A Better Light on "Shy" and "Fussy" Children
This chapter helps you decide if you have a highly sensitive child and explores the trait thoroughly. It also provides more knowledge about all of your child's inherited temperament traits. Our goal will be to free you of any misconceptions you may have heard about sensitive children. Finally, we will distinguish high sensitivity from actual disorders (which it is not).
Well, if he were my child, he'd eat what was set before him."
"Your daughter is so quiet--have you considered seeing a doctor about that?"
"He is so mature, so wise for his age. But he seems to think too much. Don't you worry that he isn't more happy and carefree?
"Jodie's feelings are so easily hurt. And she cries for other kids, too, when they are teased or hurt. And during the sad parts of stories. We don't know what to do for her."
"In my kindergarten class, everyone participates in group time, but your son refuses. Is he this stubborn at home?"
Are these sorts of comments familiar to you? They are to the parents I interviewed for this book. They had heard all sorts of well-intentioned comments like these from in-laws, teachers, other parents, and even mental health professionals. If you've received such comments, it is almost surely a sign that you are the parent of a highly sensitive child (HSC). And, of course, they are troubling, because you're hearing that something is odd or wrong with your child, yet you find your child marvelously aware, caring, and sensitive. Furthermore, you know that if you followed the well-intentioned advice, like forcing your child to eat foods he dislikes, socialize when he does not feel like it, or taking him to a psychiatrist, your child would suffer. On the other hand, if you follow the lead of your child, he thrives. Yet the comments keep coming, so you wonder if you're a bad parent and if your child's behavior is your fault. I have heard this same story over and over.
The Operating Manual for Your Child
No wonder you worry that you may be doing something wrong. You have no one to help you. You have probably noticed that most parenting books focus on "problem behaviors"--restlessness, distractibility, "wildness," and aggression. Your child is probably anything but a problem in these senses. You're struggling with issues that the books don't talk about so much--eating problems, shyness, nightmares, worrying, and intense emotions that are not directed so much at others as they are simply outbursts. The usual advice that you eliminate unwanted behaviors through "consequences" (punishment) often does not work--your child seems crushed by punishment or even criticism.
In this book you will receive advice, but only for sensitive children and from parents of sensitive children, myself included, plus specialists in this trait. And our first advice is not to believe people when they imply there is something wrong with your child, and do not let your child believe it either. Nor are your child's differences your fault. Of course parenting can always be improved, and this book will "improve" you more than others, because, again, it is written entirely with your "different" child in mind. But forget the idea that the problem is some basic flaw in parent or child.
"Discovering" High Sensitivity
According to my own scientific research and professional experience as well as that of many others who have studied this trait under different, less accurate labels, your child has a normal variation in innate human temperament. She is one of the 15 to 20 percent born highly sensitive--far too many for them all to be "abnormal." Furthermore, the same percentage of sensitive individuals is found in every species that has been studied, as far as I know. With evolution behind it, there must be a good reason for the trait's presence. We will get to that in a moment, but first, a little bit about this "discovery."
I began studying high sensitivity in 1991, after another psychologist commented to me that I was highly sensitive. I was curious personally, not planning to write a book or even to try to tell anyone about my findings. In my community and the university where I was teaching, I merely asked to interview people who were "highly sensitive to physical or emotionally evocative stimuli" or "highly introverted." At first I thought sensitivity might really be the same as introversion, which is the tendency to prefer to have one or two close friends with whom one can talk deeply, and not to be in large groups or meet strangers. Extroverts, on the other hand, like large gatherings, have many friends but usually talk less intimately with them, and enjoy meeting new people. It turned out that introversion was not the same as high sensitivity: Although 70 percent of highly sensitive people (HSP) are introverts, a tendency that is probably part of their strategy to reduce stimulation, 30 percent are extroverts. So I knew I had uncovered something new.
Why would a highly sensitive person be extroverted? According to my interviews, they were often raised in close, loving communities--in one case even a commune. For them, groups of people were familiar and meant safety. Others seemed to have been trained to be outgoing by their families--it was imperative, and as good HSPs they tried to do what was expected of them. One woman recalled the day and hour she decided to become an extrovert. She had lost her best and only friend and decided then and there not to depend anymore on having just one friend.
Since discovering that the trait of sensitivity is not the same as introversion, I have found other evidence that sensitive people are also not inherently shy or "neurotic"--that is, anxious and depressed. All of these descriptors are secondary, noninnate traits found in some sensitive people as well as in many who are not sensitive.
When I made my request to interview sensitive people, I was swamped with volunteers, and finally spoke individually with forty men and women of all ages and walks of life, for three hours each. They really wanted to talk about this--the term and why it meant so much to them the moment they heard it. (Many adults purchase The Highly Sensitive Person simply because they recognized themselves in the title, and likewise you may have bought this book because you recognized your child in its title.)
After discerning the many details of sensitivity from these interviews, I was able to create a long questionnaire about it, and later a shorter one (see pages 88-89), and have since given these to thousands of individuals. The 20 percent or so who are highly sensitive usually immediately grasp the concept as describing them. The nonsensitive 80 percent or so truly do not "get it" and some answer "no" to every item. I found the same results through a random phone survey. Sensitive people really are different.
Since then I have written and taught on the subject extensively, and soon saw the need for a book on raising highly sensitive children. There were too many sad stories from adults about their difficult childhoods, in which well-meaning parents caused tremendous pain because they did not know how to raise a sensitive child. So I interviewed parents and children, and from those talks developed a questionnaire that was given to over a hundred parents of all types of children. That survey, when honed down to the questions that best distinguish HSCs from non-HSCs, became the parent's questionnaire at the end of the Introduction.
