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.