How to Tell If Your Child Is Sensitive (And What to Do About It)

Rule #1: Don't try to get your child to stop feeling sensitive — instead, focus on all the positive aspects it adds to your child’s life.

Parenting a sensitive child can feel like you’re constantly walking a tightrope — you’re trying not to overwhelm your child, but sometimes also wishing they would handle things better. Using the right parenting style can make it much, much easier.

Many children are “sensitive” compared to other kids of the same age. This difference is often noticeable from birth, but sometimes a child’s sensitivity becomes more evident as they age. If you’re a parent who’s concluded that your child is sensitive, then what? Are you surprised? Alarmed? Overwhelmed? Probably.

The truth is, being “sensitive” is a normal trait. Studies show that sensitive children are more empathetic, conscientious, creative, intuitive, and deep thinkers. Sensitive children tend to feel things deeply, making them more emotionally reactive than other kids. High sensitivity isn’t a negative trait — it’s different from what most people experience daily, and for the better!

I happen to be highly sensitive myself. But if you are a parent who doesn’t identify as being highly sensitive, you might feel confused or frustrated with your child’s “sensitive” nature compared to other children. It’s understandable. We live in a world that doesn’t always make sense to us — and when we feel different from the norm, it can be easy to feel like we’re on our own. High sensitivity does not refer to a disorder or problem; it’s a personality trait in nearly 30 percent of the population and is equally common in males and females, including our children.

I want to stress that being highly sensitive is not a defect or something that needs to be “fixed” or “overcome” — it’s a biological trait! Your child’s nervous system is wired differently than the neuro-typical brain, resulting in hypersensitivity and more difficulty just being “still” in a busy, less-sensitive world.

You can learn to help your sensitive child thrive, and navigate the world, by understanding how their nervous system works and how to meet their needs. Don’t try to get your child to stop feeling or being so sensitive — that will interfere with their gifts and sense of who they are! Instead, focus on all the positive aspects that sensitivity adds to your child’s life.

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The Science Behind Sensitivity

Knowing the science behind being a highly sensitive person is important, because it can help you understand your strengths and challenges. Research has found that sensitivity is a natural and measurable trait with a genetic basis. The more we know about sensitivity, the better we can help our sensitive children excel in the world.

The umbrella term, environmental sensitivity, integrates existing terms, such as highly sensitive person (HSP) and sensory processing sensitivity (SPS). Environmental sensitivity is your capacity to process information from your environment. That said, sensitivity consists of two basic components: the ability to perceive sensory input from our environment, such as sound, smell, taste, and touch, followed by our ability to process information in a way that impacts our behavior.

The more sensitive you are, the more deeply you process information from your environment. Highly sensitive children spend more brain power on every detail they take in. This sensitivity gives them incredible gifts, like creativity, intuition, and intense empathy, and this contributes to why they get overstimulated — it takes longer to do some things, and they are cautious in new environments. Their brains need more time to process things, and they use more energy to do so, which makes them get fatigued easily.

Although we are all sensitive to some degree, some people are more sensitive than others. Research shows that highly sensitive people react more strongly when faced with adverse experiences but benefit particularly from positive experiences.

How to Tell if Your Child Is Sensitive 

So, you think your child is highly sensitive, but how do you tell? Is there a test? What should you be watching for?

Sensitivity is measured with a range of questionnaires, as well as observational assessments. There are questionnaires that psychologists have created to help parents figure out whether their child is highly sensitive. One of the most well-known is by Dr. Elaine Aron, who has published books about the topic. However, seeing a mental health expert may be best, as they can more accurately assess whether or not someone is highly sensitive.

But, in the meantime, there are definitely some factors you can pay attention to. For instance, a sensitive child is more aware of their surroundings and emotions, which can make them more prone to feeling overwhelmed or overstimulated. There are many ways to tell if your child is sensitive, but it’s important to remember that every child is unique.

Here are other signs to look for in your child to determine if they are sensitive. 

  • They’re very empathetic. They may even be too empathetic sometimes, making them more prone to anxiety and sadness than other kids their age.
  • They tend to be more uncomfortable than others in certain regards. For example, they may be more susceptible to rough or “itchy” fabrics or tags on clothing, being too hot, too sticky, too sandy, or in any other way uncomfortable.
  • They’re very in tune with the world around them. They will notice the big and little things, temperature changes or small noises that other kids might not notice.
  • They’re shy or quiet around new people. If your child doesn’t like to be around strangers and prefers to play with just one or two friends at a time, it could be that they’re sensitive to social interactions. They may feel uncomfortable talking with teachers or even with their family members.
  • They cry easily. Sensitive children often have an intense emotional life, which can make them cry when things don’t go their way. If your child has a hard time keeping their cool when something upsets them, it’s likely because they feel things deeply and intensely.
  • They need a lot of rest or “downtime” to recharge their emotional batteries. In addition to having trouble concentrating in noisy environments, they may also need more alone time than other kids.
  • They may seem mature and insightful for their age. They will do this by asking thoughtful questions and thinking things through more so than others.

