This is part 2 in my series on Raising a Highly Sensitive Child – Click here to read PART 1
In the interest of protecting their privacy, I do not use my children’s full names. I use their first initials “A” and “L.”
Raising any child is hard and raising a highly sensitive one comes with its own set of challenges and blessings. It wasn’t until “A” was four that I truly began to understand just how sensitive she is, the challenges she would face going forward, and how to best support her. I first began to understand highly sensitive children (HSC) better when I found the book The Highly Sensitive Child by Elaine Aron. Many parents of HSC go through a process of trying to diagnose their child wondering if they have sensory issues, anxiety, ADHD, etc. There is very little information out there about highly sensitive children, and this book gave me hope and understanding.
HSC isn’t a diagnosis but rather a personality trait that only 15-20% of the population experience. In addition to being a highly sensitive child, “A” also has general anxiety disorder which can make life even more challenging. I’ve questioned the difference between HSC and anxiety and whether or not all highly sensitive children have anxiety. In my limited research, it seems that the best answer I’ve found is that the trait of being highly sensitive often causes anxiety, so in some cases, they are one in the same.
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You may wonder why I’m bringing awareness to a personality trait. We all have different personality traits but as 80-85% of the population cannot identify with being highly sensitive our society does not favor highly sensitive people. Our society often views sensitivity as a weakness. However, highly sensitive people make amazing nurses, teachers, and bosses (among other things). They can be amazing leaders and friends and are great listeners, compassionate and empathetic.
However, my HSC may be unable to come to your kids birthday party at the local jump park as she will be completely overwhelmed. She may be unable to play at your house if you have a dog or go to the local park because someone is letting their dog run free. She also may not respond to you when you talk to her because she doesn’t know you and isn’t comfortable talking to you. She may not say “thank you” because she is too nervous to talk to you, not because she isn’t thankful or polite.
A Blessing and a curse
Being an HSC is a blessing and a curse. On the one hand, I hit the jackpot with my child; while others are chasing after their children and telling them not to get into things, I’m sitting back enjoying arts and crafts and deep conversation. “A” is compassionate and caring. She notices everything going on around her and approaches everything she does with caution. She thinks everything through, looks before crossing the road and holds my hand wherever we go. I rarely have to worry about her safety, because she will never put herself in danger and always make sure I’m nearby.
But, she is extremely sensitive to loud noises, tastes, textures, large groups, or a small cut on her finger. She struggles with new places and transitions, and it’s impossible for me to protect her from those things.
As a parent, it’s heart-wrenching to watch your child struggle with every day things like flushing a toilet, and it’s even harder to know that everyone does not understand how to best support her. When we sign her up for any new activity I have to wonder how the teacher will approach her. Some will ignore her, some will push her too hard, and some will gently approach and encourage her, allowing her to join the activity when she’s ready.
Many people try to give well-intentioned advice on how we should force her to try foods she doesn’t like or toughen her up. What they don’t understand is that trying new food is complete torture for “A” and trying to toughen up a child who is sensitive is ignoring their feelings and creating problems for the future. I can feel the judgments of those who don’t understand, and it breaks my heart knowing that “A” may always face these judgments as our culture does not favor highly sensitive people.
As “A” gets older and gains more independence, I know she will not always receive the individual attention she sometimes needs. I also know that part of growing up is learning to adapt and working through these challenges on her own. As she gets older, she may struggle more because mom will not always be there. It hurts my heart knowing I have to allow her to struggle to grow.
Pushing her outside her comfort zone
While I did stop attending some social gatherings for a while, I have always continued to involve “A” in birthday parties, activities, and play dates for the most part. I have to know when to push her outside her comfort zone, and when not to. I have to teach her to face her fears and tolerate uncomfortable situations, instead of hiding behind them, and I need to model courage and confidence.
Most importantly, I need to acknowledge her feelings and show her empathy, patience, and understanding. This can sometimes be difficult as a parent who is not highly sensitive. So often I see people who say things like “you’re fine,” “don’t cry,” “there’s nothing to be scared of.” I used to say those things too. But an HSC is scared, is not fine, and feels like they need to cry. They need us to say things like “I can see you’re nervous, I would be nervous too,” “I’m here for you,” “you can let me know when you’re ready.” With these words in mind, I continue to push and encourage “A” to be brave and strong. I also encourage her to feel everything she feels and support her through her emotions.
Every day is a learning experience, and I often wish I had done things differently earlier on. I wish I had understood her sensitivity sooner and I wish I could better relate to her feelings. Sometimes I’m not as patient as I should be and I instantly feel guilty. But, I’m human.
As Aron notes in her book, there are many advantages to not being a highly sensitive person raising a highly sensitive one. I can better push her outside of her comfort zone instead of letting her hide behind her fears, as I don’t easily relate. I’m also better able to speak up and advocate for my child as someone who is not highly sensitive, and I can provide grounding and balance by responding with calmness instead of emotions.
“A” always keeps me on my toes as I continue to learn how to support and encourage her and I anticipate it will become even more challenging as she gets older and enters the teen years. But, at least I am aware and can be somewhat prepared.