I have often grappled over ‘the sensitive child’ conundrum. To be a sensitive child is a dilemma of sorts. Children with heightened sensitivity to their environment view the world as an overwhelming place – filled with bright lights, and daunting situations. Everything within the sensitive child’s environment gets to them, and pokes at their hyper alert, highly aware nervous system, which of course, makes them quick to react to particular situations.
The sensitive child is overwhelmed by high levels of stimulation, sudden changes, and the emotional distress of others. An estimated 15% – 20% of children are afflicted with hypersensitivity issues. As a result, hypersensitive children can feel suffocated by life itself.
How does a child become sensitive?
Nobody really knows how a child becomes hypersensitive. However, the general consensus is that they are born that way. Of course, environmental factors can play into this as well.
In 2014, psychologists’ from ‘Stony Brook University,’ Arthur and Elaine Aron, conducted studies on the brains of hypersensitive people, whom the Aron’s believe are naturally predisposed to empathy. Drs’ Aron, and colleagues from three universities, including University of California, Albert Einstein College of medicine, and Monmouth University confirmed that Functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging (FMRI) scans conducted on the brains of hypersensitive people provides evidence that the ”highly sensitive” brain responds well to emotional images.
In the study ‘The Highly Sensitive Brain: ‘An FRMI study of Sensory Processing Sensitivity and Response to Other’s Emotions,’ FRMI brain scans were used to compare HSPS with low SPS individuals. The brains of 18 married couples (some with high, and some with low SPS) had their brains scanned while they looked at photos of both happy and sad faces. Some photos included photos of strangers, and the other photos were of husbands and their wives. This, Drs’ Aron confirmed was physical evidence from inside of the brain, that highly sensitive individuals respond strongly to situations that trigger emotions.
The HSP participants examining the photographs within the 12 second time frame, experienced substantially greater blood flow in the areas of the brain which process awareness and emotion, contributing to feelings of empathy, compared to participants low in sensitivity.
Previous research suggests that sensory processing sensitivity (SPS) is a trait associated with greater sensitivity, or responsiveness to environmental stimuli. According to doctor Arthur Aron, hypersensitivity is becoming more and more associated with behaviour, genes, and patterns of brain activation.
Hypersensitive people tend to show a heightened awareness to subtle stimulation, process information more thoroughly, and become reactive to both positive and negative stimuli. In contrast, the majority of people have comparatively low SPS, and pay less attention to subtle stimuli, approach situations more quickly, and are not as emotionally reactive.
A day in the life of a sensitive child
Everything affects the sensitive child. A change in tone, a filthy look, a nasty word, an emotionally unavailable teacher, or a cranky friend can send a sensitive child into a traumatised state where they feel pummelled by the event which took place. A change in tone can arouse the child to a state of hyper alertness, and may even set off patterns of overthinking.
The child may ruminate over the event for a week, internalise it, and break it down into a thousand pieces. They may even cry during the process.
In interpersonal situations, the pressure builds when confrontation takes place, and the sensitive child cries. This can be used against them, and may even cause the sensitive child to refrain from boundary setting in the future.
Why does this sensory issue become a problem?
Hypersensitivity is often misunderstood and judged harshly by adults and other children, which results in feelings of inadequacy and defectiveness for the child concerned. Sensitive children tend to feel more deeply, which makes them vulnerable in the company of people who don’t have the ability to feel as deeply, or who just so happen to behave insensitively to the sensitive child’s needs.
The sensory issues associated with sensitivity become a problem for the child when they begin to form close relationships with other children, and when the adults’ in the child’s life look upon the child’s sensitivity with ill judgement.
Close relationships with other children will be difficult for the sensitive child when they begin to assert their rights, wants and needs. Assertion and conflict hyper arouse this child’s nervous system. Hypersensitive children find it very difficult to hold their own without crying, and to believe in themselves enough to stand their ground with people.
Hypersensitivity particularly becomes a problem when people use the child’s hypersensitivity against them, to manipulate them, to shame them, and to control them.
Sensitive souls in a hard world
I believe that everyone struggles with sensitivity to some degree. However, these sensitivities aren’t as pronounced as the sensitivities within the hypersensitive child.
Sensitivity is looked down upon in today’s world, and is associated with having a thin skin. I have witnessed many situations where the sensitive child bursts into tears over an insult, and suddenly becomes the problem. To draw this conclusion isn’t really fair, especially when the comment towards the child was in actual fact, insensitive.
