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“They’re sad Mommy.” my son told me. “But I can make them better. I can give them hugs and kisses.” At two and a half, my son displayed the empathy of a highly sensitive child: he could literally feel others’ pain. What’s more, he was trying to heal them. With love. With his big, open heart. So they turned on him. Unfortunately, this is an all too common occurrence for sensitive children. It seems that people dump their pain on these compassionate, sweet souls in a subconscious attempt to heal their own hurt. Learning to be a sensitive individual in an insensitive world has been the task of both my husband’s life and mine. Teaching our son to navigate this balance is now our primary task. We just didn’t think we would have to start in preschool.

According to research conducted by Elaine Aron, Ph.D., author of the books “The Highly Sensitive Person” and “The Highly Sensitive Child,” 20 percent of people are born with the genetic trait of a highly sensitive nervous system, making them more sensitive to physical sensations, medicines, their environment, and the emotions of others. As a result, they are more likely to become overwhelmed, develop allergies and autoimmune issues, and show symptoms of anxiety and depression when exposed to stressful environments. High sensitivity is not a disorder. It is a genetic variation, like green eyes or red hair, and it comes with profound gifts as well as challenges. Sensitive children are born deeply reflective and sensitive to the subtle: qualities can make for smart, conscientious, creative children, but with the wrong parenting or schooling, they can become unusually shy or timid, or begin acting out. The two most important factors to whether a highly sensitive child is able to bring their gifts to the world as an adult are positive parenting and a positive school environment.

According to Dr. Aron, being highly sensitive is an “all or nothing” proposition. Either you are born highly sensitive or you’re not. Add to this that sensitive children only represent twenty percent of the population, and you have a recipe for great misunderstanding in the home as well as in the fields of education and medicine. One example is the great vaccine debate, which fails to acknowledge that for sensitive children, dozens of vaccines in the first couple of years of life may be just too taxing on their developing nervous system, which is already more sensitive than most. When it comes to education, teachers unfamiliar with the needs of highly sensitive children may think that a child putting their head down on a desk is being defiant or shy, while their nervous system may just be completely overwhelmed by overstimulation. Unfamiliar teachers are likely to suggest that something is wrong with a child. Sensitive children are often misdiagnosed as being on the autistic spectrum and/or having attention deficit disorder, making the need for greater awareness of the sensitive child phenomenon evident. 

In order to be considered highly sensitive, a child needs to display the following four traits, which create the acronym D.O.E.S. 

Depth of their processing.

Highly sensitive children will ask deep questions, use big words for their age, have a witty sense of humor, have difficulty making decisions, think and process more deeply than most children, and may be slow to warm up to new situations or people, especially in loud environments with many people. Our son, who is now three, spent the summer telling people that our standard poodle had rolled in “asphalt” and called him a “tar covered dog.” Not only did he understand that the two words were synonyms, but he understood how funny it was that this crazy dog of ours had to walk around with chunks of tar in his hair for six weeks because he rolled in asphalt the day after a haircut. He likes being around others and can be very outgoing with friends and family, but in a noisy place with a lot of people, he struggles with sensory overload. 

Being easily overstimulated, empathic and emotionally reactive. 

Sensitive children process everything in their environment more deeply. Heightened sensitivity to loud noises, temperature, textures, and electronic devices make them “wear out” both mentally and physically more quickly and easily than other children. Parents often worry that a child who is sensitive to noise is on the autistic spectrum. However, the environment is the key difference, as a sensitive child will have no trouble connecting to others in a calm, quiet environment once they’re comfortable.

Sensitive children are able to “read” what others are thinking and feeling. There is a biological basis to this. In research studies, sensitive children show greater activity in their mirror neurons, the part of the brain that enable us to reflect others’ emotions and feelings. This makes them natural empaths. They also have stronger emotions. They feel everything at a deeper level. They cry more easily, can be perfectionists, distraught by a mistake, and notice when others are upset.  

Sensitivity to subtle stimuli. 

Highly sensitive children are more sensitive to sounds, smells, and visual details in their environment. This awareness of subtle stimuli can cause them to be diagnosed as attention deficit, as they can often be distracted by details in their environment. However, in a calm, quiet environment, they have no trouble focusing, and this is the key difference. Unfortunately, the typical classroom in the United States is loud and full of activity, making it challenging for children to focus. As a highly sensitive high school teacher, my classroom was always lit with lamps brought from home and had plants throughout the classroom that added a natural element. It had to be quiet for me to focus. The result of this was that sensitive students thrived in my classroom. Even non-sensitive students appreciated the calm “vibe,” and said they looked forward to coming into my classroom all day. 

In addition to these traits, there is the issue of being more sensitive to pain, stimulants, and medications, as well as having more food sensitivities, allergies, and autoimmune reactions. Science now supports the connection between eczema and environmental toxins.  Our son had a near-fatal reaction to the HiB vaccine (which is only required in two states), that took a year to recover from, and he cannot tolerate dairy. Sensitive children are particularly affected by vitamin and mineral deficiencies in their diet. More than other children, they need to eat “clean,” following an organic diet of whole foods with plenty of fruits, vegetables, healthy sources of protein and fat, including omega 3a, and probiotics. Vitamin, mineral, omega 3, and probiotic supplementation may be necessary, especially if a child cannot tolerate dairy or does not eat poultry or red meat. If a child seems to catch colds and struggle with infections, or is not growing properly, they may be deficient in the mineral zinc. 

