I only recently found out that I’m a highly sensitive person (HSP), and boy, has it explained a lot for me. My husband is not an HSP, and for him, it was very hard to understand how it could be that I needed so much alone time, so much downtime, and so few things in my schedule. Highly sensitive people like me get overstimulated if they have too much to do, but non-HSPs like him thrive in busy environments and the company of others. He often took it as a personal rejection when I needed to be on my own instead of hanging out.
Our daughter is also highly sensitive, but she’s a blend of both of us. She loves being around people, she needs things to happen around her, but she also gets overstimulated easily. And this is very hard to explain to a six year old.
It took me a long time to recognize my daughter as a highly sensitive child because her rambunctious, active version of it is so different from mine. I could see that she was getting overstimulated easily — like I do — but instead of pulling away and wanting to be alone, she would get hyper and bounce off the walls. She would get difficult, stop listening (completely!), and just generally freak out over anything. I had to do something to help her (and us) figure out how to deal with these Dr. Jekyll/Mr. Hyde moments.
That’s when I found the book The Highly Sensitive Child: Helping Our Children Thrive When The World Overwhelms Them by Elaine Aron. It was an eye opener in many ways, but specifically, it helped me understand that highly sensitive children come in many “flavors”: introverted and extroverted, high sensation seeking and low sensation seeking, risk-friendly and more cautious.
Here are 10 “secrets” I’ve learned about raising a highly sensitive child that I believe will help other parents of HSPs.
10 Tips for Raising a Highly Sensitive Child
1. Stay calm!
This goes for most conflicts in life, but especially with highly sensitive children. Whatever you do, don’t lose your temper. The times I’ve done exactly that with my daughter (and I have, many times), things escalated and got more out of hand than they should have. By me getting grumpy, I give her an excuse for continuing to be difficult. I don’t listen anyway, so why should she calm down and try to explain to me what the problem is?
With all your might, stay calm. Remember that for an HSP, the world is already “louder” than it is for most people; yelling quickly becomes overwhelming for them. Instead, get down to your child’s level, look him or her in the eye, breathe deeply, and tell them to try do the same. Explain that you want to help, but it is difficult to know how to help when everyone is so upset.
2. Touch them.
If my daughter isn’t paying attention when I try to explain something to her, I try to gently touch her arm or her shoulder when I speak to her. Again, I get down to her level, gently touch her arm, look her in the eyes, and tell her what I need to. It creates a connection that’s difficult for her not to notice, and the message gets through better.
My daughter doesn’t have a problem with physical affection, but some HSP children do, so be sure to adjust the physical interaction to fit your child.
3. Ask for help.
Highly sensitive people tend to be very empathetic, and most of us (child or adult) take joy in helping others. True to form, my daughter loves being able to help, so it’s a great way to make her feel useful — which she really is — and get the things that need to be done out of the way.
It’s also good messaging. With my daughter, if it sounds like a command, she’ll resist it, but if I ask her to help me, she does it without question. I also find it helps if I make it sound like her idea. Then I can say, “Yes, great idea, that would be really helpful.”
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4. Spend time together.
With my daughter, even when she is overwhelmed, she doesn’t necessarily want to be alone. (This can be hard for me to understand, because when I feel overwhelmed, all I want is some time to myself.) Highly sensitive people tend to walk a fine line between thriving on connection with others and getting overstimulated easily by other people — your child may vary.
To straddle that line, when she’s overwhelmed, I try to suggest something we can do together quietly, like draw or read a book. That way, we’re still together, but we’re quietly resting at the same time.
5. Encourage self-care.
For HSPs, self-care activities are a way to avoid overstimulation, take time to process emotions, and make sure we aren’t neglecting our own needs. But, faced with a fast-paced world and wired to think about the needs of others, self-care isn’t usually a skill that comes naturally to us. The sooner you can teach your HSP child to practice it, the better.
My daughter and I often do this by taking foot baths together. What I particularly like with the foot bath is it forces her to sit relatively still. She has a hard time sitting still, but with her feet in water, she can’t really not. We sit facing each other, and at the same level, so we can look at each other, talk, and catch up. These are the times I get to meaningfully hear about her day and what’s going on inside her head, and it is worth every minute of it.
6. Explain “why.”
My daughter needs to know why we are doing something. If she can see the connection between actions — if we do this, then we can do that, and then this will happen — it is much easier to get her onboard. I know all kids ask “why,” but HSPs process information very deeply, and are primed to look for connections. Often, understanding the “big picture” of how things fit together is much more important to them than it is to other children.
She also likes to know how things are going to happen: “First we’ll walk to the station, then we’ll take the train, and then it’s another short walk before we’re at the museum.”
Be careful with criticizing too harshly, and always remember to praise good behavior, or a good effort. I also try to praise the action rather than her. For example, instead of saying, “You are so good,” I say, “Well done, it was so helpful to me that you packed your school bag.”
8. Don’t be hard.
Hard words or hard postures are like oil to water with a highly sensitive child. Choose your words and the tone carefully. Try to speak in a light tone, speak clearly, avoid irony or hidden jokes. Don’t tower over them and speak down to them, but get down on their level and look them in the eyes. Highly sensitive children are soft creatures (not meaning they are pushovers), but they need space to be able to process the message, so if it is delivered softly, it gets through more easily.
9. Look after yourself, too.
This is especially important if you yourself are an HSP, but obviously it’s important for everyone. It’s difficult to have the energy it takes to look after a sensitive child if you’re run down. Sleep is my savior, even if it means I need to cut down to half an hour or one hour of “me time” in the evenings. I used to be upset if I didn’t have enough time to do my own things after she was in bed, but I reframed it to think of sleep as the best “me time” I could have, which would help me to look after my daughter better.
10. Be patient.
This is probably the most important — and hardest — thing to do. Highly sensitive children need to process things in their own time. There is so much going on in their heads, so the more space you can give them, the better. Breathe, breathe, and breathe again. Remember: You can do this!