How to Help Your Highly Sensitive Child

Some kids seem to cry over practically everything, but that's not always a bad thing. Here’s how to handle children who are highly sensitive. 

It's the rare preschooler who can fully understand their feelings and express them in words, so tears are bound to make an appearance at some point. But some children are naturally on the sensitive end of the spectrum: prone to waterworks when the world doesn't conform exactly to their expectations.

Being highly sensitive isn't a bad thing, according to experts. "Highly sensitive children tend to be more compassionate, gentle, and creative," says Linda Dunlap, Ph.D., professor of psychology at Marist College, in Poughkeepsie, New York. They just need a little guidance from you to help manage their emotions. Here's what parents need to know.

Young Girl Crying with Hands Covering Face
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What Does It Mean to Be Highly Sensitive?

A highly sensitive person (HSP) has a personality trait known as sensory processing sensitivity (SPS), both terms coined by psychologist Elaine Aron in the 1990s. According to Dr. Aron, up to 20% of the population is made up of HSPs, identified by their tendency to process external and internal stimuli more deeply than the general population.

Is Your Child Highly Sensitive?

If your kid seems to cry more than usual, even over seemingly minor issues, they may just be genetically wired to be extra sensitive. Studies at Harvard University found that babies who were the most upset by new noises and unfamiliar people at 16 weeks old retained their finely tuned emotional alarm system as they got older.

Here are some indicators that your child might be highly sensitive, according to Dr. Aron's highly sensitive child test:

  • They startle easily
  • They don't like surprises
  • They complain about scratchy clothing or labels rubbing against their skin
  • They're sensitive to unusual odors
  • They ask a lot of questions
  • They don't do well with big changes
  • They perform best when strangers aren't present

Experts say that a kid's ability to feel emotions a little more deeply—while sometimes frustrating to parents—is also something to cherish. "Sensitive children may be overwhelmed by their own feelings, but they're also very tuned in to how other people feel, and this makes them very empathetic friends," says Dr. Dunlap.

It's important to note that even kids who aren't typically teary can go through emotional periods; this doesn't necessarily mean they're highly sensitive, says Elizabeth Pantley, author of the No-Cry series of parenting books. "If there's been a recent change, such as a move or a new baby, your child may become more sensitive," she explains. Look over their daily routine: Insufficient sleep or poor eating habits can also be enough to make a preschooler feel irritable. Checking in with your pediatrician can't hurt: Anything from an undetected chronic ear infection to a slight speech delay could make a kid quick to cry.

Keep in mind that high sensitivity may be easily confused with a number of mental health conditions and personality traits, but there are some key differences—and recognizing these may help you better understand your child. For instance, both HSPs and introverts may be overwhelmed by external stimuli, but introverts are mainly affected by social situations; they don't usually get affected by noise, brightness, irritable clothing, and other sensory triggers like many HSPs. In addition, highly sensitive people may also be incorrectly misdiagnosed with autism, attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), or sensory processing disorder. Although SPS can occur alongside these conditions, it is a neutral trait, not a condition, disorder, or diagnosis.

How to Help Your Highly Sensitive Child

Recognizing the signs that your child is highly sensitive will allow you to teach them coping strategies and techniques to make their life—and yours—a bit easier. Avoid using labels like "overly sensitive," "shy," or "quiet," and instead focus on the positive qualities that come from being highly sensitive.

Help them manage their emotions.

If you're at a birthday party where all the kids are happily eating cupcakes while your child is weeping because they got a blue one instead of pink, your first instinct may be to quickly make a switch for them. "However, if you jump in right away, she'll lose confidence in her ability to solve her own problems," says Dr. Dunlap.

Avoid the urge to tell them to stop crying—which will probably just trigger more tears, says Parents advisor Michele Borba, Ed.D., author of The Big Book of Parenting Solutions. Hypersensitive preschoolers are very good at reading their parents' emotions. If you get tense, it tells your child that whatever is upsetting them really is something to get worked up about—and this models the very behavior you're trying to change. One way to help your child get control of their emotions is by playfully telling them, "Freeze!" "Freezing helps a child stop and collect herself," says Dr. Borba. Then suggest that they take a deep breath and blow it out through their mouth like a dragon.

Switch gears.

Distracting your child by guiding them to another activity is also a powerful tool. "When my daughter was in preschool, it felt like she cried all the time," says Melissa Morgenlander, of Brooklyn, New York. "One of her teachers suggested that when she felt tears coming, she should count to ten out loud. It's simple, but it worked—by the time she got to eight or nine, she would always start to smile." The counting method is a gold standard, agrees Dr. Dunlap. "At age 3 or 4, counting still takes focus and concentration, so whatever was upsetting your child may feel like old news by the time he gets to ten."

Find a solution.

Next, coax your child to tell you exactly what made them unhappy, so you can help them find a remedy. If they say, "I'm sad Joey doesn't want to play with me," ask them, "What can you do to make yourself feel better?" If they're stumped for ideas, remind them of things that make them feel good, like inviting another child over to play or looking at a favorite picture book. With a little practice, they'll soon start coming up with their own solutions, without any prompting from an adult.

Growing Up as a Highly Sensitive Person

Although you might not be able to rewire your child's sensitive personality, they'll eventually gain the maturity to monitor their emotions and become more resilient. Believe it or not, peer pressure can be a force for good. "By age 6 or 7, she will probably have fewer bouts of crying, especially when she sees that other children prefer to play with her when she's not in tears," says Dr. Dunlap.

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