Parents may worry about the challenges their child will face if they are highly sensitive, but psychologists say children with this trait can really thrive in the right environment.
A highly sensitive person is someone who processes things around them more deeply, both positive and negative.
The term “highly sensitive person” is said to have been coined in the 1990s by psychologist Elaine Aron, who also uses the scientific term “sensory processing sensitivity” to refer to it.
According to Aron, between about 15% and 20% of the population would be considered highly susceptible. Aron also debunked some of the negative assumptions associated with being highly sensitive, such as that people with this trait are more shy. In fact, she said that 30% of hypersensitive people are extroverts.
In his work on highly sensitive children in particular, Aron refers to research on a species of monkey with a genetic variation that makes them “tense” and more susceptible to stress.
“But when they were born to the most qualified mothers, that good motherhood meant they became exceptionally competent and often became leaders of their troops,” she explained.
Aron said humans share this genetic variation as well, saying it brings “many benefits: better memory for learned material, better decision-making, and overall better mental functioning.”
So how can parents use the qualities of a highly sensitive child to help them succeed?
“Structure and Boundaries”
Aron told CNBC via email that parents should first be aware that highly sensitive children are heavily influenced by their environments at home and at school. She suggested that parents should actively create a good environment for their children: “It’s not okay just to think that these kids will be like other kids and get away with it,” she said.
Aron said that permissive parenting therefore does not help very sensitive children. This is also known as indulgent parenting, where few guidelines and rules are imposed on the child.
However, she suggested that it’s about striking a balance, as kids with these traits “need some structure and boundaries, but not harsh punishments.”
Referring to other characteristics of highly sensitive children that parents should seek to encourage, Aron said that the fact that they tend to think deeply and observe attentively makes them “wonderfully creative.”
“With all these observations and considerations, they tend to be cautious, and parents shouldn’t apply too much pressure but balance that with encouragement if they think their child can be successful,” she said.
Verity Alexis, a child, community and educational psychologist, told CNBC in a phone call that it’s important for parents to encourage children with great sensitivity to develop self-awareness and not be ashamed of how they feel.
She explained that this parental monitoring can help children identify their feelings, so they can then internalize “a fairly robust internal working pattern in which they have an understanding of themselves.”
Child developmental psychologist Mina Minozzi has recommended that parents of children with highly sensitive traits reach out to their teachers to make sure they are “on the same page” when it comes to how best to help their child.
She also urged parents to avoid using labeled terms about their child, such as “shy” or “emotional.”
Instead, Minozzi suggested that parents should look for and reinforce the positive traits associated with high sensitivity, such as their empathy and powers of observation.
At the same time, Minozzi said parents should also “lead them with the side that tends to cause blockages or emotional dysregulation.”
One way to do this was to show them literature that tells stories of children with similar characteristics that help them “feel like they’re not alone.”
To verify: How parents can encourage children to follow their interests without being pushy