Almost all of the families who reach out to me for help have highly sensitive children (HSC.) These children are wired to process and react to their experiences in the world more deeply than other children, and they are often misunderstood. They are amazing kids who tend to be fierce and feisty, persistent and passionate. They are incredibly insightful and empathetic. But because of their intensity, they are also prone to having more challenges in adapting to life’s expectations and limits. Some of the most common, that parents in my practice struggle to understand, are detailed below. When they understand the root cause of these often confusing and triggering behaviors, they are able to provide the love and support that nurture their HSC's incredible strengths while helping them cope with everyday challenges.
10 habits of highly sensitive children
1. They experience emotional extremes. HS children are wired to register their feelings and experiences in the world more deeply than other children. Parents often describe their HS children as being either ecstatic or enraged (“slaughterhouse screams” has been used by several parents to describe their children’s rage)—with no middle register. They live at the extremes, making irrational exclamations, such as, “I NEVER get to sit on mommy’s lap”, when in reality, nine out of ten times this child occupies that coveted space while his easy-going sibling accepts the sidelines.
2. They have bigger reactions to sensory input. Children who are highly sensitive, emotionally, are also likely to be more sensitive to sensory input. They experience sights, sounds, tastes, smells and/or textures more intensely. They may become afraid of public bathrooms because the flusher is too jarring and loud. They may reject foods that have strong tastes and smells. They may throw a huge fit if their favorite, comfy sweatpants aren’t available. They are often highly tuned in to the way things look and get uncomfortable when they don’t appear as expected. For example a little girl I am working with now insists that her mom only wear her hair down and gets very upset when she puts it in a hair clip. They feel bombarded with sensations they can't manage effectively which can amplify their emotional reactions.
3. They are more prone to meltdowns. Because of their sensitivity, HS children are triggered to experience stress more quickly. They get overwhelmed by their big emotions and outsized reactions to sensory input which naturally results in more frequent and intense meltdowns.
4. They are keenly tuned in to everyone and everything. HS children are “processors.” Their brains never turn off. They keenly focus on and analyze everything. As one parent explains: “Sasha notices the second the tone changes between me and Mitchell (my husband) and will try to intervene. She gets between us and commands: ‘Stop this right now! No more talking! Daddy you need to kiss mommy.’”
It’s like they don’t have an internal filter. This makes them extremely insightful and empathetic. But it also means they get overwhelmed more easily as they are absorbing more than they can handle.
5. They have a more intense need for control and can be rigid and inflexible. To try to gain control of a world that can feel overwhelming, HS kids come up with fixed ideas and expectations about how things should be to make daily life more manageable. Dictating where people will sit, how they wear their hair, what color bowl their cereal should come in, what clothes they will and will not wear, or how close the chicken can be to the carrots on their dinner plate—seemingly irrational demands—are all coping mechanisms HS children use to control an environment that otherwise feels out of control. The more out of control kids feel on the inside, the more controlling they become on the outside.
6. They are more fearful and cautious in new situations. When HS children enter a new situation—be it a classroom, a birthday party, or swim class—their wheels are turning. They wonder: What is this place? What will happen here? Who are these people? What can I expect from them? Will they like me? Will I be safe? Will I be good at whatever is expected of me here? This constant analysis of their environment makes HS children extremely bright and insightful. But it can also be overwhelming and make them more prone to anxiety, especially in new situations. To cope, they fiercely cling to their comfort zone, which means they often resist anything new. They tend to have a harder time separating from their parents. It takes them longer to adapt when they start childcare or preschool. They refuse to go to soccer or swimming, even when they love these activities.
7. They tend to have a lower tolerance for frustration. HS children tend to experience more distress and give up more easily when they confront a challenging task. The natural discomfort we all experience, when in that space where we are working on but haven’t yet mastered a new skill, is intolerable to them. This makes it hard for them to muscle through these moments, for example, when learning to ride a bike or think through how to keep their block tower from falling.
