initially wrote this post when she was about 4 years old, now she is 8. So I have updated this to include how things have changed and the additional things we have learned!
Another note: Not every child’s experiences and sensitivities are the same. Please use this only as a way to help you navigate your own experiences, not as a guide to what will work for every child.
Our Realities with a Highly Sensitive Child
She is Extremely Observant
When we are driving, she will notice the tiniest plane in the sky and she can distinguish if it is a bird or a plane very quickly. It is pretty incredible when she catches small details that we never even noticed. She will also remember all these details for years!
Increased Sense of Smell
She will smell things that we cannot. This typically results in her exclaiming “EWWWW! What is that terrible smell?!”, which will be followed by a series of freaking out and saying that over and over. She cannot let it go, so we have to remove ourselves from the situation. She now knows that we cannot smell everything she can, so she will now follow that with “You can’t smell it because your nose isn’t as sensitive as mine… but it’s gross!”.
She is Very Sensitive to Sounds
One time, she got startled by an automatic toilet and from then on she would full-on freak out by the noise of public bathrooms. Try keeping some sticky notes with you to cover the automatic toilet sensor. Then, it can be removed when they are ready to flush. She also struggles to deal with loud places or loud music. We eventually invested in some noise-canceling headphones and it was a game-changer!!
We also see this impact her a lot when loud trucks pass. If she is riding her bike, she will stop and cover her ears. We can help this by warning her so that she doesn’t get startled.
Story Time: While traveling full-time a few years ago, we spent a day in New Orleans. We had all these experiences we imagined, but the reality was so different. It was hot and humid, loud, and smelled different. We thought she would love the street music, but it caused her so much anxiety. After a few hours of trying, we ended up leaving WAY earlier than planned. We realized that we hadn’t prepared ourselves or her for the things that would cause her to be uncomfortable, which made the entire day fall apart. BUT we learned to plan ahead better and our next stops went much smoother!
The Tears are Real
Everything ends in tears. Her game messes up or frustrates her, tears. She falls but is totally fine, tears. Someone looks at her wrong, tears. She smells something she doesn’t like, tears. She isn’t ready for a change, tears. I will say that as she gets older she has gotten a little more control over this and is learning additional ways to process things.
When she was younger, she would fall apart every time a game wasn’t going her way. We had to consistently explain how games worked and work through her emotions. It made game time a bit long, but eventually, she learned how to work her way through it.
The tears have lessened a bit as she has gotten older, but it is still a default. Sometimes she has to process things and cry for a moment and then she is fine. We often remind her that it is totally okay to cry and when she’s ready we can help her process everything.
She feels things with every ounce of her being
This includes love, anger, frustration, etc… That means that her love and loyalty to you is big. She can sense where you are emotionally and will shift how she approaches you. I used to have chronic pain and she would shift how she approaches me when I am in pain. She will speak more gently and give me more cuddles. But feeling things so big also brings about some negatives. Which brings me to…
Anxiety is a Reality for her
Marie experiences strong anxiety several times a day. Whenever we correct anything, no matter how small, it results in her freaking out, running away, and apologizing over and over again, all while we assure her that she isn’t, even remotely, in trouble. On almost a daily basis, we have a conversation about how to accept and learn from criticism. We also are learning to approach situations less abruptly. She will freak out less if we say something after the moment has passed, but that isn’t always an option.
This also often manifests as fear. Fear of being alone, the dark, and sometimes nothing at all. We have to help her navigate this frequently and remember not to be critical of those fears because for her they are very real.
Change can be difficult.
Marie loves to dance. She is super focused and interested in learning what she is supposed to do. We recently switched to a new dance studio and the first day was a complete disaster! She wouldn’t go into the class and we sat in the hallway while she cried simultaneously from fear and from missing out on the dance class. Eventually, we left, but the next class she ran right in and wasn’t afraid at all. It just takes her a little longer to process change.
She Learns Things Quickly
Marie learned her alphabet, the sounds, and upper & lower case letters all at the same time, at about 18 months. By 3 she was reading fluently and by 5 she could read chapter books. She was also doing multiplication and division by 5. This is one of the many reasons we chose to homeschool her for a long time. We have had to find a balance between encouraging her to learn new things and allowing her to learn naturally.
