My Experience Parenting a Highly Sensitive Child
When my first daughter was born I looked forward to the usual things parents look forward to; her first words and steps, birthday parties, play dates, dance recitals, gymnastics, and her first day of school. A was as perfect as kids come; she has always slept well, rarely threw temper tantrums as a toddler, and always behaved well for others. In fact, she was so well behaved that I thought I was nailing this parenting thing! haha!
But I would soon realize that birthday parties, dance recitals, and play dates are not nearly as fun for A as they are for most children.
This post was originally written in 2016 & 2017 when my daughter was 5 & 6 years old. In the interest of protecting their privacy, I do not use my children’s full names. I use their first initials “A” and “L.” As an Amazon affiliate I earn from qualified purchases.
How do You Know if Your Child is Highly Sensitive?
Looking back, the first signs of A’s anxiety and sensitivity was when she was a baby. She would cry at almost every man she came in contact with (except her father) and the moment a stranger walked into our house. When A reached the toddler years she never climbed on things, got into things she wasn’t supposed to, or ran wildly around the house like a stereotypical toddler. In fact, having other children over who acted out or dumped all her toys around the house would completely overwhelm her. She would stay by my side watching quietly as the more spirited children took over her play space.
When we attended social gatherings A stayed attached to my side taking it all in until she felt comfortable enough with her surroundings to join in. Some days that would happen fairly quickly, and some days not at all. On those days I felt suffocated and frustrated, having a child attached to me at every moment.
I reached a point where I started avoiding gathering because it became to overwhelming and stressful for me. My husband was almost always working and I had little support to help me through those events.
When A turned three we had a birthday party at an indoor play center with all her friends from her daycare. A spent most of the time playing alone and retreated into a small room by herself to read books. That same summer I took her to the circus. As a first-time parent, I still hadn’t fully understood her sensitivity, and I wanted to experience the joy of the circus through her eyes. Boy was that a mistake! The circus tent was hot and crowded, and she sat there in complete fear of all the people and noise.
When I enrolled A in dance class at the local YMCA she would sit with me quietly until she was ready to join the class. Sometimes there were tears, and sometimes there weren’t, but A always has to join the class on her timeline.
When A was four, we were at an indoor play center when the fire alarm went off. There were no signs of fire or smoke and everyone slowly exited the building as a precaution, understanding there was no imminent danger. Not A though. She completely panicked covering her ears from the loud excruciating noise and screaming in fear of being engulfed by the non-existent flames. Despite my best effort, there was no reasoning with her once the fear took hold of her. It took her almost a year to return to that place where she had once had so much fun.
While I didn’t understand it at the time, I can now recognize all these experiences as signs of a very emotionally sensitive child. Perhaps you’ve seen some of these signs in your child?
Examples of High Sensitivity
Here are a few more examples of signs of a highly sensitive person.
- A can’t ride a bike, even with training wheels, as she’s too afraid of falling.
- She hates swimming lessons because she’s terrified to put her head under water.
- She is petrified of dogs, cats, and squirrels and every spring we have to adjust to bugs invading our space outdoors.
- She won’t eat popsicles because they are too cold, and she won’t wear jeans because they are uncomfortable.
- Her bath water is usually too hot or too cold.
- Forget about trying any new foods. If she hasn’t had it before, she doesn’t like it, period.
- A recently started a new pre-school and was scared to go to the bathroom because the toilet flushed so loudly. When they went out on the playground, she cried because she was so overwhelmed by children running around her.
- A was four years old before she would walk up and down the stairs without holding my hand because she was so afraid of falling. While other kids her age are running up and down the stairs, she’s carefully taking one step at the time, while holding on to the railing with two hands.
While others were enjoying their child experience sports, dance, or art class I would get anxiety wondering if she would participate that day. Would she cry? Would I be judged for how I handle it? This is when reality set in and I began to realize A’s childhood would not be so typical.
Everything would be a struggle and I needed to learn how to best support her…
Understanding the Highly Sensitive Child
Raising a highly sensitive kid 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.
High Sensitivity 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 high sensitivity and anxiety and whether or not all highly sensitive children have anxiety. In my limited research the best answer I’ve found is that the trait of being highly sensitive often causes anxiety, so in many cases, they are connected.
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.
