The new mother from a rural area near Burlington, Vt., noticed that her toddler’s behavior didn’t seem to fit the descriptions in the child-rearing books she was reading.
Her daughter would burst into tears when she heard a loud bird call or a person singing out of tune, or if she wore scratchy clothes. And she always demanded to be carried by her mother and never left alone.
These constant demands were exhausting. The mother worried that there might be something wrong. Then she came across a book that described what psychologists increasingly call “the highly sensitive child.”
“The description fit perfectly. It helped me to realize that things are going to be a little different with her and I need to accept that,” she said.
She asked to be identified only by her first name, Alicia, because she doesn’t want her daughter, now 4, to be saddled with the label “highly sensitive” for the rest of her life.
Being sensitive is often viewed as a weakness in our culture, which values more assertive traits. Yet Alicia has come to look on her child’s sensitivity as a gift — though it is clearly not without its challenges.
Sensitive children are keen observers of the world, but tend to get overstimulated. They often live intense inner lives and are highly creative, but they are wary of new situations and of people they don’t know.
They also easily intuit the moods of others and feel their pain. This empathy draws their peers and sometimes even adults to confide in sensitive children. Later in life, they often go into helping professions like health care and counseling, where their natural gifts are put to good use.
Roughly one in five children are highly sensitive, according to the research psychologist Elaine Aron, whose 1996 book “The Highly Sensitive Person” popularized the term. Dr. Aron developed a 23-question test, which is often used to help determine whether or not a child is highly sensitive.
Sensitivity is an inborn temperament, she says, that comes hard-wired and remains with highly sensitive people for their whole lives. Michael Pluess, a professor of developmental psychology at Queen Mary University of London, has found that our life experiences, particularly those early in life, also have a big impact.
“We found that about 50 percent of differences in sensitivity between people are due to genetic factors, the other half by environment, including the prenatal environment,” Dr. Pluess said.
He said people fall roughly into three groups: highly sensitive, whom he calls “orchids,” which are beautiful flowers that need very particular environments to thrive; hardy “dandelions,” which can grow virtually anywhere; and a middle group — the largest — “tulips,” which fall somewhere between the two extremes of the sensitivity scale.
“The idea is not that one is better and one is worse,” Dr. Pluess explained, “but that these are different personalities, each with their own unique strengths and weaknesses.”
He added: “It is important to communicate consistently to the child that their sensitivity isn’t a problem, that it’s a strength so that they can develop a healthy sense of what they can do well.”
He has found that highly sensitive people benefit more than less sensitive people from positive experiences. In a 2015 study of adolescent girls in Britain, he found that those who were highly sensitive proved to be more responsive to therapy for depression than those who were less sensitive.
But the flip side is that highly sensitive people are also more easily traumatized by painful experiences as children and sometimes by a simple lack of adult understanding.
Tracy Cooper, a researcher at Baker University in Baldwin City, Kan., who identifies as a highly sensitive person himself, says the brains of such people have unique characteristics. Brain imaging studies have shown that they “have higher levels of activity in the mirror neurons, which has to do with empathy and socialization, and there is more connectivity across different segments of the brain, which informs creativity,” he said.
Their emotional openness can make highly sensitive children want to escape from feeling overwhelmed at parties and family gatherings. They can also have trouble adjusting to the bustle of the classroom, as Dr. Cooper remembers when he was “that weird kid in the back who is drawing pictures and seems totally tuned out, you know all the answers, but you’ll never raise your hand.”
For those sensitive children who tend to get overwhelmed at school and in other group activities, the pandemic has offered a welcomed respite, giving them some breathing space “to explore, create, read and think on their own,” Dr. Cooper said. Others, however, actually prefer routines like attending school, he added, because “the predictable structure helps alleviate their anxieties about what to expect.”
In general, Dr. Cooper believes that many sensitive children have adjusted extremely well to the current restrictions. “Sensitive children may be incredibly resilient, adaptable, and able to digest circumstances better than some adults,” he observed.
Research has shown that boys are highly sensitive in roughly the same numbers as girls. But boys who violate cultural norms of masculinity may “suffer more shame and rejection, even violence and anger directed toward them” at school, according to Dr. Cooper.
It is important to honor sensitive boys’ greater need to spend down time alone, he added, and not to force them into competitive activities like team sports if they choose to opt out.
Teachers who are not familiar with high sensitivity sometimes mistake it for other conditions, including social phobia, autism spectrum disorder or attention deficit hyperactivity disorder.
Sensitivity is also sometimes confused with being shy. While the majority of highly sensitive children are introverts, roughly 30 percent are extroverts, despite their tendency to get easily overstimulated in social situations.
“Educators are often surprised to hear about how stressful it is for these students to be in a school-based setting,” said Candy Crawford, a therapist who conducts workshops with schools in the Chicago area to help staff members understand the special needs of highly sensitive people. “I tell them that when these kids are feeling anxious, they should be allowed to stand up, walk around, get a drink of water.”
When Dr. Judith Orloff, a clinical psychiatrist at the University of California, Los Angeles, was growing up, she couldn’t go into shopping malls or crowded places without leaving feeling anxious or depressed. Adults told her to “toughen up.”
It was the wrong advice, she says. “Tell your sensitive children it’s likely they’re picking up another person’s emotions. Teach them to take a few deep breaths, visualize a relaxing scene, calm down,” Dr. Orloff advised.
Sometimes you simply need to remove sensitive children from situations that distress them, she said: “Help them accept their beautiful abilities and not to be overstimulated, rather than suppressing their traits with antidepressants or anti-anxiety drugs.”
Alane Freund, a family therapist in San Rafael, Calif., has pioneered a form of equine assisted therapy to help highly sensitive teenagers better appreciate their own traits. Horses are highly sensitive by nature. “A horse can sense your muscle tension from the far side of the corral,” Ms. Freund said. “They know if your breathing changes, they can smell your perspiration. That extreme sensitivity is how they stay alive in the wild.”
Like horses, highly sensitive children will tend to enter new situations more slowly. “Horses model for the children that caution is healthy,” Ms. Freund said. “You don’t know these people, you’ve got to get the lay of the land first.”
Recently, she received a text message from a highly sensitive 16-year-old client saying, “I suck at making friends.” Ms. Freund wrote back: “You don’t suck at making friends. You make friends in a different way, you are actually better at it because you take time, choose the right person, forge deeper friendships in the end.”
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