Now, she is still really ahead and just understands that not everyone learns things as quickly as she does. We have had to help her empathize with others and not expect the same from her peers.
Routines are Huge
Having established routines make a huge difference for her. Now, I am not talking about a completely set out and organized day, but it’s the little things that make a difference. She likes to take her mornings slow, even on school days. So we always wake her up 30-45 minutes early so that she can take her time. She also likes knowing what she is doing ahead of time, so having some plans can help that.
Warnings help things go smoothly
When we are leaving the park we give several time warnings. We also try to prepare her for changes in enough time to prepare for them. She needs to know a few days in advance if she has plans because she loves flexibility within her days.
Gentle Parenting is a must.
Kendall and I decided long ago that we would parent gently (no spanking, timeouts, etc…). Then we met Marie and we realized how important that is for her. If we were to spank her, she would take it personally and it would break her spirit, and probably mine too. We have to be careful with how we speak to her when she needs correction (and luckily, this doesn’t happen often), because everything we say she takes to heart. A great example of this:
When Marie was 2 or 3, she spilled a bowl of peas on the floor and refused to pick them up. We were really frustrated and decided to take away her tablet for the night. This is the ONLY time we have ever had to do this, to date. She was completely heartbroken all evening and competely fell apart, but eventually calmed down and earned it back a few hours later.
However, she still talks about this TO DATE. This was a huge defining moment for her all because of a few peas.
While this doesn’t happen every time, it’s a great example of how sensitive she is to correction.
Her Maturity Level is Higher Than Her Age
She understands things so well and we have to give her credit for that. She processes information extremely well and therefore we have to allow her the opportunity to make those decisions. She also has adult conversations with us. Sometimes we have to remind ourselves that she is still a child.
We Try to Refrain from Using Words like “Bad” or “Wrong”.
Instead of saying “bad words” we say “adult words”. Instead of telling her she did that “wrong”, we try to help her understand the correct process for it. She will take words like Bad or Wrong personally and take that really personally.
We Gave her Words for Emotions
From a young age, we have helped give her words for the emotions that she was feeling. We had to recognize her emotions when she couldn’t so we could help her process them. An example would be dealing with disappointment.
We were at the park and she actually wanted to play with a little girl and the little girl didn’t want to play with Marie. She continued playing but just seemed “off”. So I walked up to her and said, “Marie, are you disappointed that she didn’t want to play with you?” Immediately she looked at me with a frown and said, “yes”. We then had to talk about how sometimes kids don’t want to play, just like she doesn’t always want to play. She then had a word for her feeling and could communicate it more effectively.
As a result, she is highly aware of her emotions and can vocally identify what she is feeling at any given time.
This has been really powerful now that she is older because she is much more emotionally mature. She can communicate complex feelings in a productive manner. However, we have to continue teaching this. When she was little we were focused on disappointment or anger. More generalized emotions. Now, we have to help her process complex versions of these. So not just the anger itself but the root of the anger.
We don’t Raise our Voice to Her
I have to try not to yell at her. Yell is even a strong word. When I raise my voice, it usually results in her covering her ears or saying “Mommy! Don’t yell at me!”. I have then lost control of the situation. I find that correction is WAY more effective when I remain calm.
Sometimes, It kind of sucks being a Highly Sensitive Mom while raising a Highly Sensitive Child.
Sometimes my emotions are so out of whack that I can’t effectively help her with hers. But it has also taught me more about my own sensitivities.
Did I mention the crying?
Because we have a LOT of tears in our home. I feel like a broken record at times telling her to use her words so we can help her…
My Favorite Books
While reading isn’t something that I make time for often enough, there are a few books that have really helped me keep my perspective focused.
While everyone’s experience raising a highly sensitive child is different, I hope that these can help you feel a little less alone in the process. I am by no means perfect. I screw up a lot in recognizing her emotions or losing control of my own. But by understanding who she is, I can help her grow into a person who is self-aware and strong.
We have already seen so many changes in her. She is starting to cry a little less, she can now communicate her emotions more effectively, and if we prepare her, she doesn’t freak out at noises. It’s amazing to watch my sweet, loving, emotional child enjoy the world in such a sensitive and emotionally charging way. I love the little girl she is and hope to help her process the world for the woman she will eventually become.
Do you have a highly sensitive child? What are some of the realities in your home?