8. They are prone to perfectionism and have a very hard time losing. Highly sensitive (HS) children have a tendency to be perfectionists. When they can’t do something exactly as their brain is telling them it should be, they experience it as a loss of control which is very uncomfortable and hard to tolerate. They also are triggered to feel shame more easily—to feel like a “failure.” This is also why losing is so hard for HS kids.
9. They have a hard time tolerating being corrected. Even seemingly benign directions are perceived as personal indictments, not as helpful guidance you are offering. Their shame may result in laughing, averting their gaze, getting angry, or running away. These are all coping mechanisms that provide protection and relief from a flood of difficult emotions.
10. They are more self-conscious and easily slighted. HS children have a tendency to become preoccupied with how others see them. They get very uncomfortable when any attention is called to them, even when parents or other adults are saying complimentary things. They are sensitive to feeling scrutinized or assessed. That’s why they are particularly uncomfortable with praise—as counterintuitive as that may seem. They know this means they are being evaluated and absorb and react to the pressure.
HS children tend to take things more personally. They are also inclined to misinterpret other’s actions. They filter their experiences through a victim mindset, as if they are primed and sometimes on a hair trigger to be hurt in some way. This can make peer and sibling interactions challenging.
Of course, not all HS children are going to have all of these traits, and many kids who aren’t highly sensitive will struggle to some degree with these challenges.
To learn about ways to sensitively support HSC's check out these blogs on Psychology Today.
Because of their sensitivity, HS kids are more prone to anxiety and other mental health challenges. If your child's behaviors are interfering in her ability to engage in healthy relationships with others or to function effectively at home and school, it is important to seek professional help.
Facebook image: LightField Studios/Shutterstock
Lerner, C. (2021). Why is my child in charge?: A roadmap to end power struggles, increase cooperation, and find joy in parenting young children. Rowman & Littlefield.
They are often deeply empathic, intuitive, and good at reading others. They are highly observant, thoughtful, and intentional. They think about, process, and feel things deeply. Highly sensitive children also may become overstimulated by their environment or by having a busy schedule.What causes a child to be overly sensitive? ›
Highly sensitive children are wired to process and react to their experiences in the world more deeply than other children. A highly sensitive child is very attuned to their environment, experiences, relationships, and expectations. A child's high sensitivity is about their temperament.What are some HSP traits list? ›
HSPs are known to be highly observant, intuitive, thoughtful, compassionate, empathetic, conscientious, loyal, and creative. In fact, managers consistently rate people with higher sensitivity as their top contributors.Do kids grow out of high sensitivity? ›
High sensitivity as a feature of temperament, i.e. resulting from the structure of the nervous system, does not change significantly as the child grows up. What we can modify are habits, behaviors, consciously seeking or avoiding certain situations.Are highly sensitive children gifted? ›
Many gifted children are highly sensitive individuals. 1 They may take things personally and become upset by words and deeds that other children may easily ignore or get over quickly.How do you discipline a highly sensitive child? ›
- Accept Their Sensitivity. ...
- Provide Downtime. ...
- Set Limits. ...
- Praise Their Efforts. ...
- Provide Rewards. ...
- Teach Feeling Words. ...
- Teach Problem-Solving. ...
- Use Logical Consequences.
- Respect your sensitive child's feelings. ...
- Give your child control over reactions. ...
- Point out the “wrong look.” ...
- Suggest replacement actions. ...
- Practice different tones of voice. ...
- Teach your child a “so what?” look.
A child with ADHD, for example, may display impulsivity in response to an overwhelming environment, but a sensitive child would more likely pause and reflect before taking action. Brain activity also delineates the difference between the two.Is high sensitivity a form of autism? ›
While there is certainly a major overlap in sensory processing experiences of both autistic and highly sensitive individuals, specifically sensitivity to sensory information, this does not mean they are the same thing.Is a highly sensitive child a disorder? ›
Being highly sensitive isn't a disorder or mental health problem, it's just a personality trait. It's also more common than you might think! Dr. Aron estimates that around 15-20% of people qualify as highly sensitive.
