In our house, meltdowns, emotional outbursts and difficulty calming down are common after busy preschool days, and it can be difficult to know what has triggered those responses. It turns out that about 20-30% of the population is highly sensitive, which may explain these intense reactions in some children. When parents and caregivers recognize that a child is highly sensitive, they are better able to understand moments of distress, and they can help the child cope with feeling overwhelmed and overstimulated.
High sensitivity, sometimes referred to as sensory processing sensitivity, is a personality trait, not a disorder, and it comes with positives and negatives. “Everyone is sensitive to some degree, but there’s a spectrum with considerable variability,” says Michael Pluess, a developmental psychologist at Queen Mary University of London. Heightened sensory sensitivity can manifest itself as sensitivity towards sound, light or smell, as well as enhanced attention to details, high empathy and emotional awareness. Highly sensitive people process more information and detail about the world than those who are not highly sensitive. “There’s a lot of information coming in, and at some point, people will feel it’s too much,” Pluess observes.
While highly sensitive adults may have developed coping strategies over the years, children with this trait need support. That’s because they are at increased risk of being overstimulated, explains Pluess, as they are less likely to have developed coping strategies – and are less able than adults to control their environments.
A questionnaire is available that allows adults to measure their own level of sensitivity. Pluess and his colleagues have adapted that questionnaire to identify highly sensitive children. The Highly Sensitive Child scale, which is intended for parents or caregivers of 8- to 18-year-olds, was recently validated as effective for capturing high sensitivity. Respondents are presented with 12 statements and asked whether they agree or disagree.
The scale addresses a range of environmentally stimulating situations with statements like “My child doesn’t like loud noises” and “My child doesn’t like watching TV programmes with a lot of violence in them”. The test is freely available online and can be used by anyone at home. For younger children, scientists have found they can use an observational method for measuring high sensitivity, in which they monitor whether children hold back from joining in and how they respond to a noisy environment.
“Highly sensitive children are often more cautious than their peers.”
For sensitive children, parenting style matters. A 2019 study found that children who were highly sensitive at age 3 showed typical development by age 6 if their parents were responsive to their needs, defined as being emotionally available and supportive. Highly sensitive children with permissive parents – parents who provide little or no structure and rules, or tend to spoil their children – had more emotional issues, such as anxiety.
Highly sensitive children are often more cautious than their peers, waiting to process what is happening around them before joining in. They can also be very sensitive to negative parenting styles, characterised by criticism and scolding, which make children more vulnerable to adversity. This vulnerability can manifest itself as strong emotional reactions to criticism that are rooted in high levels of empathy, explains Pluess. Such children therefore benefit from a calm approach to parenting. Fortunately, highly sensitive people respond well to positive experiences and preventative mental health interventions.
“Highly sensitive children thrive on one-on-one attention, are very curious, ask lots of questions, and tend to be creative.”
There’s another reason why it may be important to know how sensitive a child is. Highly sensitive children can sometimes be misdiagnosed with autism. Although the behaviour of an autistic child and a highly sensitive child may seem similar at times, the causes and neural circuitry are different. “High sensitivity is a very complex personality trait and easily confused with autism or ADHD,” says Ilse van den Daele, author of ‘My Child is Highly Sensitive’ and leader of workshops in Belgium about high sensitivity.
Highly sensitive children thrive on one-on-one attention, are very curious, ask lots of questions, and tend to be creative. New research by Pluess and colleagues, not yet published, indicates that highly sensitive 7- and 8-year-olds also have an enhanced theory of mind – the ability to read the thoughts and feelings of others – compared with children who are less sensitive. In the study, highly sensitive children were better than their peers at reading emotions in pictures of adult eyes, a well-known test of emotion recognition. This research is in keeping with work on highly sensitive adults.
Some researchers have used the terms ‘orchid’ and ‘dandelion’ to refer to individuals with different levels of sensitivity. Those with low sensitivity are like dandelions – they grow almost anywhere and need little tending. Those who are highly sensitive are like orchids; they are more vulnerable and need just the right amount of light, temperature and warmth to flourish. In the right environment, orchids will do exceptionally well. If you suspect that your child is highly sensitive, like an orchid, remember that given extra care and attention, these children will do just fine.