The fear is not as uncommon as you’d think.
When my daughter burst into tears at her fourth birthday party during the customary rendition of “Happy Birthday” I had to take her sensitivities seriously. The small gathering of family and friends looked at each other awkwardly, their singing drifting off into an uncomfortable silence.
“Let’s cut the cake,” I said, as my daughter ran off with an irritated look on her face.
I now approach birthday parties with the same level of trepidation as vaccinations or a dentist visit. Pass the parcel is a nail-biting affair, with her sitting just outside the circle, one hand gripping my leg. While the other kids are wrapped up in the frivolities, the games, the presents, the colourful treats and the loud music, she’s glued to me, eyes cautiously taking in the chaos while refusing to participate.
She’s shell-shocked and remains that way until the party’s over – that’s if we last that long. Other parents will smile knowingly and say, ‘Oh, she’s shy!’ But she’s not.
This is a girl who sings Katy Perry at the top of her lungs, makes friends easily, is loud and energetic, eagerly picks up reptiles, spiders and all kinds of creepy crawlies, and enjoys Show and Tell, "because every one has to sit quietly and listen to me." Yet people tell her she’s shy all the time.
So what’s wrong with her? Apparently nothing, she’s just highly sensitive.
Research by Elaine Aron, author of The Highly Sensitive Child, along with other research psychologists, proves some children are born with the innate trait of high sensitivity, also known as Sensory Processing Sensitivity (SPS).
The term, while not readily understood, is more prevalent with the publication of Aron's book. Until I'd read it cover to cover I had no idea what I was dealing with. When people called her shy, I wondered about her other behaviours, which didn't quite fit. But I agreed because I didn't know how to explain her over-reaction to changes in routine, a new face, place or activity.
My daughter’s high sensitivity was never more glaringly obvious (or painful) than when she started prep last year. It was a traumatic experience with gastro upsets, nightmares and tears every day the norm for almost six months. But she's not alone - far from it.
High sensitivity is common, affecting around one in four children. But in my experience it’s not a trait that’s encouraged or valued or even properly accepted, especially in a school environment. After all, 75% of the class displays ‘normal’ (non highly sensitive) behaviour.
There is a reluctance to understand or even make allowances for these childrens' emotional needs during one of the biggest transitions in their young lives. It's a situation made all the more difficult when those teaching our children have no training or knowledge about high sensitivity.
I wasn’t alone in my frustrations. “My argument is, there are allowances made for physical, learning and developmental delays, so why not emotional needs,” says one parent of a highly sensitive boy. And I have to agree. These children are not particularly shy, nor are they insecure or emotionally unstable – though often these labels stick - they’re simply highly sensitive and need some experiences adjusted for them.
My daughter is now six and still refuses to have the "Happy Birthday" song at her parties. We all just say Happy Birthday in unison and light the candles. That seems to keep everyone happy. Her sensitivities are lessening with time but, by the same token, as she becomes older expectations of her continue to rise so it’s a constant challenge. But for all the challenging moments, I wouldn’t change her for the world – and here’s why.
Highly sensitive people are also highly:
Spiritual - rich inner lives
Some famous highly sensitive people are:
Artists, musicians, spiritual leaders and more.
Leonardo De Vinci
Do you have a highly sensitive child?
The highly sensitive child (HSC) is often hesitant to try new experiences, fearing failure. They also struggle to deal with change. Their senses are often heightened, so new sounds, sights and smells may upset them. This is because these children have sensitive nervous systems that make it harder to filter out stimuli and easier to get overwhelmed by their environment.
The trait occurs equally in boys and girls and isn’t exclusive to introverts; in fact, 30 per cent of highly sensitive children are extroverts. New research on genetics and brain chemistry is finally validating the sensitive trait and challenging the labels "shy, introvert, and withdrawn," says Aron.
Thanks to Aron's book I’ve learnt to celebrate the great aspects of being a parent to a highly sensitive child. As one blogger so eloquently put it: Much like flowers, highly sensitive people are beautiful but fragile.
Is your child highly sensitive? What has been your experience?
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