Children do need to be able to accept criticism, learn not to cry at the slightest remark, accept their own shortcomings, walk away without becoming reactive, and to believe in who they are. At the same time adults need to accept that children are little humans who are entitled to have their feelings.
Is your child too sensitive? Or are people simply being judgemental?
Simply put, a lot of people don’t want to deal with the emotions of others, especially little children. A child that cries a lot over insults, every scrape or scratch, or smirky comments is going to be told at some point that they are too sensitive.
Why shouldn’t a child cry when they’re hurt, or when somebody is being mean to them? Why does someone else get to decide whether or not we’re too sensitive? Our children do need to work towards building a thick skin to be able to function adequately in our cruel world. However, isn’t it insensitive to name call, and behave in spiteful ways? Don’t the feelings of our children matter, sensitive or not?
If a child cries because they have been deeply insulted, are they too sensitive? No, I don’t think so. Its natural to be hurt when people say nasty things to us. However, the difference between the sensitive child and the self assured child, is that the sensitive child will cry, whilst the self-assured child will handle the situation head on, assert themselves, or walk away. The self-assured child believes in their own worth.
The urge to cry at every perceived threat is the reason behind the hypersensitive child’s vulnerability, why they are often blamed for their own distress, and why they could very well become labelled as a ‘sensitive child.’
‘You’re just too sensitive!’
In my view, telling a child they are too sensitive is not ok. This is one example of how caregivers can shame the child’s entire being. Sensitive children already feel defective as it is, and deeply internalise everything said to them.
The child’s interpretation of the ‘your so sensitive’ comment will be:
‘I can’t be hurt by what other people say to me, and I must let people say and do as they please.’
In actual fact, this is not what is being said to them at all. The aim of the ‘your too sensitive’ comment is to bring to the child’s attention that they do cry a lot over things which other people perceive as trivial. The sensitive child would benefit more from being taught skills in resiliency, than by being told they are too sensitive.
What are the consequences of such invalidation?
Telling a child they are too sensitive will make them feel defective. If the giver of bad news doesn’t take the time to articulate and explain the terminology behind the insult, than the child will internalise this comment as clarification of their own badness. The child may also begin to believe that they do not have the right to feel hurt when people treat them badly. This could lead to adverse consequences in adulthood. The sensitive adult child may stay in toxic friendships or relationships for far too long, fearing that the problems they have in their relationships are due to their hypersensitivity, rather than the constant put downs and nastiness from the other party.
Highlighting a child’s heightened sensitivity is a very shaming experience for the sensitive child, whom of course suddenly feels unmasked, and as though all of their weaknesses are out in the open for all to see.
I believe that the only reason an adult would tell a sensitive child that they are too sensitive is if they wanted the child to change, to stop the child from reacting tearfully, to take control of the situation, or because they the adult doesn’t want to take responsibility for their own insensitive behaviour.
Sensitive child as over thinker:
What happens when an adult tells the sensitive child they are far too sensitive?
The sensitive child does not just say to themselves, ‘thank goodness I was told I am too sensitive. This has solved all of my problems, and I will now develop a thick skin.’ Instead, the child shames themselves, and develops a nasty, overactive inner critic.
‘If I didn’t cry all the time I’d be able to handle the bully, and they wouldn’t pick on me so much.’
‘Maybe that person isn’t horrible. I think I just need to toughen up.’
‘I’ll stick it out with this difficult person, because I’m the one with the problem, not them.’
What happens when you discuss the benefits of resilience to children?
I have a hypersensitive child, and I have had to find a way to speak to my child about these issues with sensitivity in a way that won’t cause shame.
‘Everybody has something.’
When adults sit down and explain to their child the consequences of crying at the drop of a hat in front of other children, the child generally listens.Teaching your sensitive child how to work with their sensitivity is far more proactive than telling them that they are too sensitive.
Hypersensitivity can be worked with, especially when there is ongoing support from loving caregivers. Firstly, the child must believe in themselves, and their human right to assert themselves before they can begin to work with their sensitivity.
Children need to know that not everybody is going to like them, and that resilience is key in these situations. Children like to be guided, and they like talking about their lives, their struggles, and the best way to handle other people. Once you have a good communicative relationship with your child, and show your child that you are emotionally available to them, you will be able to talk to them about what goes on in their internal world. This is when you will be able to support them in becoming more resilient.
Traumatised children from dysfunctional families quickly learn in early childhood that they are not worthy of attention, or unconditional love. Children of self – absorbed parents are often told that they are no good, are criticised daily, blamed for the treacherous abuse inflicted upon them, and shamed for having needs.
