Highly sensitive children

By Dörthe Huth, June 2014

Almost one fifth of all people are highly sensitive. Highly sensitive people display special abilities and needs as early as childhood. In living and working with them, it is therefore important to leave behind any fixed ideas about learning and social coexistence. Dörthe Huth, psychological consultant and supervisor, describes this new phenomenon.

Photo: © Katrin Bpunkt/photocase.de

Being sensitive is deemed a flaw

Anyone who feels, experiences or senses things in a particularly intensive way and expresses this through their behaviour can cause offence. Sensitivity is no longer seen as something positive in our society. “Don’t be so sensitive,” people say, or “Aren’t we thin-skinned today”. Frequently such words contain not just the implicit criticism of not being quite right but also the demand to become “different”. Calling on someone “not to take things so seriously” does not, however, offer a great deal of help to the highly sensitive person because he or she does not know how to do that.

Highly sensitive adults who cannot make sense of the way they are mostly live with an underlying feeling of inadequacy  and have developed compensating strategies which enable them to manage such situations. But children do not have the same range of experience to draw on as adults do. Body and psyche are not yet matured, their position within the group has not yet been consolidated. Then there is the complex world of stimuli to which children are exposed today, the new media and the great demands of school and leisure time.

“Sensibilis” in Latin means something like “capable of feeling”. As a rule that applies to all of us but the way in which sensitivity comes to expression is very individual. Being highly sensitive is not better or worse, just different with all the associated advantages and disadvantages. The American Elaine Aron described the “Highly Sensitive Person” (HSP) for the first time at the end of the 1990s. This refers to people who react to stimuli more strongly than people with normal sensitivity do.

Highly sensitive people perceive sounds, smells, feelings and the moods of other people more intensively. Loud noise, stress and a hectic atmosphere cause them problems. Parents, childcare workers and teachers can do a lot to support highly sensitive children. In order to do so, it is important to be able to make an assessment of the symptoms and effects of high sensitivity and be able to classify them.

Signs of high sensitivity

Nadine (11) is a good pupil. She is a particularly keen learner in the subjects which can be experienced through the senses and require creativity. Craft work and music are her favourite subjects. In the organised association of the class she does not attract any attention but during break she likes to spend her time in corner of the school playground and observes the other children as they play. She reflects a lot on herself and others but prefers to avoid conflict.

The teacher would like Nadine to integrate more into the group framework of the class and to acquire a thicker skin. Her parents would like Nadine to go out more frequently and play with other children. But it is precisely group and conflict situations that are difficult for Nadine to cope with. She finds it difficult to bear the noise in class and in the school playground, arguments are unbearable for her. Nadine likes to be alone, likes to read books, daydreams or likes to think up stories. Then she feels at ease.

Many highly sensitive people tend to live a withdrawn life and like to occupy themselves by themselves or on the computer. The avoid groups not just because of the noise level but also because there are frequently tensions in groups. The sensitivities, stresses and feelings of each member of the group rush in on the highly sensitive person even if they are not openly articulated.

Many highly sensitive people have a pronounced sense of justice and suffer with the people affected when their limits are transgressed or violated. They are also particularly sensitive to criticism and in general have a low tolerance of frustration. Particularly highly sensitive children often yet lack any demarcation strategies. They have a tendency to react physically to being psychologically overwhelmed with head or stomach aches for example. It is also typical that they will first of all stop before engaging with a new situation in order to come to terms with the new impressions. They frequently appear to be “daydreamers” to others. As a result they often appear to those around them to be slow, forgetful or unpunctual.

Their creativity, imagination, bubbling joi de vivre, empathy and reflective ability are often hardly visible because they are covered up by the reaction to being overwhelmed.

Letting go of our own ideas to provide support

Parents, childcare workers and teachers can support highly sensitive children by accepting their differences. The desire to have an active and sociable child who conforms with the group frequently contradicts the need of such a child for quiet and creative solitude. Adults might interpret such behaviour as being “antisocial”. If the focus is on deficits in comparison to other children, the child cannot develop a positive feeling of self-esteem.

Parents, childcare workers and teachers should therefore focus particularly on the child’s abilities and leave behind any orientation by a particular standard. Wanting to make children be what they cannot be will drive them to contort themselves in the long term. Parents, childcare workers and teachers should reinforce the highly sensitive child in the feeling that he or she is good – just as he or she is; that perhaps he or she might perceive and feel things differently from many others but that this is nevertheless “normal”.

High sensitivity is probably congenital and hereditary. That is why parents of highly sensitive children should examine whether this applies to themselves as well. If we know about ourselves, we are better able to help. This starts with finding ways of providing protection against being overwhelmed or accepting that we are slower than others, that we might need more sleep, or learning fixed rituals for learning and being together. Singing in the morning and an evening prayer together, a fixed rhythm in school and at home make it possible also for the highly sensitive child to develop greater stability and trust in himself or herself and the world.

Literature: Dörthe Huth: Lass’ los und werde glücklich, Munich 2009 | Elaine N. Aron: The Highly Sensitive Person: How to Survive and Thrive When the World Overwhelms, London 1999 | Susan Marletta-Hart: Leben mit Hochsensibilität: Herausforderung und Gabe, Bielefeld 2009

Links: www.aurum-cordis.de | www.doerthe-huth.de


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