That being said, my child 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 may not respond to you when you talk to her because she is uncomfortable talking to strangers, and she may not say “thank you” because she is too nervous.
How do You Deal with an Overly Sensitive Child?
Being a sensitive kid 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.
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 in order to grow, but I know these experiences will make her stronger.
Parenting a Highly Sensitive Child
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. 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 (sigh).
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. 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 first we need to get through elementary school…
Transitioning my Highly Sensitive Child to School
I have had my share of challenging parenting moments, but no one ever told me one of the hardest things I would have to do is send my child to Kindergarten. Kindergarten is such a monumental time in a child’s life and their first of many steps towards independence. I get emotional every time I think about it!
I don’t think I’ll ever forget dropping A off at school that first day. I had met with her teacher ahead of time and spoke to her about A’s sensitivity and anxiety, so she would be prepared to give her the support she needed on that first day. Our morning went well – A got ready like any other day and posed for her first day of school pictures with a big smile on her face. But we both drove to school with knots in our stomachs, unsure of what to expect. We walked hand in hand to the playground where we found her teacher, said hello, and met some of her new classmates. I should say that I said hello as A doesn’t talk to anyone until she is completely comfortable with them. This makes making new friends very challenging.
A sat down with hesitation in her eyes while we waited for the rest of the class to arrive. Once everyone was there they started to line up to go inside. That’s when her big beautiful eyes welled with tears. Her eyes are the window to her emotions and A’s teacher would later tell me that she always looks in her eyes to tell how she is feeling. It was at that point that the tears I had been struggling to hold back started slowly dripping down my face as I gave her a big hug and kiss and stepped aside. Moments later the principal came and said something to her, then took her hand and walked with her and the rest of her class into the building. She will never know the relief I felt knowing she was there to help her that day.
I was told by another well-intentioned person that I shouldn’t let my daughter see me cry that day, but I disagree. Showing your emotions to your child is okay. It shows you’re human and that it’s okay to cry, especially during big moments like this.
Being sad and anxious is okay, crying is not a sign of weakness, and I never want my children to feel that they can’t share their emotions.
I watched my baby take those first steps towards the school and realized the days of her young childhood were over. We could no longer get up and decide what exciting adventure we were going to go on that day, or just stay in our pajamas all day. I could no longer be there to protect her from the loud noises and new surroundings like I once could. And she would no longer be able to approach her school activities on her timeline. She would need to keep up with the class schedule, and I knew that was going to be hard.
Expect the Unexpected
No one told me the second day of school is usually harder than the first. Now that the excitement had worn off the nerves were coming out and A cried as I walked her to her class that second day. For several weeks she would wake up and tell me she didn’t want to go to school crying all the way there. Every day I would walk her to her classroom and her teacher would walk over and take her hand. I would force myself to walk away from my crying child, some days leaving in tears myself. I still get tears in my eyes as a write this.
Eventually, the tears during drop off stopped and she would leave my side without any trouble. Then one day she decided she could walk to her class by herself and just before Thanksgiving she was ready for me to drop her off in front of the school and enter on her own.
A few weeks after Christmas break she announced that she was ready to take the bus! Shock, excitement, and disappointment filled my heart. I was so happy about her new-found independence, but also heartbroken that she didn’t need me to drive her anymore.
On that first day that the bus picked her up she climbed on with confidence and waved at me with a big smile. Once again tears started streaming down my face knowing my baby had taken another big step.
It was such a relief to see A go to school with so much confidence, but about a month before the school year ended her anxiety returned. I was unprepared for it and confused about what was going on. I have since learned to expect the unexpected. Anxiety appears when you’re least prepared for it sometimes. A complained daily of pains in her legs and started crying about having to go to school again. I brought her to her doctor to ensure the pains in her legs were a source of her anxiety and she confirmed that it is very normal for anxiety to return at the end of the school year as they begin to prepare for another transition.
I spoke to her school counselor who helped support her by visiting the first-grade classrooms several times before the end of the year. That seemed to help the anxiety, but inside my heart continued to break and I couldn’t help but wonder if this was A’s normal. Would we constantly be going through this cycle during each transition to and from school?
Only time will tell, but A continues to gain strength, courage, and flexibility. I am confident that while she’ll always be a highly sensitive person, she is learning the tools to be successful in life.
