I’ve run into a few people in my practice lately who are what author Elaine Aron would describe as highly sensitive. These are people who share a list of common traits (some of which I’ll share in a moment) and who are more affected by sensory input of all kinds. Aron argues that this isn’t a diagnosis or a form of pathology that needs to be corrected, more of a temperament, a fixed part of personality, that needs to be worked with (not against) in order for the person to function at their maximum potential.
Here are some of the traits she describes — does it sound like anyone you know (including yourself)?:
- startles easily
- sensitive to things like scratchy clothes, tags, or seams
- doesn’t usually enjoy big surprises
- vulnerable to overstimulation
- deep inner reactions to people and situations
- heightened awareness of others (can sometimes be seen as shyness)
- caution before proceeding
- easily bothered by things like odours, wet clothing, or noisy places
Aron has a 23 item true-or-false checklist in her book The Highly Sensitive Person to help you determine whether or not you or your child would qualify for her description of being highly sensitive.
Heightened sensitivity isn’t always a bad thing. It makes people very attuned to what’s going on with other people, so they make great friends and counsellors (ahem) . But it can be overwhelming at times, too – something as minor as clutter can make it impossible for a highly sensitive person to think clearly, and perfectionistic and cautious tendencies can make decision-making tedious at times.
So how can you help a sensitive child make the most of his or her nature? Start by making reasonable accommodations. Teach your kids to recognize and respect their own boundaries — don’t go to a sleep over and watch a horror movie if you know it’s going to keep you awake for the rest of the week. (I learned that one the hard way.)
Don’t be overly protective in keeping your child from getting hurt. The more overprotective the parent, the more disruptive the sensitivity is in the child. Talk with your child or teen about ways to cope in uncomfortable situations, and help him recognize his own boundaries. Walk him through specific situations, including what could go wrong, and ask, “If that happened, what could you do?”
And finally, stay positive. While the sensitivity might make you want to scream and pull your hair out at times, it comes with lots of great qualities, too. This is part of who your child is, so trying to change it or deny it won’t get you very far. As with all kids, play up the strengths and prepare in advance for the more challenging times.