Highly Sensitive Refuge
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Your Highly Sensitive Child Is Normal. No Wait, She’s Extraordinary.

“Mom, my pajamas are uncomfortable, I can’t sleep.” This was the third time my nine-year-old had been back out of bed. “Mom, the television is toooooo loud, I can’t sleep,” was her earlier complaint. “Moooooom, tell her to be quiet,” she pleads with me about her 4-year-old sister who is throwing a tantrum.

She is wild. She is beautiful. She is sensitive. She is my daughter. And I’ve only just recently realized she’s exactly like me, a highly sensitive person (HSP).

Because I’m an HSP, you’d logically assume that I’m in tune with my family, their emotions, and their personalities. And many times I am. I often feel other people’s emotions, particularly those of the young and vulnerable.

But I’m ashamed to say, it took me quite a long time to realize that my daughter is also highly sensitive.

How to Recognize a Highly Sensitive Child

Dr. Elaine Aron, author of the book, The Highly Sensitive Person, explains the HSP like this:

  • You easily get overwhelmed by sensory stimuli like bright lights, loud noises, coarse fabrics, or strong smells.
  • You have a rich and complex inner life.
  • You’ve been referred to as sensitive or even shy.
  • You arrange your life to avoid upsetting or overwhelming situations.

These traits are the same in children and adults, although they’re often harder to spot in kids, because all children get overwhelmed at times. It’s the other traits — especially how much effort a child puts into avoiding stimuli or upsetting situations — that are key to spotting a sensitive child.

But here is the most important thing Aron writes about HSPs: High sensitivity occurs in about 20 percent of the population, making it a perfectly normal personality trait.

Let me repeat that.

Being a highly sensitive person is completely normal.

Not All HSP Children Are Shy or Quiet

Despite my emphatic belief that we HSPs are normal, I do like to refer to our sensitivities as quirks. This is because, as HSPs, we’re all unique. Sure, there are common characteristics, as with any personality. But we each have our own flavor. Our own HSP quirks.

Like any other HSP, my daughter and I don’t tick all the boxes on the HSP checklist. For example, I happen to like violent movies, even though it’s listed as being a no-go for most HSPs. But both my daughter and I are particularly sensitive to textures. The pajama problem isn’t just hers! We also both have an aversion to very loud noises, and we both get completely overwhelmed by change, particularly unexpected changes that we can’t prepare for.

It’s true that HSPs are often wrongly labeled as “shy” or “quiet.” But it doesn’t always look that way. My daughter is anything but shy and quiet. If you heard her playing, you might not think she’s an HSP at all.

Here’s the thing about HSPs and noise. It’s often the unpredictable noises that are the most difficult. It’s the loud siren, the screaming sibling, the neighbor’s dogs. If it’s her noise, it’s a different story!

Highly Sensitive Children Need Routine to Thrive

I’ll be honest. Before I realized that my daughter is an HSP, her quirks annoyed me. She often needs to have everything just right. It’s not that she’s a neat freak, but rather there are a set of rules that need to be adhered to for things to be okay for her.

Take, for example, our bedtime routine. It’s remained fairly consistent since she was young — and boy, am I in trouble if I try to change things up! We read together, we snuggle down at lights out, and I tickle her arms, hands and back (we call it “tickle,” but really it’s a very light massage). Then I cuddle in for a couple more moments, before she asks, every night, without fail, “What are we doing tomorrow?”

This routine, it’s got to be done correctly, and in the right order! And if for some reason it’s not, it would be safe to add at least 10 minutes to the routine. If a hand is missed, I have to go back. If I haven’t laid out the plans for tomorrow (often made up in the moment), she’s unsettled. If I don’t wait for her to be perfectly comfortable before the final goodnight hug…

You get the picture. And yes, some nights, it’s every bit as exhausting as it sounds. But actually, I love it. It’s our routine, and most nights I’m happy to let her get things just right.

Embracing Your Highly Sensitive Child

Now that I know she’s an HSP, I don’t get annoyed by these little quirks. I no longer get as frustrated with her particular ways. I’m not surprised at these sensitivities. I’m learning to understand her and the way she’s making sense of the world, through the lens of her sensitive soul.

As a parent, it’s my job to embrace whoever my child is — and whoever she becomes. I have to accept and embrace all of it. Even the bits that I don’t like, or that don’t fit it with how I would prefer things done.

Truth-telling time. On more than one occasion, I’ve told both my daughters, “Don’t be so sensitive.” Really? This, coming from a woman who claims to be an HSP herself!? (Thinking before I speak is not one of my strongest HSP characteristics.)

This is not something our HSP children need to hear. They do not need to be told to “harden up.” When we tell them this, we’re telling them it’s not okay to be themselves. We’re introducing shame and guilt.

What Sensitive Children Need More Than Anything Else

Highly sensitive children need to be accepted as they are. They need our love. And they need to be told that it’s okay to be sensitive. They need to know, in fact, that sensitivity is a gift.

Tell them that some of the most talented people ever to walk the earth were HSPs. Martin Luther King, Mother Teresa, and Jim Carrey are some examples. They’ll need to draw on these stories when times are tough in their journey through life.

Tell them about your own journey as an HSP, if you are one. Let them know they aren’t alone, and that the way they feel is normal. Let them see you, the real you.

Tell them that it’s okay to need quiet, or to not like the way their pajamas feel against their skin. Help them find solutions for their sensitivities, but ensure they know that they aren’t a problem.

But most of all, tell them that they are extraordinary.

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