Growth and Success
What a difference a year can make! A is in first grade and I no longer recognize that shy anxious child. She LOVES school, loves learning and impresses me every single day. Looking back, I thought I was going to spend the rest of my life helping A through these difficult transitions and I will, but I cannot believe the progress she has made. Last summer she went to two summer camps. She was nervous and shed tears on the first day of both camps, but she did it! She faced her fears, she did something she’d never done before, and she loved it!
Thanks to one of her teachers at the YMCA (who we will forever be grateful for) we found that A had a passion for theater. After trying ballet, swim, and gymnastics it was such a great feeling to finally see her do something that she got excited about and wanted to do. She took a two-week theater camp which included performing in The Little Mermaid at the end of the two weeks. I would never have expected her to get up on that stage, but she did it, and she was AMAZING! Once again, lots of emotions and tears from me that day!
When A went to first grade I wasn’t sure what to expect, but she transitioned relatively smoothly. We were really lucky to have an extremely nurturing, caring teacher who she connected with instantly and that has made a huge difference.
While A has become more comfortable at school, in groups, around loud noises, and at birthday parties, she continues to be and will always be highly sensitive. I’ve become more aware of how challenging that will be as she continues to get older, but every child has their challenges and understanding her sensitivities allows me to be better prepared to support her.
A’s sensitivities are becoming less about loud noises, uncomfortable clothing or temperatures. As she has more interaction with her peers, is beginning to form friendships, and becomes more involved in activities she is struggling more with her emotions and understanding them. A cries easily and sometimes seemingly for no reason at all. At times she can’t explain or understand her feelings, and it’s challenging for both of us. This happens almost daily, and it’s emotionally exhausting, however as she’s working on improving her coping skills she seems to be recovering quickly.
A continues to be extremely sensitive to pain and will scream and cry at the smallest injury or pull of her hair. She is very hard on herself and often gets nervous about not knowing how to do something at school. She has trouble standing up for herself and worries about getting someone in trouble if she talks to a teacher about it or me.
A is extremely jealous of her sister who also has her own set of complicated needs. Her sister is the complete opposite personality. She is extremely expressive and strong-willed therefore her emotions come out as strong fits of excitement or anger which is very overwhelming for A.
Parenting any child is exhausting, but a highly sensitive one is emotionally draining as I struggle to understand and support her. There are times when I lose my patience over her emotions and when I struggle to know if her feelings are real or if she’s trying to get attention. When you’re trying to cook dinner and you need to stop to console a child who is randomly crying it can become frustrating, but I continue to work on skills within myself to be more patient and supportive. As I’ve done this, I have been able to help her work through those feelings and articulate them.
I still get a lump in my throat every day as I watch A get on the bus. My heart continues to beam with pride as I think back to everything we have been through. I have always struggled with my confidence, and have feared that my lack of confidence will project onto her, but she has forced me to look inward and work on myself so I can be the best role model possible. She is my Why and the reason I work so hard to be the best version of myself.
A is my biggest accomplishment in life. I finally have something I am proud of, and that’s my beautiful, strong and brave child. She knows that she is strong, that she is capable, and that she is so loved. I can’t wait to see what amazing things she does and I will be here to support her and encourage her every step of the way.
Do you have a highly sensitive child? Comment below. I would love to hear from you!
Resources for Parents of Highly Sensitive Kids
Thankful Thoughts Gratitude Journal for Kids – I’m proud to share my children’s journals. These journals have helped my HSC acknowledge and express her feelings through writing and reflection.
Write Your Worries Away – A Journal to Write about Your Worries – This journal was a joint project with my daughter. I’m so excited she can use her experience to help other children.
Raising a Highly Sensitive Child by Elaine Aron – This book is what helped me better understand the trait and how to support my HSC. I recommend it to anyone raising a HSC.
Parents of Highly Sensitive Children Facebook Group – This is a private Facebook group run by Maureen Gaspari of thehighlysensitivechild.com. This is a great space to ask questions and share your concerns with other parents who can relate to the same struggles.
The Superkids Activity Guide by Dayna Abraham – This book is not written specifically for HSC, however, it has some amazing activities related to sensory challenges. Abraham lays this book out beautifully!
What to do when You Worry too Much by Dawn Huebner – If your child also struggles with anxiety this is a wonderful workbook to help work through worries.