Sensitive kids are known for being more intense and stirred up by their environment. Sensory overload is common with some sounds being too loud, smells too powerful, and even touch or tags in clothes being too much to handle. They can be difficult to make sense of given their heightened reactions and emotions, especially their increased resistance and anxieties. While sensitive kids can feel larger than life to take care of, what usually gets eclipsed when development is going well, are the wonderful gifts that come with being more stirred up by the world around you.
The number of sensitive kids in the North American population is estimated to be anywhere from 15 to 20%. Their heightened response to external stimuli as well as from signals within their body, is due to heightened reactivity in their nervous system. The parents of sensitive kids tell me, “they just seemed to come out of the womb and into the world this way, more stirred up, reactive, and harder to settle.” When I look at baby pictures I can see the sensitivity in some kids by the way they clench their hands, face scrunching, and body rigid with tension as if to indicate being in the world was too much to take.
Sensitive nervous and sensory systems are not just in humans either, biologists have discovered the same in other mammal species and even fruit flies. While we don’t really understand why some kids are more sensitive, current research is suggesting genetics, prenatal or birth experiences.
What is still true is sensitive kids need the same conditions as other kids to grow, that is, strong caring relationships with adults and soft hearts.
Sensitivity exists on a continuum with no two children being the same in terms of their enhanced receptivity to stimuli including differences in reactions to sights, smells, tastes, touch, hearing, kinesthetic/proprioceptor (knowing where your body is in time and space), and emotional/perceptual abilities. As the mother of two sensitive kids, the differences between each one is clear – one has a nose like a blood hound and can sniff out the smell of ‘sneaky’ chocolate on my breath and is very ‘ticklish’ and feels pain intensely. My other child can quickly ‘read’ a room and pick up on emotions and the true intentions of those within it.
While the differences among sensitive kids are great, the gifts that come with heightened sensory systems can start to emerge when development is unfolding well. While they are more prone to emotional challenges, with a supportive environment containing warm relationships, play time, room for tears, they can flourish. While all children have gifts and talents, kids with sensitivity have gifts that are more likely to cluster together in the following ways because of the increased reactivity in their nervous and emotional systems.
Sensitive kids often pick up on small details and notice things that are different or have changed, and can put together patterns and abstract details into a whole. When it rained one hot summers day after a dry spell, my daughter stood smelling the rain and told me, “I forgot what the rain smelled like Mom, it is so wonderful.” When she was younger she also told me that “dust sparkles in the sunshine like fairy dust.” To see the world through the eyes of a sensitive child is to be reintroduced to the wonder and splendor of the simple things surrounding us. They often make us slow down enough to notice what we have missed in our hurry to get on with adult responsibilities.
Care deeply about others
The emotional system is part of the nervous system which impacts sensitivity by giving them a heightened caring response. If development is ideal, they can become very compassionate, empathic, and considerate as they mature. The depth of their emotions can be profound as they vocalize what they are feeling. They can be easily moved emotionally by music, stories, nature, art, and the kindness of others. Sensitive kids are known for crying with sentimental songs or through stories – like my daughter did when I sang “Danny Boy” or read Puff the Magic Dragon to her. The warmth they exude when their hearts are soft is breathtaking and they can naturally move to take care of their siblings with fierce protectiveness.
Passionate and intense
The enhanced receptivity in their emotional systems can lead to passionate and intense feelings/responses in their relationship to things, people, and interests. They love their pets, friends, and clothes – that bedtime story. They can become vibrant and energized talking about their ideas, with big dreams and goals ensuing. They are often interesting people to talk to with their energy vibrating and lighting up a room. Some sensitive kids carry this energy more internally, but it often reveals itself as they play, move, write, or tell stories.
With increased receptivity to their environment and attention to patterns or details, sensitive kids can absorb and retain information astonishingly. They can recite stories by heart and memorize entire picture books. They frequently talk early as they imitate others, and can locate things you have ‘misplaced’ with uncanny accuracy. ‘Natural brightness’ is often a result of sensitivity and particular areas of special capabilities, for example, visual processing, reading comprehension, or agility.
