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High Sensitivity 101

What Are The Signs Of A Highly Sensitive Child?

Hi, I'm Jill!

I’m a mama-in-training of a highly sensitive son. I love yoga pants, dungeness crab season, and working from my San Francisco flat in my PJs. My mission? To help other mamas raise a thriving highly sensitive child without losing their ever-lovin’ minds!

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What are the signs of a highly sensitive child? It can be tough to tell, right? They may get upset over things that seem small to you. You might have tried all the typical parenting strategies, and they just don’t work. As parents, we want what’s best for our kids. When our child is struggling, we desperately want to find answers and to make things easier for them. So it makes sense you are trying to figure this out. If you are nodding along right now, then you’re in the right place.

Highly sensitive girl holding duck

What Is a Highly Sensitive Child?

Parents everywhere are seeking more information on how to best support their highly sensitive kids. But it’s important to start with, what does it really mean? It means their brains are just wired a little differently. Highly sensitive children (HSCs) experience things more intensely than other kids, almost like their feelings are amplified. It’s as if their internal volume button is turned up higher than the average kid’s.

Think about how when you crank up the music, everything feels louder and more impactful. That’s kind of what it’s like for a highly sensitive child; everyday experiences, emotions, and sensory information hit them with more force. A tag on a shirt can feel like sandpaper. A loud noise might make them jump out of their skin. A friend’s sadness might feel as overwhelming as their own.

While a highly sensitive brain can make navigating the world a bit tougher, remember, there’s absolutely nothing wrong with your child. This is simply part of who they are. And once you recognize those highly sensitive child traits, you can begin to truly understand your kiddo and respond in a way that makes them feel safe, loved, and empowered.

Common Traits of Highly Sensitive Children

Being aware of some highly sensitive child traits can be very helpful for mothers of sensitive children. It lets you truly see them and help them thrive. You become aware of why certain things might make their nervous systems feel frazzled or what can lead to those dreaded meltdowns. And you, in turn, are better prepared to step in and offer a comforting presence that can make all the difference.

Emotional Intensity and Reactivity

Let’s talk about those big feelings. HSCs aren’t just sensitive – they feel everything deeply and intensely. It’s a lot like they experience the world in high definition; colors are brighter, sounds are sharper, and emotions are amplified. They tend to experience emotional extremes. This might leave them overstimulated and prone to emotional overload. For instance, a child who is excited at a birthday party might not be able to regulate those feelings and might begin to cry or melt down. The key here is remembering this is part of who they are – try to avoid saying things like, “Calm down – it’s not that big of a deal.” Instead, offer empathy and say things like, “I know you’re really excited, do you need a little break to recharge?”

Upset baby reaching out with his hands

Heightened Sensory Sensitivity (Sensitive Sensory)

Highly sensitive people may also be bothered by sensory input. Everyday sensations like loud noises, bright lights, certain smells, or scratchy clothes might feel magnified for HSCs, causing them real discomfort or anxiety. They may have specific food or clothing preferences and get very distressed when these preferences aren’t met.

Depth of Processing

HSCs often feel like emotional barometers, tuned into everyone’s feelings and noticing social cues.   According to The Gottman Institute, research shows the parent-child relationship affects highly sensitive children more than those who are less sensitive.  HSCs might quickly pick up on tense family dynamics or sense when someone is upset even when others may not.  This ability can be a huge strength when nurtured but can be overwhelming for the sensitive child, leaving them feeling emotionally drained and needing a chance to recharge in their “coveted space.” 

Need for Downtime

Highly sensitive children process their environment intensely. All that extra processing can be emotionally and physically tiring. HSCs need more downtime than other kids. It gives them a chance to reset, recharge, and process all the information and stimulation that they’ve encountered throughout the day. Quiet activities like reading, playing alone, drawing, or cuddling can help them restore their energy.

Strong Sense of Empathy

A major trait that highly sensitive kids share is a remarkable capacity for empathy and compassion. Because HSCs deeply feel their own emotions, they often experience a stronger sense of shared feelings. Imagine for instance your child sobbing alongside their friend who is feeling upset. While it may be difficult as a parent because HSCs get upset over situations that they aren’t directly affected by, it also points to their incredibly sensitive and compassionate hearts. This makes HSCs amazing friends but also means they feel everything more intensely, whether those are personal feelings, feelings about a loved one, feelings from movies, or just feelings in general.