These children often grow up, taking with them, these negative views about themselves. They tend to accept the ill treatment inflicted on them by others, as a reflection of who they are – because this is what they were told in their early childhood years.
Traumatised adult children expect to be abandoned by everybody whom they come into contact with, somewhere in the near future; even by their best friend, or the love of their life. Abuse, rejection and abandonment in later adult life is what they expect to happen, and is what they feel deserving of; because they honestly believe that they will be forever at fault, bad, unworthy, undeserving, and unlovable.
This child lives, breathes, abides by, and often acts out on the lies they were told about themselves well into adulthood. They truely live in a mental prison.
The phrase which takes over the child’s mind and erodes their perception:
‘If my parents say these things about me, than they must be true.’
Phrases like this one have become cemented in their mind, and have destroyed their internal world further. Unfortunately, the traumatised child was lied to about themselves, and will live with these lies until they can no longer handle it, and decide to go and get help.
The faulty self image:
Dysfunctional parents will use intimidating, down – putting body language, behaviour, and verbal abuse to in-still in the child’s mind, feelings of inadequacy, unworthiness and/ incompetence. The child interprets the parent’s negative behaviour towards them as a reflection of who are they, not who their parent is.
These deep seated, intensely ingrained beliefs develop within the child because the parent has taken their anger out on the child; abandoned, abused, neglected, and continually criticised them. In the eyes of the child, a parent wouldn’t be so horrific to them unless they were obviously a bad, terrible child.
Children only know what they are taught:
If a child is being mistreated to extreme degrees, they will take it on, believe they are deserving of the treatment, and accept it without question. The confidence that was meant to develop within them between the ages of 0-4 was annihilated before it even had a chance to develop. So, instead of challenging the parent’s behaviour, like a confident child would, the traumatised child accepts the adult’s behaviour towards them as a ramification of their own badness, and insignificance.
The child often decides to look deeply within themselves in search of a way to fix the dysfunctional family dynamics, instead of accepting that there is something very wrong with the primary perpetrator, their parent.
If the parent abandons the child, the child will see this as a reflection of their inadequacy. If the parent restricts love, the child will direct the shame from that incident, inward. To them, this damaging behaviour exhibited by the parent is not a reflection of the parent, but a reflection of them. If the traumatised child is criticised daily, than the child accepts their caregivers perception of them – that they are incapable.
Those first few years:
The first years of the child’s life sets the stage for a negative view of self to formulate, and therefore, will affect the child’s entire life.
Once this false view of the child is formed, it holds its weight for the rest of time, and affects every single aspect of the child’s life well into adult-hood, on a daily basis.
‘ If one thinks they are no good, than how can they possibly make sensible decisions, believe in their own decisions, or even have the audacity to make decisions that put themselves first?’
The traumatised child may become an adult that is in need of constant approval, cannot make a decision without running it past someone else, and who has absolutely no self belief.
This negative false view of the child, that was never real in the first place, will affect their level of success, communication skills, ability to be assertive, and ongoing choices and dreams.
When the child enters a recovery programme in adulthood, they will eventually change their view of themselves, and realise that their parents’ were very sick.
Unable to distinguish a trustworthy person from an untrustworthy person:
Children who have been betrayed by the people closest to them often live in a state of chronic anxiety. This chronic anxiety is ignited when the child is around people, because they feel as though they can’t trust anyone. It is a hit and miss for this child, because they often don’t notice the red flags when they arise anyway. Or, if they do see the red flags, they may blame themselves for the red flags, because in their eyes they are the problem in all of their relationships, not the person they’re in the friendship, or relationship with.
Quite often, a traumatised child who is riddled with self- hate, will be happy if some one simply pays them some attention, or behaves nicely towards them. These children also tend to be very accepting of dysfunctional people, and may believe that other people with low self-esteem are a perfect match for them.
As a consequence, they often end up trusting people based on momentary kindness, which can lead to being taken advantage of and manipulated. Traumatised children often end up trusting people who shouldn’t be trusted, and decide not to trust those who can be trusted.
Irrational and distorted self – statements:
Once a child takes on their parents’ perception of themselves, they will treat themselves accordingly, and expect everybody else to treat them with contempt as well.
This child is overly critical of themselves, and easily manipulated into believing someone else’s negative view of them. They will struggle to believe that they are deserving of good things, may reject compliments, and may even reject those who compliment them – because in their mind, it is the people who perceive them in a good light that have the wrong end of the stick, and really should taken a second look to find the evil being, lurking deep within.