HSP isn't a disorder or a condition, but rather a personality trait that's also known as sensory-processing sensitivity (SPS).Do HSP have high emotional intelligence? ›
Most highly sensitive people display rare strengths in key areas of emotional intelligence, also known as emotional quotient (EQ) — the ability to recognize and understand emotions in themselves and others. These strengths including self-awareness and social-awareness.What are the 6 types of HSP? ›
Learn the 6 Sensitivity Types: Mental, Emotional, Physical, Chemical, Social & Energetic.Can HSP lack empathy? ›
Also, some empaths have profound spiritual and intuitive experiences—with animals, nature—which aren't usually associated with highly sensitive people. Being a highly sensitive person and an empath are not mutually exclusive: One can be both, and many highly sensitive people are also empaths.Does high sensitivity run in families? ›
For example, we know that sensitivity seems to run in families – if someone had one highly sensitive parent, they are more likely to be highly sensitive. However, this doesn't mean we've found any specific genes that are linked to sensitivity.Can childhood trauma cause hypersensitivity? ›
In a word, yes. As highly sensitive people, our nervous systems are more finely tuned than those of non-HSPs. This means we respond to all stimuli in a stronger way, including traumatic experiences.Are highly intelligent kids more emotional? ›
Giftedness has an emotional as well as intellectual component. Intellectual complexity goes hand in hand with emotional depth. Just as gifted children's thinking is more complex and has more depth than other children's, so too are their emotions more complex and more intense.Is highly sensitive a gift or curse? ›
Sensitivity is a gift, not a curse. The ability to tune into the world around you with heightened senses of sight, sound, smell, taste and feeling others' emotions, experiences, and moods can be overwhelming. But, if harnessed these sensibilities can be powerful for the individual, family and surrounding community.Are highly sensitive children Neurodivergent? ›
HSPs are also neurodivergent, their brains being wired differently. HSPs are highly sensitive to their environment and react with heightened emotional and behavioural responses.Is there a test for HSP? ›
Your blood may be tested if your diagnosis isn't clear based on your signs and symptoms.
Listen to children's worries of returning to in-person school. If they aren't talking about it, ask them how they are feeling. Let them know they can share their worries with you. Normalize their worries and let them know other kids are worrying about those things too.What is HSP mistaken for? ›
HSP is often mistaken for attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). While it's true that both those with HSP and ADHD can react strongly to sensory information, those with ADHD often have difficulty focusing or paying attention.What age does ADHD peak in children? ›
At what age are symptoms of ADHD the worst? The symptoms of hyperactivity are typically most severe at age 7 to 8, gradually declining thereafter. Peak severity of impulsive behaviour is usually at age 7 or 8. There is no specific age of peak severity for inattentive behaviour.What is the opposite of HSP? ›
The opposite of being highly sensitive is actually being very impulsive, as that is the opposite of processing deeply and pausing before acting. (Although, sometimes HSPs are quick to act because they already know from past experience what's going to happen.)Can a child have sensory issues and not be autistic? ›
Sensory issues are considered a symptom of autism because many people on the autism spectrum experience them. But not everyone with sensory issues is on the spectrum. Some have ADHD, OCD or developmental delays. Or they may not have a diagnosis at all.Are Asperger's sensitive? ›
A significant number of people with Asperger's Syndrome have been perceived to display either an over-sensitivity or an under-sensitivity to sensory stimuli. This includes all, or a combination of: touch, taste, smell, sound, sight and movement, as well as possible problems with motor co-ordination.Are highly sensitive people rare? ›
How common are highly sensitive people? Since Aron conceived the concept of what it means to be an HSP, more and more people have been identifying themselves as highly sensitive. It is believed that HSPs are not rare, and that about 15-20% of the population are thought to be an HSP.What is a highly sensitive child summary? ›
What is a Highly Sensitive Child? A highly sensitive child is one of the fifteen to twenty percent of children born with a nervous system that is highly aware and quick to react to everything. This makes them quick to grasp subtle changes, prefer to reflect deeply before acting, and generally behave conscientiously.What personality disorder is overly sensitive? ›
Highly Sensitive Person, or HSP, is a term coined by psychologist Elaine Aron. According to Aron's theory, HSPs are a subset of the population who are high in a personality trait known as sensory-processing sensitivity, or SPS.Do HSP have ADHD? ›
Hypersensitivity, also known as being a “highly sensitive person” (HSP), is not a disorder. It is an attribute common in people with ADHD.
