Sensitive Kids Play Differently Than Other Kids. Here’s What They Need to Thrive.

A young girl on a trampoline, smiling

Sensitive kids have different developmental needs, even at playtime. Here’s how to give your sensitive child the experiences they need to thrive — and have fun.

The seven-year-old version of me once attended an event for homeschool families in my area. Over the course of the evening, I was persuaded to join a game of dodgeball, which I had never played before. Sounds fun, right? 

Well, after quickly being eliminated, the sting of the overinflated playground ball on my hand (and my newly-deflated ego) made me not so sure. I’m now 28 and haven’t played dodgeball since. Now, I don’t mean to imply that I was particularly traumatized by my brief “career” in dodgeball, but it was decidedly Not Fun. Having since identified myself as a highly sensitive person (HSP), I can see why I felt that way.

A few years later, I would reluctantly participate in group dances at Vacation Bible School — I mean, who wants to look like an old stick-in-the-mud at the tender age of 10? — while inwardly cringing at how silly I must look (even if all the other kids were dancing the same way). I’ve seen this phenomenon most recently with my own daughter at our Mommy and Me dance class. While she does enjoy the class and music, she doesn’t typically flock to the center of the room or display as much animation as some of the other kids. I also notice that the teacher’s well-intentioned attempts to get my child more engaged often backfire. 

It’s still too early to tell whether my child is an introvert, sensitive person, or any other such distinction, but the tendency to use high-energy enthusiasm to encourage children to participate in things starts young. But, before I continue, let’s talk about what it means to be a highly sensitive child.

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The Science Behind Highly Sensitive Children

While everyone is sensitive to a degree, some people are more sensitive than others. In fact, according to the latest research, nearly 30 percent of people are born more sensitive than average, both physically and emotionally. Researchers refer to this trait as environmental sensitivity or Sensory Processing Sensitivity. And don’t worry — all three levels of environmental sensitivity are considered healthy and normal.

In essence, as a personality trait, scientists define high sensitivity as taking in more information from your environment, processing it more deeply, and doing more with it, according to Jenn Granneman and Andre Sólo, coauthors of Sensitive. Sólo says that the sensitive brain is actually wired to process all information more deeply — effectively spending more time and mental resources on doing so.

So, children and adults who fall near the high end of the sensitivity continuum are called highly sensitive people, or HSPs. They will often be deeply attuned to their physical environment and to the emotions of others. They will pick up on subtle details, or make connections between ideas, that other people miss. They may be affected by textures, noises, and other things in the environment that others seem to shrug off. Often, sensitive children are highly creative and empathetic, and many are deep thinkers. Some researchers also believe high sensitivity is linked to giftedness.  

If your child is a highly sensitive person, they were likely born that way and will develop it further in childhood. They will remain sensitive for life — although as they develop, they can learn how to better regulate overstimulation, manage their strong emotions, and use their powerful sensitive mind to their advantage.

The best way to teach them that is to accept and validate their sensitivity, and help understand why they experience things — like dance class — so differently.

We Need to Better Understand Sensitive Children

I suspect that many highly sensitive people can relate to these childhood experiences. In churches, after-school programs, and summer camps across the nation, leaders design “fun” activities that all kids supposedly like. But… they fail to consider the sensitive ones who are fading into the background and wishing they were somewhere, anywhere, else. A lack of perceived enthusiasm in these children is seen as sullenness or sadness, and the solution is to redouble our efforts to get them excited about what’s happening. Instead, we should make an effort to understand them and their needs — like giving them alone time and not forcing them to participate.

The disconnect can leave highly sensitive kids like me feeling inadvertently gaslit, wondering, I’m supposed to be having fun. Is there something wrong with me? The consequences of this dynamic are not all fun and games, either. Pressuring kids to do things they don’t feel comfortable doing could be a recipe for embarrassment, resentment, and even poor boundary-setting skills later in life. 

