Without meaning to, parents can have a way of making children feel as if something is wrong with them.
As parenting researchers, we’ve seen this happen often with highly sensitive kids. Many parents see sensitivity as a bad trait — that it makes us look overwhelmed, passive, or even weak — and discourage it with phrases like “Stop crying!” or “Shake it off!”
But psychologists and neuroscientists have found that, in the right environment, kids with highly sensitive brains have rare advantages.
The empathy advantage of highly sensitive kids
Not only do highly sensitive kids show more creativity, awareness and openness than less-sensitive kids, but they possess an underappreciated trait: empathy.
In one study, researchers had participants look at photos of people either smiling or looking sad. They found that sensitive people’s brains showed the highest level of empathic response.
Their brains also lit up more in areas related to action planning. This indicates that — just as sensitive people frequently self-report — they could not watch a stranger in pain without feeling a strong desire to help.
And since sensitive kids are more affected by their experiences than their peers, they get more out of support, training, and encouragement. This boost effect makes them high achievers.
Does your child have a highly sensitive brain?
Here are the most common signs of highly sensitive kids:
- They notice subtle details, such as a teacher’s new outfit or when furniture has been moved.
- Other people’s moods really affect them. They easily absorb emotions from others, taking on their feelings as if they were their own.
- They have a hard time shaking intense emotions like anger or worry.
- They complain when things feel off (eg, scratchy bedsheets, itchy clothing labels, tight waistbands).
- They feel stressed and fatigued in loud, busy environments, like gyms or perfume counters because of the strong odors.
- They hate feeling rushed and prefer to do things more carefully.
- They respond better to gentle correction rather than to harsh discipline.
- They make insightful comments and seem wise for their age.
- They have a clever 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, like when someone sneaks up on them.
If any of these observations resonate, remember that it’s a positive thing. Highly sensitive kids have an entirely different approach to their environment, and that is a strength.
How parents can help sensitive kids thrive
1. Set expectations ahead of time.
Sensitive kids need time to think things through, and setting expectations gives them a 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’re visiting grandma in the nursing home. We’ll need to use inside voices and calm bodies because some people there don’t feel well.”
2. Practice gentle discipline.
Because sensitive kids feel things acutely, their feelings become more easily hurt, and they can take correction personally.
So rather than putting them in time-out, create a calm-down spot with comfort items (eg, stuffed animals, a weighted blanket) where they can go if they have trouble regulating 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’re already teaching your kids emotional regulation skills every day by modeling how you handle your emotions, whether it’s work stress or your child’s meltdowns.
The more intentional you can be about this, the better the example you set.
4. Advocate for them.
Talk about your kid’s sensitivity with their teachers at the start of the school year, before any potential conflicts or misperceptions come up.
And when your child uses their sensitivity (eg, applying their imagination, showing empathy for a friend going through a tough time), tell them how proud you are of them.
5. Get curious about their world.
Set aside time to talk and play with them one-on-one, separate from their siblings.
Ask open-ended questions. For example, “What was hard for you today?” will create more room for conversation than, “Did you have a bad day?”
Try to understand what your child experiences in their body and through their five senses. Their answers might surprise you.
Jenn Granneman is the co-founder of Sensitive Refuge 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, Washington Post and BBC. Follow here on Twitter spirit Instagram.
Andre Sólo is the co-author of “Sensitive: The Hidden Power of the Highly Sensitive Person in a Loud, Fast, Too-Much World.” His work has been featured in Psychology Today, Quartz, Washington Post, Vogue, MSNBC and The Telegraph.