Caution in New Situations

 It is common for HSCs to be prone to overwhelm and anxiety, especially in situations that are unfamiliar.  Their “sensitive brains” take some time to feel safe.  This does not make them cowardly.  In fact, those wary eyes are probably busy taking everything in, trying to figure out expectations and make sense of the new place, person, or activity.  It is about their innate sensory processing sensitivity, and the way their highly sensitive brain functions in taking in “sensory processing,” rather than something that they are consciously choosing to do. 

Perfectionism

Perfectionism can present both advantages and challenges in life. Parenting researchers have seen this happen often with highly sensitive kids. They want to get it right, and they don’t handle mistakes easily. While a love of a job well done is great, too much perfectionism can make trying new things super scary for HSCs. After all, the pressure is on to be flawless, and that makes failure (an important part of the learning process) hard to accept.

Creativity

Many highly sensitive kids find great joy in creative endeavors. You might notice a passion for art, music, storytelling, writing, or even imaginary play. It’s almost like all that extra processing power and sensory depth allows their “highly sensitive brains” to form complex, insightful, and beautiful creations.

Deep Thinkers and Learners

Because highly sensitive children are busy thinking about everything all the time, it is more likely they ask tons of questions. And often they go deep. Remember, highly sensitive children don’t take anything for granted. You might catch your child pausing, noticing, questioning, and really wondering about the why, the how, and the what if behind everything. Although this might drive some parents nuts because it’s exhausting fielding so many inquiries, it can be really amazing to witness as mothers. All this makes HSCs incredible learners when supported properly.

Signs of a Highly Sensitive Child: Early Development

Did you know that early on, when your child is still a baby or toddler, some of those sensitive child traits might stand out? This can provide mothers a jump on better understanding their child. HSC infants are often highly sensitive to things like textures, sounds, changes in routines, or strong tastes and smells. And they let you know about it too. Those high needs babies are expressing their feelings just as genuinely and intently as older sensitive children. Research has shown that babies with sensitive temperaments often go on to have sensitive personality traits throughout their lifespan . If you remember, for instance, your infant being particularly “tuned in” as a baby or toddler or crying during loud movies at the movie theatre with your partner even when held in your “mommy’s lap,” it might mean this pattern will continue in their “daily lives.”

Here are some traits that you might notice:

SignDetails
Startles easilyOften cries easily from everyday noises and might react more to surprises, sudden movements, or changes in light than their peers or siblings do.
Has feeding and/or sleep issuesMight have strong reactions to the smell, taste or texture of food. You might also notice patterns of not being able to easily fall back asleep or having their sleep disrupted.
Needs more closeness and physical comfort Prefers to be held more or shows preference to clothing with softer textures than peers. This preference for those comfy clothes makes a lot of sense when you realize that “clothing that itches” them is very difficult to deal with for HSCs.
Gets overwhelmed easilyShows a dislike of loud places, or bright lights, for example.
Cries more oftenMight cry from seemingly insignificant reasons, but for the HSC it is legitimate.

What Makes a Child Highly Sensitive

Remember what you’ve learned; “What are the signs of a highly sensitive child?” involves examining the way they approach and process the world. Those subtle differences that HSCs have? These probably are innate – a blend of genetics and neurobiology.

Orchid or Dandelion: It’s All in the Temperament

Let’s dive into the “Orchid and Dandelion” theory that gets referenced frequently. This is a common way to talk about individual variations in sensitive personality traits. Picture a delicate, sensitive orchid that needs just the right conditions to thrive; that’s your HSC, incredibly insightful but more prone to getting overwhelmed. Now imagine a resilient dandelion, strong and adaptive, sprouting in cracks of sidewalks. They get less stressed. That’s how you might understand highly sensitive kids compared to less sensitive kiddos.

The theory, also called “Biological Sensitivity to Context,” proposed by Boyce and colleagues (1995), describes children’s distinct susceptibility to their environments, whether good or bad. It explains why some children are especially responsive to the their environment while other “easy-going siblings” may appear unaffected by similar circumstances or events.

What researchers have learned about sensitive emotional reaction is really empowering for us moms. The good news is, when we give orchids that tender, nurturing care? We not only guide them through the difficult times but actually create the optimal setting for their amazing, highly sensitive personalities to blossom, far exceeding any limitations imposed by life’s expectations, events, situations or even changes in routines.

