Some kids are highly sensitive — here are some ways to help them thrive
Parents may be worried about the challenges that their child will face if they’re highly sensitive, but psychologists say that in the right environment kids that possess this trait can actually thrive.
A highly sensitive person is someone who processes things around them, both positive and negative, more deeply.
The term “highly sensitive person” was said to have been coined by psychologist Elaine Aron in the 1990s, who also refers to it by the scientific term “sensory-processing sensitivity.”
According to Aron, between around 15% and 20% of the population could be identified as highly sensitive. Aron has also debunked some of the negative assumptions that are associated with being highly sensitive, such as people with this trait being more shy. In fact, she said that 30% of highly-sensitive people are extroverts.
In her work on highly sensitive children specifically, Aron referred to research on a species of monkeys with a genetic variation that made them “uptight” and being more easily susceptible to stress.
“But when given at birth to the most skilled mothers, this good mothering led them to become unusually competent, often becoming the leaders of their troops,” she explained.
Aron said that humans have also been found to share this genetic variation, arguing that it “bestows many benefits: Improved memory of learned material, better decision making, and overall better mental functioning.”
So how can parents harness the qualities of a highly sensitive child to help them succeed?
‘Structure and boundaries’
Aron told CNBC via email that firstly parents should be aware that highly sensitive children are deeply affected by their environment both at home and at school. She suggested that parents need to be active in creating a good environment for their kids: “It is not okay to just figure these kids will be like other kids and manage,” she said.
Aron said that permissive parenting, therefore, doesn’t help highly sensitive children. This is also known as indulgent parenting, where few guidelines and rules are placed on the child.
However, she suggested it was about creating a balance, as children with these traits “need some structure and boundaries, but not harsh punishment.”
In terms of other qualities in highly sensitive children that parents should try to encourage, Aron said the fact that they tend to think deeply and observe carefully makes them “wonderfully creative.”
“With all this observing and thinking, they tend to be cautious, and parents should not push too much, but balance that with supportive encouragement when they think their child can succeed,” she said.
Steer clear of labels
Verity Alexis, a child, community and educational psychologist told CNBC on a phone call that it was key for parents to encourage highly sensitively kids to develop self-awareness and to be unashamed about what they feel.
She explained that this oversight from parents can help children to identify what they feel so that they then can “internalize quite a robust internal working model where they have an understanding of themselves.”
Child development psychologist Mina Minozzi recommended that parents of children with highly sensitive traits get in touch with their schoolteachers to ensure they’re “on the same page” about how to best help their child.
She also urged parents to steer clear of using labeled terms on their child, like “shy” or “emotional.”
Instead, Minozzi suggested that parents pay attention to and amplify the positive qualities that come with being highly sensitive, such as their empathy and observation skills.
At the same time, Minozzi said that parents should also be “guiding them with the side that tends to cause a block or is causing them any emotional dysregulation.”
One way to do this was to show them literature that tell stories of children with similar qualities to them, which will help make them “feel like they’re not alone.”