From the time my son was an infant, it was clear that he felt everything very deeply. While I was surprised by the intensity with which he experienced life, his sensitivity wasn’t a huge shock—he comes by it honestly.
When a friend introduced me to Elaine Aron’s book, "The Highly Sensitive Person," many years ago, I instantly identified. I’d heard the phrase “You’re too sensitive,” throughout my childhood and well into adulthood. Things that other people seemed to do effortlessly—like going to the mall or working long hours—completely shut me down. Aron’s work suggested that perhaps I wasn’t inherently flawed, I was just wired differently.
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According to Aron, between 15 to 20 percent of people are born with particularly sensitive temperaments. Her research suggests that this sensitivity is caused by a more reactive nervous system, which can present in ways like experiencing physical pain more acutely, being easily overstimulated by loud or hectic surroundings, and hyperawareness of other peoples’ emotions.
When I get frustrated, I’ve found it helpful to reframe the way I view my child’s sensitivity and see it not as a liability, but as an asset.
Raising a highly sensitive child can be challenging for any parent. With these deep-feeling kiddos, it can seem like their emotions slosh around like an over-full bucket, often splattering onto the rest of the family.
But with nurturing, our sensitive kids can learn to channel their unique, empathic personalities. Here are 5 ways you can help nurture your sensitive child:
1. Downtime, downtime, downtime
One of the most helpful tools for highly sensitive kids—and adults— is underscheduling. Inserting generous doses of downtime between activities gives sensitive kids times to decompress and avoid feeling overwhelmed. While it sounds simple, it can take effort and planning to slow family life down, but you might find your entire family benefits from a gentler pace.
2. Get outside
For the easily overstimulated, sensitive child, nature can be a great balm. Being out in the woods or at the beach is soothing for most people and can serve as a nice “reset button” for the highly sensitive.
3. Prepare them well for new situations
Highly sensitive people often struggle with transitions more than other people. The more we can prepare our children for changes like starting at a new school or moving, the better off they will be. Talk about any big upcoming changes and do a “dry run” if possible. When our son was getting ready to start kindergarten, we made an effort to take him to the playground at his new school frequently so it would feel more familiar.
4. Model coping skills
Teaching our sensitive kids how to calm themselves by using tools like meditation or yoga can be a huge gift. As a sensitive kid, I often felt overwhelmed by my own intense emotions. Finding healthy ways for our kids to regulate themselves is a necessary skill. Parenting a sensitive child can be tiring—so practicing these calming techniques can also help burnt out parents recharge.
5. Remember the positive
It’s easy—and natural—to get frustrated by our children's strong emotions and seeming inability to go with the flow. Think about all the positive traits that come along with your sensitive child’s more trying characteristic. Are they creative? Emotionally empathic? Caring? Expressive? When I get frustrated, I’ve found it helpful to reframe the way I view my child’s sensitivity and see it not as a liability, but as an asset.
If like me, you’re a highly sensitive parent raising a highly sensitive child, you might find yourself better able to nurture and understand your kid—while gaining a new understanding of your own uniqueness.