I certainly don’t believe that the people who write curriculum and lead classes and events have anything against HSPs, but there seems to be a dearth of understanding of how they operate. This lack of awareness is compounded by the fact that children are lumped into a single category based on their age, even though every child truly is different. I feel that we, as a society, would do well to focus a bit more energy on connecting with sensitive kids — who will someday be sensitive adults — so that we don’t inadvertently drive anyone away.

So how can we minister to the needs of highly sensitive kids without losing the interest of the rest of the group? After all, it’s impossible to include and please everyone all of the time. However, there are several things adults can do to ensure that kids of all sorts at least get something valuable out of each class, event, or program. Here are some ideas.

6 Things Sensitive Kids Need to Thrive

1. Dial back the decibels, as they are sensitive to noise.

Something as simple as literally turning down the volume of music can make a significant difference to highly sensitive kids. Try setting the volume just loud enough that everyone can hear comfortably, in order to avoid overwhelming the sensitive types unnecessarily. Noise sensitivity is very real, especially for sensitive people.

2. Don’t insist on full participation; instead, base it on kids’ individual interests and learning styles.

In settings such as church activities or family events, chances are, kids do not have any grades riding on whether they play enough rounds of musical chairs or do all the hand motions to all the songs. There’s no true need to participate in these things — after all, they’re supposed to be fun! 

While it’s okay to invite a shy-looking child to join in if they want, don’t press the issue. The child may feel comfortable enough to participate more after a few weeks or class sessions, or they may prefer not to. Highly sensitive people have their own unique learning style, even when it comes to fun, and I think teachers and group leaders should pay more attention to this.

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3. Curb the competition — a sensitive child should not be judged by “winning” or “losing.”

It especially pays to be mindful of competitive games. Sensitive kids tend to not like being in the spotlight, and this includes highly competitive activities. The pressure of winning and losing can very quickly outweigh any love of the game. So be aware of group games or contests that pit students against each other individually as others look on. Chances are, it’s doing more harm than good for a sensitive child’s confidence and self-esteem. 

4. Balance loud, high-energy activities with opportunities for quiet creativity.

There’s nothing innately “wrong” with dodgeball or dancing, but if “fun” is focused solely around these “louder” kinds of activities, some kids are sure to be left out. Consider interspersing them with other activities, like crafts that can be worked on individually (of course, the more active, less-sensitive kids shouldn’t be forced to participate in those, either!). 

If the environment is unstructured, like an after-school care program, provide equipment for a variety of independent activities (like paper and drawing pencils), as well as lively group games (like soccer ball and such).

5. Offer a listening ear — and truly listen to the feedback.

What kids really need is not the fanciest, flashiest programs, but rather, that adults simply be present and willing to listen. Observe how the kids in the group respond to certain activities, then tailor your plans accordingly. 

If you’re brave, you can even ask kids directly what their favorite — and least favorite — parts of the event were. Being in tune with the group members, and their preferences, goes a long way toward helping everyone have a good time, and thus, be more likely to come back next time. (Admittedly, this strategy works better the smaller the group is.) 

6. Allow for sensitive kids to play different roles.

In many group settings, there are several distinct roles — some people would rather be the frontman of the band while others would rather be the bass player. To prevent highly sensitive children from feeling separate from the rest of the group, look for multiple ways for kids to participate in the same activities for optimal inclusivity. Just like we each play different roles in our families, so, too, do we play different roles outside of our homes.

You may find that you have, for example, a Sunday school class of mostly extroverts who enjoy acting out stories… plus one highly sensitive person who enjoys writing. Perhaps that child would like to write the script for the others to act out. 

Another idea is to let kids take turns completing each step in a science experiment or recipe. Being able to carry out different functions toward a common goal is also helpful for learning teamwork skills, which will serve your young charges well later in life.

Kids are by no means a homogeneous category, and neither are their senses of “fun.” If leaders implement these strategies when designing “fun,” I believe they will find that each highly sensitive child has a greater chance of feeling seen, secure, and free to pursue their imagination, no matter what that looks like.

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