Oh, to be highly sensitive… what a BEAUTIFUL gift!
Highly sensitive children (HSC’s), and adults, who make up 15-20% of the world, are a unique group with very special gifts and strengths. Unfortunately, the strengths of high sensitivity are often seen as weaknesses.
As someone who was once an HSC and now a highly sensitive person/adult (HSP) I remember as a child being distracted by the flickering of the fluorescent lights in the classroom. The tone of the teacher’s voice or even a look would affect me deeply. I was on high-alert and hyper-aware of everything going on while at the same time I could sort of “check out” and daydream about things I was way more interested in.
As far back as I can remember, I can’t watch the news; families and animals killed in fires, car accidents, senseless murders, war, suicides, terrorism and acts of violence… I’ve spent a lot of time crying over the grief of strangers. When the commercial for abused animals pops up, I scramble to change the channel, FAST! I just can’t take the grief… these things affect me deeply. They throw off my internal balance and create an overload of stress in my physical body. On the good side, I notice my physical reaction to things in nature like a beautiful sunrise or sunset, the rise of and sight of the moon in the sky, whether it’s full or not. The breathtaking sight of the mountains. Chirping of the birds in the trees…
I’ve had people tell me I’m “too sensitive” and to not carry the weight of the world on my shoulders but I didn’t know how to put it down. I know what it’s like to feel profound empathy for my family as well as strangers. Heartbreak for my own pets as well as animals I’ve never met in person (I capture insects, who’ve found their way into my home, and release them back to the outdoors rather than kill them!), and emotional overwhelm for global injustices. I can actually FEEL what other people are feeling as I enter a room. I’m in tune to the energy flow between myself and another when in conversation and even as I’m writing this now I’m processing so much information it’s tough to not write a novel!
For most of my life I felt there was something wrong with me, and it wasn’t until my late 30’s that I realized it was all due to being highly sensitive. Knowing this helped me to begin to feel more at peace with who I was/am.
One of the most difficult times in life for HSP’s is during childhood, when the feelings are so strong but the level of emotional maturity isn’t developed enough to be able to communicate what’s going on. A child is likely to internalize their feelings and experiences, so when the emotions can no longer be stuffed down, they may be released in undesirable ways such as “tantrums” or emotional meltdowns.
I just read this quote today, “Kids save their biggest feelings for the ones they love”. And it’s so true… they come home from school at the end of the day, after working so hard to keep it together, and they have to release and let those stuffed emotions go.
For the many years I worked as a school improvement consultant, I would regularly encourage teachers to NOT take their students’ negative behaviors personally… the student’s behavior was, and is, a cry for help in some capacity. The message to parents is the same. Dig a little deeper, have a conversation and see if you can unearth the root cause of the behavior. I guarantee it connects back to feelings of inadequacy, self-worth, fear, anxiety, etc., in conjunction with something that’s going on at school or with friends. It’s important to trust the wisdom of your child!
As I mentioned, it took me until my 30’s to embrace my sensitivity as a strength and share my voice. I believe we can encourage our children to love their sensitivity from a much earlier age but they need to be aware of it first and that’s where we, as parents and teachers can help.
If you, too, have wondered how to “fix yourself”, or numb down some of the pain, especially as a child or young adult, here are some reasons to love your soft and open heart.
Some of these sentiments are words I heard, others are words I wish I had heard…
What Your Highly Sensitive Child Needs to Hear
All of your emotions are acceptable
Most of us would agree that crying is a good thing but society still tends to frown upon it and emotions like anger, anxiety and hurt continue to be judged and considered “unhealthy”.
Highly sensitive children are wired to fully experience the entire spectrum of human emotions. When we give HSC’s permission to experience and express those emotions, without labeling them as inappropriate or negative, they benefit in a powerful way. This allows for the opportunity to teach them tools for transforming emotions like anger into creative or passionate fuel for something constructive.
It’s healthy to experience emotion about injustice
As a child, my emotions confused me. I wasn’t able to appropriately express what I was feeling, and I felt shame for the tears I shed over misfortunate animals (my #1 trigger) and racism and bullying. As an adult I’m still moved to tears by all kinds of things but I now know why.
HSC’s need to understand at an early age that it’s okay to feel emotion when they witness others experiencing pain. This response is one of compassion, not overreaction and it’s important to acknowledge the hurt and not dismiss it as insignificant. When the time is right, offer ways your child can be proactive and move into solution-mode, like starting a fundraising campaign or donating to an important cause.
Let others know when you need alone time
Highly sensitive adults aren’t the only ones who need time alone. I’ve been working with a precious girl for several years, who often shares with me her deep need for time away, by herself. During those times she likes the environment to be darkened and quiet… this is how she “fills her tank.” It goes without saying that if I don’t have at least 2 hours per day alone to myself, I notice my tank running on empty too.
HSC’s need time alone after stimulating activities such as school or parties. Teach your child that it’s okay to ask for alone time and to be aware so that it doesn’t lead to unnecessary meltdowns or tantrums for younger HSC’s.
It’s okay to say no
Children are used to hearing, “no” but are rarely given permission to use the word for themselves. Obviously, it’s the parents’ job to decide the parameters for saying no but be sure to ask your HSC if they want to attend the party before automatically sending the RSVP. I was sent to summer day camp as a child, along with my two sisters, and as an adult looking back, I know that it was too much… it was over-stimulating! My sisters and I would often “miss the bus”, which would allow us to stay home for the day. We were homebodies despite my mother’s desire to have some peace and quiet.
“No” is a delicate balancing act with children but when handled correctly, offers an opportunity for setting appropriate and healthy boundaries.
Listen to your body
HSC’s are often highly sensitive to other people’s energy and subtleties in any given environment. Social conditioning moves us away from listening to what our bodies are intuitively telling us so we may lose this connection as we grow older.
We can teach sensitive children to “notice” what’s going on in their bodies… how they feel when they eat a certain food or when hanging out with a particular friend. We can also teach them to find a place in their body that feels calm (heart, finger, toe,). Focusing on that body part, or even deep breathing, can bring relief and acts as a powerful grounding practice. HSC’s can use this technique when they feel overwhelmed and need to self-regulate their body’s responses.
Take your time to process
Adult HSP’s often need time to process information. According to Dr. Elaine Aron (The Highly Sensitive Person), one of the four characteristics of HSP’s is “depth of processing”. This means that when highly sensitive children receive information, they take in everything they can, analyzing and making connections to a bigger picture.
This is why HSP’s have a strong need to “go deep” when learning something new. When they are interested in a subject, they don’t want to simply skim the surface, they go deep and cover every inch of that topic to satisfy their thirst for meaningful knowledge. Depth of processing can make life rich and meaningful but it also slows us down. Simply being patient and allowing your child some extra time to process, honors this special gift.
The world needs people like you
No one would argue that the world needs more empathy, compassion, awareness and good listeners. Sensitive children are often extremely analytical and creative. Let’s remind the sensitive children in our lives that even though the world feels challenging and scary sometimes, their gifts of sensitivity are able to, now and on into the future, help humanity and the entire planet in countless ways!
If you suspect your child is an HSP you may be (or not) surprised to know that this is a NORMAL genetic trait that occurs in 15-20% of the population and runs in families. There is a range so some may experience sensitivity and overwhelm in different degrees but if you’re curious to know more I encourage you to take 50 minutes to listen to this awesome and uplifting podcast episode at The Dyslexia Quest: http://www.elishevaschwartz.com/podcast/how-to-support-your-highly-sensitive-child-hsp-with-julie-bjelland-lmft/.
And for a quick online assessment visit this interesting website: https://hsperson.com/