Since the environment of a highly sensitive child is so critical to their wellbeing, what are some ways to cultivate the positive, supportive environment necessary to their development?

Honor their style of social interaction and help them recognize when they’re overstimulated.

As they get older, introverted sensitive children tend to have one or two close friends rather than a group of friends throughout school. An extroverted child poses a unique challenge because the more people they interact with, the more information their nervous system has to process. With an extroverted sensitive child, it’s vital that they learn to honor their need for self-care and “down time.” 

In addition, they can only handle limited exposure to electronic devices, as it causes their highly sensitive nervous system to go haywire before other children, causing them to stay  “revved up” or depressed and apathetic. We find that allowing our son to handle an i phone for more than a few minutes causes him to be less focused, more irritable, and throw more tantrums. Many parents, including those of non-sensitive kids, fearing their child has a psychological disorder, have implemented an electronic fast. As if by magic, the symptoms disappear.  

Help them learn to distinguish their feelings from the feelings of others and teach them to clear, heal, and protect their energy. 

If your child has a sudden shift in mood or begins “acting out,” they have absorbed energy. Help them understand their empathic tendencies by asking when and where they began feeling the emotion. To manage their energy, daily exercise, time in nature and water, flower essences, and working with angels create a holistic combination. Joint compression exercises, such as jumping on a trampoline and running, will “reset” the nervous system. Richard Louv, author of Last Child in the Woods, cites numerous studies which have shown that spending time in nature improves “concentration, a greater ability to engage in creative play, an aid to help treat mental illness (in particular ADHD and depression), and exercise that beats out organized sports with its hour-to-hour physical activity. In addition, children develop greater mental acuity, inventiveness, and sustained intellectual development.”  Every morning, my son and I get up early so that we can have 15 minutes to play outside, among the trees in our back yard before we leave for school. If he doesn’t get this time, he is irritable, uncooperative, and anxious when we arrive at school. When he does, it’s the opposite. When I pick him up, the first thing he wants to do is get to his back yard, where he says the trees “put his heart back together.” Flower essences  can help maintain an energetic buffer so that they don’t become overwhelmed out in the world. Finally, children can clear, heal, and protect their energy with the Archangels. To clear, they can ask Archangel Michael to vacuum their energy and cut any etheric cords that are attached (etheric cords are connections that we have with others, and they drain us). To heal, they can ask Archangel Raphael, the healing archangel, to fill them with healing. For protection, they can say “Archangel Michael, please protect me now.” Reiki is another modality that is useful for clearing, balancing, and healing the energy system.  

Help them celebrate the fact that they’re different and encourage them to find their tribe.

Sensitive children stand out and are more apt to be rejected by their peers as a result. Teach them to celebrate their eccentricity and find their tribe. We often tell our son that more people like him are needed in the world. When they’re young, look for other sensitive children for them to play with and have them do the same when they’re older. Spending time with other sensitives will not only allow them to be themselves, but will also validate their value in the world. Strive to create a calm, quiet environment in your home for your child and their sensitive friends. Finally, if they have a talent, whether it be artistic expression or playing a sport, encourage that path. Being allowed to “shine” in some way can change the whole trajectory of a sensitive child’s life, as it earns them respect from their peers and gives them a sense of belonging. 

Teach them to let broken people be and see that people’s behavior isn’t about them.

We want our kids to be kind and compassionate, but they also need to set healthy boundaries. It is one thing to comfort a friend who is crying, but being kind to someone who is mean to them sets them up them up to be an energetic waste dump. Our son thought it was his job to fix his classmates. We have had to teach him that it is not his responsibility to heal others. After he was treated so harshly by the other children, he began to internalize the treatment, thinking he deserved it. We had to work hard to help him see that their behavior was a result of his classmates’ toxic home environment. In actuality, it had nothing to do with him. Teaching him to stay in kindness and love, even when he’s being treated in exactly the opposite way, while standing up for himself, has been the greatest balancing act. Helping him find a “tribe” at his new school has been helpful. 

Teach them to listen to their inner voice and stand in their truth.  

After his preschool experience, my son said that he wanted to be mean, that he didn’t like it here, meaning Earth. Then, while watching the sermon during the royal wedding, he started repeating after Bishop Curry, whispering “Love is the way, love is the way.” At the end, he triumphantly announced “See Mommy! Love is the way! I was right!” In that moment, his inner voice was validated. He learned that even though his preschool experience didn’t go as he had hoped, and even though those around him had not acted in accord with his inner voice, he should still listen to it. To encourage this, we teach him to tune in to how an accomplishment makes him feel rather than seeking our approval. When he says “I did it all by myself!” we say “How does that make you feel?” Many times he’ll say “happy” or “excited.” We tell him to always follow that feeling in life, regardless of what others say. And that leads us to the most significant strategy: talking about emotions.

Make communicating about emotions the foundation of your family culture.

The words of my 21 year old niece, Emma Tasko, best capture the experience of growing up highly sensitive, as well as her number one piece of advice to parents. In her words, you will hear the struggle of growing up sensitive, as well as the great gifts they bring to the world. She is currently pursuing a masters in Gender and Violence studies. She wants to help make the world a more empowering place for women.