If you notice any of these signs in your child, it’s important not to get discouraged. These traits can develop over time, depending on the environment in which your child is raised. And with awareness and support, you can help your child thrive and embrace their sensitive side!

However, that said, it can still be challenging for you to parent your sensitive child — especially if you are not highly sensitive yourself. Here are some ways to do so.

Common Struggles of Parenting a Sensitive Child

Parenting a child with high sensitivity can feel like you’re constantly walking a tightrope — you’re trying not to overwhelm your child, but sometimes also wishing they would handle things better. Parents of sensitive children may express self-doubt about their parenting ability, feel exhausted from their child’s “big emotions,” or feel judged for having a child who seems “different” from others their age.

Finding the best parenting style for you and your child will make all the difference, as this will alleviate some stress, and really understand the needs of both yourself and your child.

Here are some practical steps to support you and your child through this journey.

Need to Calm Your Sensitive Nervous System? 

HSPs often live with high levels of anxiety, sensory overload and stress — and negative emotions can overwhelm us. But what if you could finally feel calm instead?

That’s what you’ll find in this powerful online course by Julie Bjelland, one of the top HSP therapists in the world. You’ll learn to turn off the racing thoughts, end emotional flooding, eliminate sensory overload, and finally make space for your sensitive gifts to shine.

Stop feeling held back and start to feel confident you can handle anything. Check out this “HSP Toolbox” and start making a change today. Click here to learn more.

3 Ways to Support Your Sensitive Child

1. Try “positive parenting” or “gentle parenting.”

“Gentle parenting” is an excellent approach for sensitive children. Strict discipline or tough love will not make a sensitive child “tougher”; rather, it will only damage their self-esteem and increase their sense of shame. Avoid shame with your child. Sensitive children have a high sense of justice and want to do the right thing. A sensitive child may be easily embarrassed or angry when they make mistakes. They want to be good people and do things right, and when they find themselves in situations where it seems like they’ve failed to meet those standards, it can be devastating. Keep this in mind when coming up with an approach to disciplining or creating consequences for your child’s behavior. 

2. Know their triggers, like what makes them angry or sad.

Really take time to think about your child’s triggers. What makes them anxious? What makes them happy? What do they love? Knowing these things will help you understand how best to support them when those triggers happen. This way, it won’t escalate into something worse than what it could have been if handled differently initially. 

3. Give them the time and space they need.

It’s important to give your child the space they need to express themselves in the way they know how: through emotion. By encouraging your sensitive child to express their feelings, you’re helping them learn how to navigate the world around them. They’ll understand that it’s okay to be “different” and that they don’t have to keep everything bottled up inside. Sensitive kids need to express themselves in a way that feels natural and comfortable for them, whether through music, art, movement, alone time, talking about their feelings, or what have you.

Similarly, make sure your child has plenty of downtime each day to recharge their batteries. This can be as simple as setting aside 15 minutes every night for some quiet reading time before bed or as involved as taking a one-hour walk in the park every afternoon after school with no electronics allowed. If your child is old enough, they can also do these activities on their own, and you can encourage them and make them a part of their daily (or nightly) routine.

Remember, ‘Normalizing’ Your Child’s Sensitivity Is Key

As a highly sensitive person raising a highly sensitive child, I see how crucial it is to normalize this trait so people can be comfortable with who they are — without shame or fear of judgment.  

We are still in the infancy of learning about the trait of high sensitivity. The more we can share, provide resources, and educate individuals it allows for appropriate well-being and acceptance. So please take the time to learn about this sensitivity trait and support your child’s development through appropriate ways of parenting them.

I am optimistic about the future of our sensitive children, who will make significant changes in our world. They are the ones who will hold people accountable for their actions and make sure that everyone is treated fairly and with respect. Sensitive children tend to grow up to be creative and empathetic, which can make them successful in any number of careers. They can pick up on social cues that other people miss, which can give them an edge in leadership or management positions, too.

I feel blessed and proud to be a highly sensitive person, and I’m also proud of my 22-year-old daughter, who is also highly sensitive. We struggled initially since neither of us understood what being highly sensitive meant. But through learning and support, we’ve come to thrive. And I know you will come to the same place.

I have created a free Facebook group of like-feeling moms called Empath Mama, and I would love to have you join others like you for loving support and guidance.   

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