The Highly Sensitive Child: The bright side of sensitivity

Photography:Rachel Burt Photography

By Rachel Samson

Recent research estimates that up to 30% of the population is highly sensitive. According to research psychologist, Elaine Aron, Ph.D., high sensitivity – known by the scientific term, sensory processing sensitivity – is a biologically-based temperament trait presenting equally in males and females. The trait is found in over 100 species of non-human animals, including primates, pigs, dogs, fish, and even insects.  

Highly sensitive people, both children and adults, process physical, social, and emotional stimuli more deeply; have a greater capacity for noticing subtleties in their environment; have stronger emotional reactions to positive and negative stimuli; and are more easily overstimulated than those who are less sensitive. It is thought that these characteristics are expressions of a highly responsive central nervous system that allows an individual with this trait to accurately detect, understand, and respond to information coming in from the environment.  

If you are the parent of a highly sensitive child, it may seem like your child is sensitive to just about everything.

They may startle easily, be strongly affected by other people’s moods, cry easily, complain about scratchy clothing and seams in socks, notice the slightest odour, struggle to cope with changes in routine, be sensitive to pain, and be bothered by crowds and noisy places. From an evolutionary perspective, a heightened ability to perceive and process environmental stimuli may be an advantage in situations where it increases an individual’s capacity to respond to opportunities (e.g., food, alliances) and danger (e.g., predators, competitors) in their environment. In her book, the Highly Sensitive Child, Aron describes the highly sensitive child as a “living smoke alarm, letting everyone know if there is a bit of smoke anywhere”. 

Despite the possible advantages of high sensitivity, the trait tends to get a bad rap in our culture. This shouldn’t be a surprise to anyone. We live in an emotion-phobic culture, according to psychotherapist, Hilary Jacobs Hendel.

We are taught to inhibit, suppress, and control our emotions and are praised for being strong, stoic, and emotionally independent.

Because highly sensitive children (and adults) tend to have stronger emotional reactions than most people, they are often viewed by others as being “too emotional” or “too sensitive” or as “overreacting”. If you are the parent of a highly sensitive child, you may have had well-meaning friends and family members express concern about your child’s emotional sensitivity and been offered unsolicited advice on how to “toughen up” your child or build their resilience. Such messages can contribute to sensitive children and their parents viewing their sensitivity in a negative light and overlooking the (very) bright side of this trait.  

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