Your highly sensitive child is a joy - perceptive, empathetic, attuned to nature’s beauty, acutely aware of the world’s injustices, and caring toward those who suffer.
But sometimes all of this sensitivity and compassion can seem a bit too much! It’s tough to watch your child overreact to every slight, absorb the sadness in the world, and experience devastation while other kids just seem to go with the flow.
Imagine what it must be like to:
Experience strong, intense reactions to seemingly minor events because the person, place, or situation triggers a powerful memory or association
React intensely to even routine situations, experiencing strong emotions and sometimes physical symptoms such as heart palpitations or headaches
Feel drained because of overwhelming empathy and compassion for those who are less fortunate
Struggle with heightened sensitivity in social situations, experiencing anxiety and even panic in response to seemingly minor social slights
Experience intense and emotional reactions to physical sensations, sounds, sights, music, TV shows and film, smells, taste, touch, or the “vibe” of a situation
Respond to failure, punishment, or criticism (real or perceived) with profound distress and an inability to “shake it off” and move on
Weather criticism for being too sensitive, dramatic, emotional, introverted, pessimistic, serious, or naively idealistic
If you also recognize the above traits in yourself, you can probably relate. If you respond to the world quite differently, it may be more difficult to understand this degree of emotional intensity. Either way, it can be heartbreaking to see your child struggle with such powerful emotions.
It is important to remember that your child’s reactivity is not purposeful. This may be hard to keep in mind when you are weathering a melt-down or providing endless reassurance. Highly sensitive children just may be wired this way. Their sensitivity has been documented in studies that show brain differences in their response to the environment. For example, researchers Arthur and Elaine Arons used fMRI technology and found that brain activity differs in individuals who are highly aware and emotionally responsive.
Even though your child’s emotions may seem overwhelming, there are some strategies that can help to quell the storm:
1 | Create a “no-shame” zone
Due to their sensitive and emotional nature, highly sensitive children are particularly vulnerable to feeling criticized and shamed. Well-meaning attempts to help them gain perspective can backfire if you inadvertently minimize their feelings. If they are told that their feelings are nonsense, or that they are just being too sensitive, they may feel ashamed of their reactions, and even about their basic nature. Establish an environment where feelings are acceptable, even if you don’t always agree with their opinions or behaviors.
2 | Help them understand their emotions
Even very young gifted children can appreciate that thoughts and situations can influence powerful emotions. You can help them understand that feelings are not magical, and are usually linked with actual events. For example, you could point out that most people feel cranky when they are hungry, angry when someone takes their toys, and anxious on their first day of school. Simple, reasonable explanations help children make sense of their inner turmoil and remind them that their feelings are normal. You can encourage your child to be a “junior detective” who tracks down the origins of those troubling emotions. This will give your child a better understanding of how they evolve from start to finish.
3 | Find outlets for emotions
Highly sensitive children thrive when they can feel safe expressing their feelings. Helping them to verbally express what they feel in an open and respectful manner at home teaches an essential life skill, and prevents an escalation of potential problems. For example, learning to verbalize anger (e.g., "I get really mad when my brother stays up later than me") reduces the likelihood of either acting out (hitting said brother), or learning unhealthy suppression of anger. Appropriate physical outlets also help, like punching a pillow or engaging in exercise. Creating an environment where sad feelings are acceptable and tears are never mocked is also essential for emotional safety.
4 | Explore healthy tools for managing and containing emotions
Learning when, where, and how to express frustration, anger, and sadness is a valuable lesson. Highly sensitive children often feel overwhelmed by their emotions when they lack the skills for containing these feelings or calming themselves. You can teach your child how to relax, and use comforting and healthy distractions when upset. Deep breathing exercises, mindfulness techniques, and calming music are useful tools that even young children can learn. (Note: While there are many relaxation and mindfulness apps and tools online, if problems persist, meeting with a licensed mental health therapist may be needed.)
5 | Avoid harsh discipline
Highly sensitive children can feel traumatized if discipline is too harsh. Physical punishment, such as hitting or spanking should be avoided, and can be harmful to any child. But any volatility, such as threats of violence, yelling, or harsh criticism can be particularly devastating for highly sensitive children. Grazioplene and colleagues, for example, found an interaction between the degree of nurturance or harshness in a child’s environment and the expression of a cholinergic receptor gene (which influences sensitivity to one’s environment). The environment mediated the extent of the genetic influence, determining whether the child responded with either anxiety or openness and curiosity when confronted with uncertain situations.
6 | Help them appreciate who they are
Highly sensitive children must accept and make peace with who they are. Emotional sensitivity is not just a theoretical construct – research has identified greater activity in brain regions associated with empathy among highly sensitive people. These children can learn to accept their emotional reactivity as one aspect of who they are, and as a trait that can enrich their world. It can enhance their lives with great sensitivity, insight, and intensity, but also bring pain and despair if left untended. You can help them appreciate this gift by showing acceptance for their sensitivity, offering tools for managing their struggles, and demonstrating compassion when they need your support.