From now on this child will expect rejection, and know its on it way.
The effect of recurring mistreatment from others:
When someone mistreats the traumatised child, this child will most likely endure a shame spiral. This shame spiral will be fuelled by irrational negative self-talk, and memories of wrong doings.
When a downright nasty person behaves in ways similar to their original care givers, the traumatised child will see this as a confirmation of their inadequacy, and lack of significance.
In recovery, these abused children become adults who slowly but surely become aware of their distorted beliefs about self. Over time they will learn how to correct them.
The traumatised child becomes an adult whom lacks in confidence, and doesn’t believe that they will ever succeed. One step backwards becomes proof that they will never have any success. Some children over achieve because they feel so worthless. These children often believe that if they become successful, than they will be able to prove to the world, and to the people that didn’t love them, that they are ok.
Other children go the other way, and achieve a lot less than what they are capable of.
The over – achiever never believes that they will actually succeed, feels anxious in situations where they could fail in the eyes of others, believes that their successes will never be good enough, and expects everything they’ve ever achieved, to fall apart at some point.
The effect of new surroundings on the traumatised person:
A new workplace, school, new partner, or a new friendship will trigger anxiety, possible panic attacks, feelings of inadequacy, and a fear of being found out. These adult children don’t how to be, feel as though all eyes are on them, that they could be picked apart again; and due to previous experience, they cannot accept that their environment is a safe place to be in.
Children with low self-esteem carry their low self- esteem with them, well into adult hood – and choose the wrong partners as a result:
Adult children of abusive parents often walk into, and remain in abusive, unsatisfying relationships. They are frightened of change, scared to be alone, and they don’t believe they are capable of making sound decisions.
While in the process of recovery, these individuals learn to believe in themselves, and to recognise that their success is real and well-earned.
Over reacts to situations:
The traumatised child with low self – esteem is generally filled with negative beliefs about themselves. They often over react to comments or behaviour from others that they view as inappropriate. They can become completely enraged by a simple comment, may feel shattered and depleted because of minor disagreements; and may not be able to handle somebody cancelling plans, or changing their mind about going through with a favour.
These people low in self esteem may instantly react, becoming enraged, filled with sarcasm, or begin to make accusations if they feel slighted, unappreciated, or treated as insignificant.
A lot of the time, paranoia, and low self- esteem attacks inhibit the traumatised person. They often imagine that other people are purposefully mistreating or ignoring them, when they aren’t.
This is what happens when the caregivers’ these children loved and trusted went ahead and destroyed the child’s perception of themselves, which this child now believes is real, and noticeable to everybody else.
Self esteem defined: what is it?
Self – esteem is linked to our perception of ourselves from an internal standpoint. Do we like ourselves? Or is the opposite true?
Children who like themselves are confident in their ability to achieve their goals, will step up and try something new, and know that they will be able to achieve the task in front of them – even if it appears difficult.
A child with good self-esteem is confident when trying out a new activity, trusts their own opinions, associates with children who are good for them, and is overall, very self-assured. This child believes in themselves.
Children with good self-esteem don’t need to ask for their parent’s approval in regard to every single decision they make. They trust themselves, and they know that they make a valuable contribution to the lives of their friends and family.
A child with a strong sense of self will forever have a secure foundation for their learning development.
Self-esteem: the basics
Self esteem is about liking yourself and who you are. Self-esteem is not about behaving in an overconfident manner. Instead, it is about believing in yourself and knowing who you are.
For children, self-esteem comes from knowing that they are loved, and that they belong to a loving family that values them. It also comes from being praised and encouraged in regard to the things that are important to them. Children with good self-esteem feel confident about the future.
Nurturing your child’s self esteem
Self is linked to a sense of security:
A sense of purpose
Encourage your child to make positive contributions
Children like to help with their parent’s projects. They like to know that their contribution to your creative projects, latest gardening project, or household chores means something to you – and that you value their input.
Your child will feel positive about decision making, and empowered to make, or influence decisions important to them, if they are trusted by their parent’s to do so. It is important that children feel that their independence, and self-esteem is promoted by their parents.
Purpose and routine
Teach your child that mistakes, failures, and setbacks are part and parcel of life.
A sense of competence and pride
Acknowledge your child’s competency, their problem solving skills, their ability to work internally on their sense of self, and all other positive attributes your child has.
Keep watch on their self-esteem
Keep an eye on your child. Watch for signs of bullying, developmental issues, learning struggles, and social problems. All of these things can affect your child’s self-esteem well into adult – hood if not dealt with in the early years.