What Is a Highly Sensitive Child?

Experts say an estimated 20% of people are “highly sensitive,” a term psychologist Elaine Aron developed to describe those with sensory-processing sensitivities.

But how do you know if your child is highly sensitive?

Highly sensitive people, including children, may experience things differently than others and may have more awareness of the world around them.

Some studies suggest these people may experience increased activity in parts of the brain related to the senses.

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Highly Sensitive Children

A highly sensitive child may have different personality traits, too.

One may respond to feeling overwhelmed with emotional outbursts, while another may become quiet.

These children react to their environment in different ways but tend to have stronger emotional reactions to things like sights and sounds.

Justin Schreiber, DO, MPH, is a pediatrician and child psychiatrist and medical director of the Whole Child Wellness Clinic at UPMC Children’s Hospital of Pittsburgh. He says highly sensitive children may become more anxious or triggered by the world around them.

“It could be (many) factors,” he says. “They may be more reactive. You might find they react to their anger or fear with avoidance when something triggers them. They’re more likely to avoid situations like school and become irritable or sad quickly.”

Highly sensitive children may struggle with sudden changes in routine and approach new situations cautiously. They’re often creative, smart, and caring.

Highly sensitive children may:

  • Feel overwhelmed by lights, sounds, and smells.
  • Become bothered by wet clothing or uncomfortable fabrics.
  • Become easily frustrated, angered, or saddened.
  • Experience extreme emotional reactions.
  • Be hyper-aware of changes in their routines or environment.
  • Be stubborn about routines.
  • Be cautious of new social situations like birthday parties.
  • Prefer quiet activities to noisy ones.
  • Have trouble sleeping due to overstimulation.
  • Struggle with constructive criticism or take things personally.
  • Be curious and/or perfectionists.
  • Need a lot of time between activities to recharge.
  • Be extra sensitive to the feelings of others.

There are plenty of options for parents to help their children cope with the world and learn to manage their emotions, says Dr. Schreiber, but it starts with acceptance and communication.

“If you’re seeing something that feels different for your kid, talk to your pediatrician and see if there might be a benefit to things like therapy,” he says. “But it’s also how you communicate with your child. Having a better understanding of what things are making them feel worried, scared, or overwhelmed and helping to make sure they know it’s a safe space to talk about it is important.”

Parents should have patience and avoid reacting to their child with anger or frustration. Their children may take things personally and become overwhelmed by others’ anger, frustration, or sadness. They’re also more likely to develop anxiety and mental health challenges.

Rather than scolding, parents may have more luck using gentle reminders when disciplining their children. Teaching your child to communicate their needs and manage triggers will help guide them into adulthood, too.

“Slow things down, understand where they’re coming from, and figure out how you can support them,” says Dr. Schreiber.

When finding a therapist, he suggests looking for someone with experience working with kids.

One of the most valuable things you can do for your child is work with teachers and administrators at their school, says Dr. Schreiber.

“Help them understand what the child’s triggers are,” he says. “Helping teachers understand the child’s needs is one of the most important things we can do to help them.”

The UPMC Children’s Hospital of Pittsburgh Behavioral Science Division offers specialized programs for treating children and teens experiencing emotional or behavioral challenges, including children facing anxiety or other mental health issues. Visit chp.edu/our-services/behavioral-health for more information.

Editor's Note: This article was originally published on , and was last reviewed on .

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