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Highly Sensitive Children (HSC) can be different from their peers and quite confusing to their parents. Family therapist and social worker, Talya Ressel provides five ways to deal with HSC.

Highly Sensitive Children (HSC) is a very real term to describe children who tend to notice the world in more details. They feel things intensely and need to feel comfortable before taking action. Research has shown there are fundamental differences in temperaments. It can be useful to understand children in terms of dandelions, orchids and tulips.

“Don’t be a cry baby. Why is always such an issue with you? It’s not the end of the world. You need to get a thicker skin.” Whether we have heard or said these words, sensitivity is such a misunderstood trait in a child, and is often viewed as a weakness.

But what if it wasn’t seen as a flaw? What if, with the right tools and understanding, it could be viewed as a strength? Sensitivity in children is a very real temperament trait, affecting 20% of the population. With the right strategies, your child can learn how to manage this part of their personality and thrive within a world that unfortunately doesn’t always understand the value in it.

Most children are like dandelions, they can grow anywhere and under any conditions and can often thrive regardless of their experience. Orchid children are very sensitive to their environment and can be more of a challenge to tend to, but will thrive under the right conditions. Tulip children tend to fall somewhere in the middle, being both delicate like an orchid and robust as a dandelion. This idea of the orchid having the potential to wilt and thrive is so important for understanding Highly Sensitive Children (HSC) and the role parents plays in that development.

These are 5 helpful strategies for parenting a HSC:

1. Acknowledge it
It is a trait since birth, it is not as a result of something you did or didn’t do. Do not apologise to others for your child’s ‘sensitivity’ – it is not something the child should feel shame about. By acknowledging and accepting their temperament, you help your child start to understand their experience and gain self-acceptance.

2. Consider practicalities
Manage basic needs such as enough rest, adequate food, the heat, noise level etc. These elements will be felt more intensely by a HSC and thus quicker to feel overwhelmed. It can help to provide information regarding schedules and routines and adequate warning of upcoming changes. A HSC can find the “unknown” overwhelming and can struggle to just ‘go with the flow’.

3. Avoid negative associations
Understand that they may want to participate in activities, but at their own pace and level of comfort. By labeling this behaviour as being shy or fearful, we create a negative association, when in fact it is can actually be a positive attribute. Sometimes it may take a few attempts in small chunks for a HSC to engage in something new.

4. Empty the ‘emotional’ jar
Its important to acknowledge how much each child is capable of managing themselves – think of their emotions as filling up a jar. When that is full, we often see behaviours such as meltdowns, tantrums or emotional outbursts (regardless of the age). The jar of HSC will fill up quicker due to their sensitivity to all the things going on around them. Parents can help HSC find ways to empty their jars through encouraging soothing activities such as going for a walk, reading a book, quiet play, sitting on your lap/cuddles or even going for a sip of water. Over time the child will learn how to empty their own jar, but its helpful for parents to offer suggestions, or even ‘enforce’ such breaks when you see their jar filling up.

5. Avoid harsh discipline
When reprimanded, punished or embarrassed, HSC are likely to be so overwhelmed by the emotions that they will not be able to take in the information you wanted them to learn. But that does not mean anything goes. It is ok, and necessary, to set limits in a gentle, caring, but firm manner.

Talya Ressel