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Understanding Your Highly Sensitive Child

by Suzanne Sears RN, BSN, MS, ACCH

Highly Sensitive Children(HSCs) are born with a tendency to notice more things in their environment. It is estimated that 20% of the population are Highly Sensitive individuals. This temperament trait is innate and genetically determined ( one or both parents being Highly Sensitive). Being Highly Sensitive is not a "one- size fits all" trait, as there are many gradations of sensitivity from very mild to extremely sensitive among HSCs.

It appears that the brain's Salience Network, which selects which stimuli deserve our attention, works overtime in HSCs, so they pay attention to things that others don't notice. Because of this tendency, they can easily become overwhelmed by a high volume of incoming stimuli unless they know how to "shield" themselves.HSCs are "noticers" and often feel compelled to "fix" things they have noticed. They usually reflect deeply on the things they are processing and because they do, they tend to be empathic, smart, intuitive, creative, careful and conscientious.

The tendency to process high volumes of stimuli is not limited to the brain in HSCs, as they can have faster reflexes and are more affected by pain, medications and stimuli. They also tend to have more reactive Immune systems and allergies. It seems their whole bodies detect and understand whatever comes in through all of their senses,

HSCs may seem to be "complainers" because the lights are "too bright", the temperatures "too cold " or " too hot"; sounds are "too loud" and clothes are "too tight" or "too itchy" (Note: many HSC's have to have the labels taken out of their clothes). Foods may be "too spicy" or the texture intolerable and odors "too strong" or "weird" HSCs may develop eating issues because parents don't understand these sensations and meals can become a battlefield (BTW...adults seldom win a Power Struggle with a child, especially about food,)

Highly Sensitive Children are usually aware of the effects of bad behavior and understand consequences so are more likely to try to avoid such behavior. However, is they become overstimulated, because they are unable to guard against excessive "incoming", they can throw tantrums and have rages to avoid whatever is overwhelming them or as a reaction to it. In school they can easily become overstimulated and"bounce off the walls" or may be unable to "focus" because of noise, movements and general excessive energy in the room. They can be labeled as having ADD or ADHD and put on medication.The unfortunate result of this is, they can lose confidence in themselves and be made to feel as if something is "wrong" with them for just being themselves. Other HSCS may respond to over-stimulation by becoming quiet and still, so they are labeled "shy" or "introverted" when they are just trying to remain calm. HSCs need to know what to expect and require order in their environment. It seems they can tolerate almost anything except unpredictability or constant change,

It is often true that HSCs will try to control their exposure to excessive stimuli by enjoying quieter activities in calm surroundings, and it is important for parents to understand these preferences and encourage

their HSCs to pursue their interests in their own way. Sometimes HSCS require " alone time" to decompress from the excessive stimulation of their environments and to "recharge their batteries" and calm their nervous systems.

In James Williams little book (Understanding the Highly Sensitive Child) he quotes the philosopher Nietzsche who wrote, "And those who were seen dancing were thought to be crazy by those who could not hear the music." Williams states that HSCs "are not crazy, slow, weak or 'just not tough enough'. They simply dance to a tune not everyone can hear. Once you know the tune exists and you listen for it carefully, you'll find it's beautiful, moving, powerful music."

It is an enormous advantage for society to have a large minority (20%) of individuals who are Highly Sensitive, because they are usually drawn to become scientists, counselors, theologians, historians, lawyers, teachers, doctors, nurses and artists. They can also be a stabilizing influence on others because they tend to consider things and reflect on the consequences of decisions and behaviors before they act.

Margaret Mead said that "Children are born with a great variety of traits, like the many hues of a palette, but culture encourages only certain ones." Therefore, it is important that families of HSCs encourage them to value their unique traits, so they can feel confident enough to share their gifts and have a solid influence on others.

If this article is of interest to you and you feel that much of the information applies to your child (or children), please see the Parent's Questionnaire included with this article. It can also be found following the Introduction of Dr. Elaine Aron's book The Highly Sensitive Child.

Helpful Resources

Elaine Aron, PhD.

The Highly Sensitive Child (Helping Our Children to Thrive When the World Overwhelms Them.)

Website: hsperson. com

Sharon Heller, PhD

Too Loud, Too Bright, Too Fast, Too Tight. (How to Thrive When the World Overwhelms You.)

James Williams.

Understanding the Highly Sensitive Child( Seeing an Overwhelming World Though Their Eyes.)

Supporting the Highly Sensitive Child.

Website: FamilyFeelings. CO. UK. or

Note: See Google Images for many more books written about HSCs.

The Highly Sensitive Child Parent's Questionnaire.

by Elaine Aron, PhD

Please answer each question as best you can. Answer TRUE if it is true, moderately true or was true for a substantial period of time in the past. Answer FALSE if it is not true now or was never true for your child.

My child...

  1. T F startles easily

  2. T F complains about scratchy clothing,seams in socks or labels.

  3. T F usually doesn't enjoy big surprises.

  4. T F learns better from a gentle correction tan strong punishment.

  5. T F seems to read my mind.

  6. T F uses big words for his/her age.

  7. T F notices the slightest unusual odor.

  8. T F has a clever sense of humor.

  9. T F seems very intuitive.

  10. T F is hard to get to sleep after an exciting day.

  11. T F doesn't do well with big changes.

  12. T F wants to change clothes if wet or sandy.

  13. T F asks a lot of questions.

  14. T F is a perfectionist.

  15. T F notices the distress of others.

  16. T F prefers quiet play.

  17. T F asks deep, thought provoking questions.

  18. T F is very sensitive to pain.

  19. T F is bothered by noisy places.

  20. T F notices subtleties(something that's been moved , change in a person's appearance, etc.)

  21. T F considers if it is safe before climbing high.

  22. T F performs best when strangers aren't present.

  23. T F feels things deeply.


If you answered TRUE to 13 or more questions, your child is probably Highly Sensitive. But, no psychological test is so accurate that you should base how you treat your child on that test. If only one or two questions are true of your child, but they are extremely true, you might be justified in calling your child Highly Sensitive.

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