Genetics

Turns out, high sensitivity may have its roots in genetics.  The same way a person’s genetic code makes their eye color, those unique “highly sensitive brains” are most likely also rooted in DNA. Research has found that sensitivity is a natural and measurable trait with a genetic basis.  If your family history has lots of sensitive people, your child might just have inherited those tendencies. While genetics might not tell us everything about questions such as, “What are the signs of a highly sensitive child?”, understanding this can be incredibly validating. In fact, some parents see being told their kids’ behaviors and emotional reactions are linked to innate traits (whether inherited, acquired early in life, or a combination of these influences), as more credible, than seeing an explanation centered around developmental causes. It feels easier to digest and accept than attributing behaviors to poor parenting.  

Brain Structure and Functioning

What really goes on inside an HSCs’ brain that creates these intense reactions and sensitivity? Neuroscientists (yes, actual brain experts, not just us moms guessing over coffee) have studied “highly sensitive brains.” They discovered specific differences in brain activity that may actually fuel the sensory processing sensitivity. These differences relate to parts of the brain that manage emotion processing and that deep-dive thinking you see in your child, unlike others who are more impulsive. In essence, HSPs and their “sensitive children” have more active regions within the brain structure, impacting emotional and social processing, leading to those deep levels of observation and awareness.  

You know all that empathy and strong feelings you see? Researchers believe these patterns are in part because HSCs might just have more neurons (imagine microscopic light bulbs connecting information inside the brain) firing away in regions of the brain that deal with empathy and self-awareness. It makes those seemingly impossible meltdowns, anxieties, and overwhelming emotions and intensities start to feel more understandable when considered through this filter, huh?

FAQs About What Are The Signs of a Highly Sensitive Child? 

How to Discipline a Highly Sensitive Child?

Disciplining an HSC involves balancing boundaries and validation. Focus on clear and concise instructions rather than reprimands. A soft touch is key – think about explaining why certain behaviors are unacceptable and offering gentle alternatives instead of yelling or using punishment. Using choices can be helpful – “Do you want to pick up your toys or read a book before bedtime?” That tiny shift in our approach – allowing HSCs more choice and control – makes a huge difference in the world. And if they do slip up, always validate their emotions and guide them back with reminders rather than adding extra criticism.

How Do I Tell if My Child Is Highly Sensitive?

When trying to figure out if you have an HSC, remember, their “highly sensitive brain” experiences everything, good and bad, on a whole different level. Look for a pattern of consistent reactions that point to a “sensitive brain”  – sudden or intense cries from noises or situations, feeling overwhelmed in loud spaces, or showing emotional exhaustion after being in busy places. There may also be sensitivity to the feel of clothing, certain smells, textures, and noticing little details in greater depth than others. 

What Causes a Child to Be Highly Sensitive?

High sensitivity is still being explored. Although the theory isn’t about finding an absolute causation, there’s a growing body of research on a variety of contributing influences – including genetics. These influences are also important when determining the differences and “common traits” when identifying highly sensitive people, sensory processing sensitivity, or sensory processing disorder.

Do Highly Sensitive Children Grow Out Of It?

Sensitivity, often seen as common traits in “gifted children,” and those with “sensitive brains” tend to need more quiet and more downtime. These patterns don’t magically go poof overnight. High sensitivity, also sometimes known as processing sensitivity, is thought of like a basic wiring – an underlying “personality trait” that your child learns to better understand, regulate and make choices within as they mature. Imagine a lifelong learning journey for our HSCs that allows them to accept these traits, recognize triggers, and eventually make empowering choices as part of developing coping skills in the world. This knowledge really is a helpful support to provide in creating positive outcomes throughout their daily lives.    

Conclusion

What are the signs of a highly sensitive child? Remember, the journey for HSCs (and us moms too) involves a lot of ups and downs as we work toward understanding those “bigger reactions”. It is normal to struggle at times. It is about meeting them where they are and guiding them on a journey toward accepting their gifts while acquiring coping skills along the way. It’s in making those little accommodations for noise sensitivity, choosing comfy sweats instead of stiff dress shirts, slowing down on crazy packed schedules, creating “coveted spaces” for downtime, and remembering that for your HSC, big feelings and sensitivities are real. By using these strategies we mamas really can make the world feel safer, softer, and more welcoming.

What Are The Signs Of A Highly Sensitive Child?

Jill Gilbert

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