What Is High Sensitivity?
Highly sensitive individuals are those born with a tendency to notice more in their environment and deeply reflect on everything before acting, as compared to those who notice less and act quickly and impulsively. As a result, sensitive people, both children and adults, tend to be empathic, smart, intuitive, creative, careful, and conscientious (they are aware of the effects of a misdeed, and so are less likely to commit one). They are also more easily overwhelmed by "high volume" or large quantities of input arriving at once. They try to avoid this, and thus seem to be shy or timid or "party poopers." When they cannot avoid overstimulation, they seem "easily upset" and "too sensitive."
Although HSCs notice more, they do not necessarily have better eyes, ears, sense of smell, or taste buds--although some do report having at least one sense that is very keen. Mainly, their brains process information more thoroughly. This processing is not just in the brain, however, since highly sensitive people, children or adults, have faster reflexes (a reaction usually from the spinal cord); are more affected by pain, medications, and stimulants; and have more reactive immune systems and more allergies. In a sense, their entire body is designed to detect and understand more precisely whatever comes in.
How HSCs Sort Oranges
When I was little my father liked to take our family to visit factories, where he would talk the managers into taking us on a tour. The steel mills and glass manufacturers overwhelmed me, of course, because I was highly sensitive. They were too loud, hot, and fiery, and I would cry, so that I dreaded these trips. My nonsensitive family members, on the other hand, were annoyed by my tour-stopping behaviors. But I liked one tour--the orange-packing plant. I liked the ingenious invention that moved the oranges down a shaking conveyer belt until they fell into one of three sized slots--small, medium, or large.
I now use that experience as a way to describe the brains of HSCs. Instead of having three slots for processing what comes down the conveyer belt to them, they have fifteen slots, for making very fine distinctions. And all goes well until too many oranges come down the belt at once. Then you have a huge jam up.
So of course HSCs probably will not like the loud mariachi band in the Mexican restaurant, noisy birthday parties, playing fast-paced team sports, or everyone watching while they give an answer in class. But if you need a guitar tuned, a clever idea for party favors, a witty play on words, or to win a game like chess that requires anticipating consequences or noticing subtle differences, your HSC is the one to have around.
Is It All or None?
Can your child be just a little sensitive? Some researchers say you either have the trait or you do not; others say it is a continuum. My own research says both--that is, some HSCs seem more sensitive than others, probably because there are so many ways that a child's environment can increase or decrease how much sensitivity is expressed. But if it were a true continuum, like height or weight, most people would be in the middle. In fact, the distribution of highly sensitive people is more like a flat line, perhaps even with a few more people at either end.
Inside the Highly Sensitive Child
Let's go farther inside the mind of your HSC. Yes, he notices more, but he may have a "specialty." Some tune in to social cues, mainly noticing moods, expressions, or relationships. Some HSCs mainly notice the natural world, such as changes in the weather or the qualities of plants, or they seem to have an uncanny ability to communicate with animals. Some express subtle concepts, or the humorous and ironic. And some are mainly vigilant in new surroundings while others are mainly bothered by a change in the familiar. Still, in all cases, they are noticing more.
Your HSC is also thinking more than other kids about what she has noticed. Again, there is always variation. She may be pondering and asking you questions about social dilemmas--why you did what you did, why one kid teased another--or larger social issues. Another HSC might be trying to solve difficult math or logic puzzles, or worrying about "what would happen if," or making up stories or imagining their cat's thoughts. All kids do these things, but HSCs do them more.
The HSCs' reflecting on "what's come in," particularly whatever they have seen or heard, may be quite conscious and obvious, as when they ask for more time to decide something. (You have probably noticed that trying to get an HSC to decide quickly is like trying to walk a male dog quickly past fire hydrants.) But often HSCs' processing is entirely unconscious, as when they just intuitively sense what is going on with you. Indeed, intuition might be defined as knowing something without knowing how you know it, and sensitive people are generally highly intuitive.
The processing may be rapid, as when a child instantly knows "something's up" or "you changed my sheets" when other children would not notice. Or it may be slow, as when HSCs think about something for hours, then announce some startling insight.
Finally, as a result of taking in more and processing it more completely, if the situation is creating an emotional response (and all situations do to some extent), your HSC is going to feel stronger emotions. Sometimes it's intense love, awe, or joy. But because all children are dealing with new, stressful situations every day, HSCs will also have to feel fear, anger, and sadness, and feel these more intensely than other children.
Because of these strong feelings and deep thoughts, most HSCs are unusually empathic. So they suffer more when others suffer and become interested early in social justice. They are also brilliant interpreters of what is happening in anything or anyone that cannot speak--plants, animals, organs in bodies, babies, those not speaking the sensitive person's language, and the very elderly when they suffer from dementia. They tend to have rich inner lives. And again, HSCs are conscientious for their age--they can imagine for themselves or understand when you say "what if everybody did that." They also tend to seek the meaning of their lives very early.
Mind you, HSCs are not saints. In particular, with a few bad experiences, they are more likely than others to become shy, fearful, or depressed. But with a little gentle guidance, they are exceptionally creative, cooperative, and kind--except when overwhelmed. And whatever they are doing--or not doing--HSCs do stand out, even though they are not "problems" in the usual sense.
Long before I knew I was raising a highly sensitive child, I just knew my son was "different." He was aware, incredibly creative, conscientious, cautious in new situations, easily hurt by his peers, not fond of "rough and tumble" play or sports, and emotionally intense. He was hard to raise in some ways, easy in others, and always stood out, even if only as the kid who was not joining in. So I developed the motto that I shared with you in the Introduction: If you want to have an exceptional child, you must be willing to have an exceptional child.