Becoming a parent can equally be the most beautiful but also frightening and worrying experience, especially when we have concerns about our children that we can’t quite make sense of. We can (barely) cope with coughs and runny noses, vomiting bugs or chickenpox but sometimes it’s the more subtle things that can worry us most.
Our child might be a very fussy eater, have restless nights with little sleep, have trouble making friends or be extremely shy. Some children mightn’t be able tolerate certain materials on their skin, display rigidity and perfectionism or might get upset frequently without any (to us) obvious triggers. There can be so many reasons behind our children’s behaviours and obviously it is advisable to seek professional advice should we have serious concerns about our children’s health and well-being.
It is only quite recently, probably a couple of years ago, that I came across the terms “Highly Sensitive Child” and “Highly Sensitive Person” (HSP) when I was doing some reading and research looking for answers myself regarding my own two daughters. These terms were coined by one of the main pioneers in this field, Dr Elaine Aron, a clinical psychologist and a HSP herself. There is now firm evidence based on extensive research, that about 15-20% of the human population carry this, what is now known, genetic trait. Like many others, I had never heard of these terms being used as an actual “diagnosis”, rather than just a description of a child or person’s behaviours or characteristics. It was fascinating and eye opening to say the least to learn about this new (to me) invaluable information and it has certainly given me many answers and insights into the concerns I had/have about my children.
Both of my daughters (6 and 4 years old) were “very sensitive” from the start. They both had severe “colic” and reflux and could only tolerate finely pureed food until they were well over one year old. We all suffered from sleep deprivation as both girls were very bad sleepers for the first four years of their lives often keeping us up for hours in the middle of the night.
Both girls have sensory processing difficulties, even though they manifest very differently in them. My older daughter (who is diagnosed with autism also) gets overstimulated quite easily, certain sounds and smells can get overpowering and this can show in repetitive behaviours, rigid body movements, meltdown or the need to escape the situation. She is very “fussy” about the clothes and shoes she will wear and often she will refuse to wear items that “just don’t feel right” on her skin. My younger daughter is very sensitive to bright lights and scents and she will often ask to wear her sunglasses even inside the house for example.
Both girls are very aware of their surrounds and pick up on moods or small details in their environment. Crowds and general busyness, especially in unfamiliar environments, make them uncomfortable and shy and neither of them enjoy the spotlight on them in any kind of performance such as Christmas plays for example. Through the years many people have remarked on their use of language and we ourselves had noticed that both girls use language that is quite advanced especially in the vocabulary they use. It’s not only the vocabulary though, but also the content of conversations in which they often display unusually deep concern, awareness and emotion, which can be difficult to deal with as a parent. All we want is for our children to be happy and careless rather than already carrying the weight of the world on their shoulders.
I am a teacher for children with autism so I am quite familiar with sensory processing difficulties in the context of Autism Spectrum Disorder. As mentioned above it was through my own concern for my children though, and something I couldn’t quite put my finger on, that I did some more research and came across Dr. Elaine Aron’s book “The Highly Sensitive Child – Helping our children thrive when the world overwhelms them”, which presents the following checklist:
Is your child highly sensitive? A parent’s questionnaire
Please answer each question as best as you can. Answer TRUE if it is true or at least moderately true of your child, or was for a substantial time in the past. Answer FALSE if it has not been very true of your child, or was never true.
- startles easily
- complains about scratchy clothing, seams in socks, or labels against his/her skin.
- doesn’t usually enjoy big surprises.
- learns better from a gentle correction than strong punishment.
- seems to read my mind.
- uses big words for his/her age.
- notices the slightest unusual odor.
- has a clever sense of humor.
- seems very intuitive.
- is hard to get to sleep after an exciting day.
- doesn’t do well with big changes.
- wants to change clothes if wet or sandy.
- asks lots of questions.
- is a perfectionist.
- notices the distress of others.
- prefers quiet play.
- asks deep, thought-provoking questions.
- is very sensitive to pain.
- is bothered by noisy places.
- notices subtleties (something that’s been moved, a change in a person’s appearance, etc.)
- considers if it is safe before climbing high.
- performs best when strangers aren’t present.
- feels things deeply.
If you answered TRUE to thirteen or more of the questions, your child is probably highly sensitive. But no psychological test is so accurate that you should base how you treat your child on it. If only one or two questions are true of your child, but they are extremely true, you might also be justified in calling your child highly sensitive.
I can highly recommend Dr. Aron’s book for any parent or educator concerned about a child presenting with some of these traits. On her website www.hsperson.com Dr. Elaine Aron and her team give a lot more background information, helpful advice and research updates not just for our children but also us “grown-up” HSPs.
I remember going through the checklist mumbling to myself: True, true, true…! It was quite a relief to be able to make sense, pardon the pun, of some of my concerns. When we as parents know the causes of our children’s symptoms or behaviours of any kind, it makes it so much easier to understand them and find some solutions or at least explanations. It might also give important information and suggestions to the professionals (teachers, therapists, trainers, coaches etc.) working with our children, which could contribute greatly to positive progress and appropriate interventions.
Once we can pinpoint certain sensitivities it often just takes small changes to the environment or our own routines, like turning down the volume of music, decluttering a room, buying comfortable cotton clothing, reducing the amount of spoken language or respecting our children’s preferences to help them feel calmer and more comfortable.
For more information on mindful parenting and education and a practical everyday approach that can be applied by anybody and tailored to your individual circumstances take a look at my new book “Roots and Wings – Childhood needs a revolution”, a handbook for parents and educators to promote positive change based on the principles of mindfulness.
Thanks so much for your interest and support! 😉 Alex
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