When sensitive kids play freely, unconstrained by agendas or structure, their imaginative worlds can be vibrant and expansive. They often exhibit a unique capacity to create something novel out of ordinary things, in other words, they incorporate their environment into their play. For example, one sensitive child created a ‘candy wall’ in her room out of blue sticky tack and Halloween candy as part of her decorations. Sensitive kids who flourish this way can be counted among some of our most gifted artists, writers, actors, musicians, designers, engineers, and talented creatives.
Discerning – they don’t suffer fools gladly
Sensitive kids can be particular in deciding who they will trust and form relationships with. They expect a lot from their attachments and people must often prove they are psychological safe and non-wounding before a sensitive child will warm up to the relationship. A parent of sensitive child told me that as his child entered a new school, “it is like he is taking resumes from other kids before choosing who he is going to be friends with.” Sensitive kids are less likely to succumb to false pretenses and fake performances. They can often read people’s true intentions despite their attempts to disguise or fool them.
It might not appear to be a gift on the surface but a sensitive child’s capacity to resist coercion and control by others has a silver lining. While they can quickly dig in if they feel pushed and will often push back, this does help preserve a space for their own ideas to emerge. Being prone to feeling easily coerced and quick to resist allows them to stand apart from others, resist peer pressure where appropriate, and become their own unique person.
Problem solving and innovation
When a sensitive child can digest a lot of sensory information and hold onto all the pieces at once, they can start arranging them in interesting and complex ways. The capacity to find new and unique solutions comes from being able to manipulate ideas, integrate unlike objects, and form connections. Because the sensitive child has more ‘data’ to work with, they can be seen as innovative problem solvers – possibilities are not something sensitive kids are short on when development is unfolding well.
Gifts related to their sensitivity
Every sensitive child exists on a continuum of heightened responses but with this can come a refinement of special skills and gifts. For children with enhanced emotional/perceptual awareness, they may pick up on, describe, and translate the world around them into feelings and emotions as seen in poetry or storytelling. For the child with auditory sensitivity, they may be able to pick up a tune and play it on a musical instrument or sing a song in perfect pitch. For the sensitive child with kinesthetic/proprioception gifts, their ability to tune into to their bodily movements can make them talented at different sports. There are a number of ways a child’s sensitivities can be revealed, with gifts following from each particular sense.
They stretch parents to grow
At times parents of sensitive kids may feel their child is too much for them to care for given their heightened reactions, capacity to resist, and big alarming feelings. The love for a child and the feelings of responsibility will push a parent to grow and stretch in their capacity to find patience, consideration, compassion, and self-control. Sensitive kids need strong, caring, and firm parents to lean on, and ones who won’t be afraid to face their big emotions and walk them through it. When a parent learns to dance with their sensitive child in this way, and when they can make sense of their emotions and behaviour, they will find the confidence they need to be the answer to their child’s needs. The gift of a sensitive child is the opportunity for growth that they represent to those who care for them. In caring for a sensitive child, you must learn to dance with human vulnerability, become a safe landing pad for big emotion, and lead them through the disappointments in life. When you can do this, there will be much fulfillment in the parenting role, and a realization of the growth inside of oneself. While sensitive kids may not be the easiest to parent, they can make amazing parents out of us.
What do sensitive kids need from parents?
Sensitive kids need the same things as every child – caretakers for their hearts when they feel too much and get hurt too much.
They need adults who can lead them and who will assume responsibility for reading their needs and providing for them generously.
Sensitivity can be a beautiful thing if we give our kids enough time to grow and to make sense of the world in their unique ways. Nature wasn’t unkind this way nor foolish, difference and diversity has always been her way and there are gifts in all of the temperaments our children have – sensitive and less sensitive alike.
Dr. Deborah MacNamara is on Faculty at the Neufeld Institute, the author of the best-selling book, Rest, Play, Grow: Making Sense of Preschoolers (or anyone who acts like one), The Sorry Plane, and Nourished: Connection, food, and caring for our kids (and everyone else we love). She is the Director of the Kid’s Best, Bet Counselling and Family Resource Centre.