Does your child get easily overwhelmed in a crowded, noisy space? Does s/he panic at sudden change? Finds it hard to cope when there are lots of activities or tasks to squeeze into one day? Becomes emotional after spending an extended period of time socialising? Becomes upset, moody or depressed if exposed to bad news stories on the media or in their community? Feels things ‘deeply’?
It may be that your child is a highly sensitive person or what is sometimes termed an ‘empath’. It can be defined as ‘acute physical, mental and emotional responses to external (social, environmental) or internal (intra-personal) stimuli.’* Its scientific term is ‘Sensory Processing Sensitivity (SPS)’.
But it’s important to understand that this is not a disorder, a condition or a diagnosis.** A leading researcher of high sensitivity, Elaine Aron explains that it is normal, innate and although nothing new, often misunderstood. Highly sensitive people can vary in their sensitivities, and are not necessarily introverts.
Aron has published several books and papers on the topic as well as an online self-test to see if you are a highly sensitive person.***
The benefits of understanding the areas in which your child may be highly sensitive include:
- a language to communicate with your child about what they are experiencing and that it is natural
- having strategies to cope with their areas of high sensitivity.
Since Aron’s early work, there have been more people writing about their own experiences with being highly sensitive to the subtleties around them. This can be helpful to share with children and teenagers who may be going through something similar. In her blog ‘Highly Sensitive Refuge’, Jenn Granneman describes her intense reactions to everyday events in early childhood, and her subsequent realisation that she was a highly sensitive person. She offers 14 needs of many highly sensitive people**** including:
- A slower, simpler pace of life
- Time to wind down after a busy day
- Permission to get emotional and have a good cry
- A calm, quiet space to retreat to
- A gentle, healthy way of managing conflict
Although you could argue that most of us need these things, for a highly sensitive person these conditions may be imperative to their happiness and wellbeing. In last month’s article we talked about helping children to deal with toxic people around them; for a highly sensitive child, these normal life experiences can be overwhelming.
If your child is highly sensitive, it’s important to realise and communicate with him or her that there are many positives to being highly sensitive and that it should even be something to feel good about. Highly sensitive people often notice and appreciate the subtleties of art and nature more than others. An ‘empath’ is so called because they can quickly sense what another person is feeling and empathise with them. These are useful traits in many social situations and careers, where one can intuitively understand what another person needs… but they are also just good for the world.
If sensitive children can feel understood and supported by the people they are close to, and are taught how to recognise and talk about their needs and ‘fill their own cups’, they become happy, successful adults who contribute to the world with these special traits.
*Ni, Preston 2017. ‘24 Signs of a Highly Sensitive Person’. Psychology Today https://www.psychologytoday.com/au/blog/communication-success/201711/24-signs-highly-sensitive-person
**The difference between the SPS and Sensory Processing (Integration) Disorder https://hsperson.com/faq/spd-vs-sps/
***Introduction to Elaine Aron’s self-test and other work https://hsperson.com