Unwittingly, parents may have a way of making children feel that something is wrong with them.
As parenting researchers, we have seen this happen often with very sensitive children. Many parents see sensitivity as a bad trait – that it makes us seem overwhelmed, passive or even weak – and discourage it with sentences like “Stop crying!” or “Shake it!”
But psychologists and neuroscientists have found that, given the right environment, children with highly sensitive brains have rare advantages.
The empathy benefit of highly sensitive children
Not only very sensitive children show more creativity, awareness and openness than less sensitive children, but they possess an underestimated trait: empathy.
In study, the researchers asked participants to look at pictures of smiling or sad people. They found that the brains of sensitive people showed the highest level of empathic response.
Their brains also became more enlightened in areas related to action planning. This indicates that – just as sensitive people often declare themselves – they could not watch a stranger suffer without feeling a strong desire to help.
And because sensitive children are more affected by their experiences than their peers, they benefit more from support, training, and encouragement. This boost effect makes them very efficient.
Does your child have a very sensitive brain?
Here are the most common signs of highly sensitive children:
- They notice subtle details, like a teacher’s new outfit or moving furniture.
- Other people’s moods really affect them. They easily absorb the emotions of others, assuming their feelings as if they were their own.
- They find it difficult to shake off intense emotions like anger or worry.
- They complain when something goes wrong (eg, itchy sheets, itchy clothing tags, tight belts).
- They feel stressed and tired in noisy and busy environments, such as gymnasiums or perfumery counters because of strong odors.
- They hate feeling rushed and prefer to do things more carefully.
- They respond better to gentle correction than harsh discipline.
- They make insightful comments and seem wise for their age.
- They have a smart sense of humor.
- They read people well and can infer, with surprising accuracy, what they are thinking or feeling.
- They refuse to eat certain foods because of the smells or textures.
- They startle easily at sudden noises, such as when someone sneaks up on them.
If any of these observations resonate, remember that it is a positive thing. Highly sensitive children have a totally different approach to their environment, and that’s a strength.
How Parents Can Help Sensitive Children Thrive
1. Set your expectations in advance.
Sensitive children need time to think, and setting expectations gives them choice: they know what will happen if they meet those expectations, and they know there will be consequences if they don’t. .
It can be as simple as saying, “Today we are visiting Grandma at the nursing home. We will need to use inner voices and calm bodies because some people are not feeling well.”
2. Practice gentle discipline.
Because sensitive children feel things acutely, their feelings become more easily hurt and they can take the correction personally.
So rather than putting them on hiatus, create a quiet place with comfort items (eg, stuffed animals, weighted blanket) where they can go if they have trouble controlling their emotions.
After the discipline, give them positive affirmations and reassure them of how much you love them.
3. Be their emotional coach.
As a parent, you already teach your children emotional regulation skills every day by modeling how you deal with your emotions, whether it’s stress at work or your child’s meltdowns.
The more intentional you can be about this, the better the example you set.
4. Defend them.
Discuss your child’s sensitivity with their teachers early in the school year, before potential conflicts or misperceptions arise.
And when your child uses his sensitivity (for example, appealing to his imagination, showing empathy for a friend who is going through a difficult time), tell him how proud you are of him.
5. Be curious about their world.
Set aside time to talk and play with them one-on-one, separated from their siblings.
Ask open-ended questions. For example, “What was difficult for you today?” will create more room for conversation than “Have you had a bad day?”
Try to understand what your child is experiencing in their body and through their five senses. Their answers might surprise you.
Jenn Granneman is the co-founder of Sensitive Haven and co-author of “Sensitive: The Hidden Power of the Highly Sensitive Person in a Loud, Fast, Too Much World.” She has been featured in The New York Times, The Washington Post and the BBC. Follow her on Twitter And instagram.
Andre Solo is the co-author of “Sensitive: The Hidden Power of the Highly Sensitive Person in a Loud, Fast, Too Much World.” Her work has been featured in Psychology Today, Quartz, Washington Post, Vogue, MSNBC and The Telegraph.