Is Your Child Highly Sensitive? Mine Is, and It Changed How I Parent

A highly sensitive child sitting outdoors alone and reading

Sensitive children can be extremely gifted — but they need a different kind of parenting to help them thrive.

Parenting our five-year-old daughter has taught me to rethink a lot of conventional parenting advice. Over the past five years, I’ve done away with time-outs (stick with me, I firmly believe in discipline), raised voices, and requests for blind obedience.

After trying tactics like these, time after time, they only made already challenging situations worse. Time-outs led to tantrums, stern voices led to a completely shutdown child, and demanding compliance “because I’m the parent and I said so” led to increasingly defiant behavior.

What is going on with our child? I began to wonder. Parenting her certainly wasn’t “by the book.”

How to Recognize a Highly Sensitive Child

I learned about the trait of high sensitivity when our daughter was three. Dr. Elaine Aron, author of the book, The Highly Sensitive Child, explains that high sensitivity is normal and occurs in about 20% of the population.

Dr. Aron writes that highly sensitive people perceive the world intensely because of the way their brains are wired. Not all look the same (70% are introverts, while 30% are extroverts, for example), but all absorb their environment in a deeper way than others.

The term “high sensitivity” initially made me think of a shy and introverted child, but this isn’t our daughter at all. She’s super social, extroverted, loves to take charge of situations, and has a flair for the dramatic. But after reading more about this personality trait, it was clear that our daughter was wired this way.

A child without the trait of high sensitivity, for example, may walk into a classroom, see her friends, and go play. A highly sensitive child (HSC) may do the same, but would also immediately notice the way the room has been rearranged, notice that the teacher is in a bad mood just by looking at her, start wondering why the teacher is in a bad mood, and then notice her friend’s newly pierced ears. Because HSCs notice subtleties in their environment and process them deeply, they can easily be overstimulated as their nervous systems are juggling so much input at one time.

Understanding how her nervous system worked finally made me understand why, at wedding receptions, she continually ran to the bathroom to take a break from the loud music. Why she would yell when her baby sister cried. Why she’d meltdown when I started the blender without warning her first. And why she expressed her emotions so intensely, whether happy or upset.

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How to Parent a Highly Sensitive Child — And Help Them Thrive

Realizing our daughter was highly sensitive helped me see her in a new light. But how would my parenting change because of this newly discovered temperament? Dr. Aron’s book gave me some ideas to rethink my parenting decisions.

Here are five lessons I’ve learned after five years of helping raise our wonderful, highly sensitive child — I hope they help you, too.

1. Empathize.

Expressing empathy to our daughter when she’s upset almost always helps her calm down. Sharing stories from my childhood about an experience similar to whatever she’s experiencing at that moment takes her from feeling upset to feeling understood. Pulling her on my lap, I might say, “Once when I was little, my brother broke my favorite colored pencil and I felt so sad.”

She’ll eventually dry her tears, ask me questions about my experience, and return to her happy self. I’ve learned naming the emotion being felt is helpful in empathizing, but dwelling on the emotion at a young age is not (I’ll state that it seems she feels sad, but I wouldn’t ask her to explain in-depth why she thinks she’s feeling that way).

2. Take time-ins, not time-outs.

I was sure that using time-outs as a consequence was the way to go — a minute in time-out for each year of the child’s age, the parenting books read. But I soon realized that sending our daughter to her room alone was not extinguishing any problematic behaviors. If anything, it was escalating them. If I sent her to her room for hitting, she’d start tantruming, slamming doors, and throwing things.

I soon learned that those challenging times were often when she needed me the most. She was overstimulated and didn’t have the skills to calm herself down alone. We began taking “time-ins” together where we could connect and put into words what was going on.

We could talk about why a certain behavior was unacceptable, what she could do instead next time, and what a related consequence would be if it happened again. (“It’s okay to be mad, but it’s not okay to take toys away from your sister. Next time you can ask her if you may play with the toy. If you choose to take the toy away again, then we will go to your room together and talk about why we don’t take toys from her.”)

With highly sensitive children, usually just reminding them what’s expected of them and when a consequence might be necessary is enough to correct their behavior: “I’ve asked you not to climb on the counter to get cookies. I see that you are still doing it. If you continue, then we will go to your room together and talk about why you’re still doing that.”

3. Discipline when you are calm.

I used to think disciplinary action and consequences had to be immediate. If our daughter had hit me, for example, I thought correction needed to take place immediately. I’ve learned that, to be effective, correction can only take place when I am calm. A raised voice or shaming words (“How could you do that?”) stemming from my anger would get me nowhere. Our daughter would shut down or we would get caught in a power struggle.

I’ve learned that taking time to calm myself down first (even if it means giving our daughter something to watch for 10 minutes — which would normally seem like a reward — while I do deep breathing or step outside to calm down) before correcting her is crucial. If I’m calm, our daughter will listen to me, and talking through the situation will be successful.

4. Be lenient when your child is overstimulated, hungry, or tired.

I’ve learned to change what I expect from our daughter based on if she’s overstimulated, overly hungry, or overly tired. She’s usually happy to help, but if overstimulated or overly tired, even the smallest request can seem huge to her. I’ve learned to read when her nervous system has had all it can take at the moment, and pushing her to do more (picking up toys at the end of a long day, making her bed before breakfast when extremely hungry) would cause an unnecessary meltdown.

At first, I thought I was “being too easy on her” and inconsistent by bending my expectations and asking less of her at times. Now I’m using these moments to teach self-awareness (“You seem exhausted — if you can brush your teeth and put your pajamas on, then I’ll pick up your toys for you tonight”) and to teach her how to take care of herself (“You seem hungry, let’s take a break to eat an apple, then try that again”).

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5. Keep the environment simple.

I used to think having a lot of toys out at once promoted better play (more choices, more to play, right?). Soon I realized the more toys I piled into a room, the more sounds, sights, textures, and even smells my daughter’s nervous system would have to manage. Too many toys led to too many choices and stimulation, which led to overwhelm.

Now I’ve realized that less is more when it comes to toys in her environment. Fewer toys means fewer choices, fewer things to process, fewer things to pick up, and fewer meltdowns. Fewer toys also means more order, which helps create a calmer environment and, in our case, a happier child.

I certainly don’t have parenting figured out. A person who I greatly respect once said that if we know one thing for certain about parenting, it’s that parenting is a question mark. And even though we understand our daughter and how to parent her much better now than we did a few years ago, the question mark of parenting still applies to us.

We still have meltdowns from time to time, especially during a time of transition (starting school, returning from vacation, moving to a new house). But at least now we have the tools we need to parent from a place of better understanding.

With informed, patient parenting, I believe our daughter will learn to embrace her high sensitivity and channel it toward making this world — which she experiences so deeply — a better place.

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