The three subtypes of highly sensitive people include Aesthetic Sensitivity (AES), Low Sensory Threshold (LST), and Ease of Excitation (EOE). Before we explain what each of these means, it's important to note that HSPs can fit into more than one subtype, each subtype has its own characteristics.Do HSP get offended easily? ›
Being an HSP comes with both advantages and challenges. It is possible to be too easily offended by people who mean no harm or who are trying their best to be kind. It is also possible to overreact to daily stressors or relationship issues, particularly if you become emotionally aggressive as a response.What personality types are most likely to be HSP? ›
Most HSPs are either INFJs or INFPs — the ones that don't tend to be ENFJs or ENFPs. Whether you're one or both, it's important to know what stresses you, what overstimulates you and what makes you feel calm, relaxed and happy.Are HSP bipolar? ›
Experts say although HSP doesn't cause bipolar disorder or other mental health conditions, it is more common in affective disorders. As a result, dealing with super sensitivity—feeling distressed by “normal” experiences—or during high-stress times, can often trigger a mood episode and visa versa.Do HSP have more empathy? ›
Seeing the world through another person's eyes is central to the experience of being a highly sensitive person (HSP). There is now a documented, replicable fMRI study showing that HSPs demonstrate stronger empathy than do others in tests involving reactions to images.Is HSP highly sensitive person the same as autism? ›
While highly sensitive individuals tend to experience hyper-reactivity to sensory information, autistic individuals may have either a hyper- or hypo-reactivity to sensory information, a combination of both, or neither.What brain differences do HSP have? ›
HSPs have a variant of the serotonin transporter encoding gene, known as 5-HTTLPR. The 5-HTTLPR gene variant decreases serotonin in the brain and increases sensitivity to surroundings. The HS brain may have less mood-stabilizing serotonin than the non-HS brain, but it has an enhanced ability to learn from experience.What happens when an HSP is overstimulated? ›
Overstimulation, or sensory overload, is when your senses are just completely overloaded with information, making it difficult (or sometimes near impossible) to fully process the information you are receiving. This type of overstimulation is often seen in what we often call highly sensitive people (or HSP for short).Do HSPs get more sensitive with age? ›
Stress & Sensitivity Can Worsen With Age for HSPs. Here's How to Prevent That. If you are a highly sensitive person (HSP) you might be growing larger stress centers in your brain without even knowing it, and if you don't do anything about it, they will become even bigger.How do you calm a hypersensitive child? ›
- Provide lots of downtime. ...
- Provide structure and routine. ...
- Encourage and praise their strengths. ...
- Teach feeling words. ...
- Understand your own temperament as a parent.
Autistic people can experience both hypersensitivity (over-responsiveness) and hyposensitivity (under-responsiveness) to a wide range of stimuli. Most people have a combination of both. Many autistic people experience hypersensitivity to bright lights or certain light wavelengths (e.g., LED or fluorescent lights).Is HSP part of ADHD? ›
Hypersensitivity, also known as being a “highly sensitive person” (HSP), is not a disorder. It is an attribute common in people with ADHD.Is ADHD similar to HSP? ›
Differences Between HSPs and ADHD
HSPs tend to think before they act, while people with ADHD tend to be a little more impulsive and can act before thinking things through. In calm environments, HSPs can be well-focused. Those with ADHD can have trouble focusing and may even appear bored in calm environments.