To say parenting a highly sensitive child is a challenge is an understatement and can leave even the most highly seasoned parent in a pickle! Highly sensitive babies are often more difficult to settle or just need ‘their routine’ more than siblings or friends’ babies. Sensitive children may ask to be carried for longer and later struggle to settle at birthday parties. They may struggle to brush their teeth or hair. Indeed, hair washing and brushing can be a major battle ground for highly sensitive children. Putting on socks, tights and shoes can lead to meltdown. Scratchy labels or itchy jumpers can cause distress. Many children will object to the loud hand dryers in public toilets but for the sensitive child it can be a painful experience that causes a panic reaction. Children who are highly sensitive may be fussy eaters, struggling with different textures and smells. Children may have an unusually high or low pain threshold. They may struggle to drop off to sleep at night. Children may engage in high risk behaviour such as jumping on furniture, crashing into walls and siblings or parents. Transitions (moving from one activity to another, for example, leaving the house in the morning to go to school) can become a long and torturous experience for both the highly sensitive child, their siblings and parents.
The terms sensory processing difficulties and sensory Integration difficulties are often used interchangeably. Sensory Processing difficulties have not made it into any official ‘disorder’ category and as such are sometimes not seen as a standalone condition. However, most experts agree that sensory challenges exist and can be serious regardless of whether these issues can be classified as a disorder. Research shows that around 20% of children fall into a category of ‘highly sensitive’ with an equal number being boys and girls. It remains unclear as to why children may be born with or develop these traits. Some research suggests that premature babies are more likely to be highly sensitive and there are some twin studies that suggest a genetic component. Historically, it was believed that sensory issues were a trait of Autistic Spectrum Disorder (ASD). However, whilst we know that children with a diagnosis of ASD frequently experience sensory issues, we now understand that sensory issues can exist alone.
Sensory Issues occur when a child has a difficult time receiving and responding to information from the senses such as light, sound, touch and smell. Whilst we commonly talk about our five senses, we also have three additional senses: two movement senses; and the sense that tells us what’s going on inside of our bodies. Children may have an overreactive, under reactive or mixed sensory profile. Children each have a unique profile; this has made research into the condition more difficult. Children who are hypersensitive may struggle with bright lights, loud noises and strong smells. Whereas children who are hyposensitive crave interaction and physical sensory feedback and may at times appear hyperactive.
It can be very confusing and difficult to parent the highly sensitive child. It is hard to understand why a child might cope on one occasion but not on another. Sensory integration difficulties cause heightened anxiety for children, their siblings, their parents and at times their teachers! Recognising that you have a highly sensitive child and getting support at an early stage can be key to a calmer and happier future. Often the first port of call is Occupational Therapy Services who support families with strategies to calm the sensitive child’s system. However, the nature of sensory issues can lead to a tricky parent-child relationship and high levels of anxiety for the whole family. These sorts of difficulties can sometimes benefit from an emotional based support. Sometimes strategies to support the highly sensitive child are called a ‘sensory diet’.
Sensory Diet – each child has a unique profile of sensory integration difficulties and will require more or less of different strategies. The fact that no one approach fits all makes it even more confusing for parents.
Examples of a sensory diet strategies to support the highly sensitive child:
- Bouncing on the trampoline
- Deep pressure massage
- chewy food
- fidget toys
- scented pens or play-doh
- smart knit seamless socks
- weighted blankets for the bed
- soft topped drinks bottles to allow chewing
Examples of emotionally supportive strategies for you, your child and your family
- Make sure you have plenty of time for transitions, rushing the sensitive child frequently leads to meltdowns
- Create reward charts or ‘when you get dressed then you can…’ situations for tasks such as getting dressed, brushing teeth, putting on shoes and socks
- Use lots of praise and rewards to encourage your sensitive child
- Try to stay calm, take time out to ‘re-set’ if a situation becomes tricky
- Try to help school, family and friends understand, it is common for highly sensitive children’s behaviour to be labelled as ‘naughty’ or ‘difficult’
- Create predictable routines for you child which will help them to feel safer and reduce anxiety
- Remember that the most important thing is your relationship with your child. Sensory issues can put a big strain on relationships. Make 10 minutes special time for you and your child every day. This is a time for you to connect with your child, allow your child to choose what you do in the 10-minute special time
- Practise deep breathing and relaxation exercises together with your child
All children will show some heightened sensitivity at times and different developmental stages are marked by different types of sensitivity and corresponding behaviour i.e. fussy eating, separation anxiety. However, if you think your child is ‘highly sensitive’ the following resources may be helpful:
- Sensory Processing 101 – Dayna Abraham, Claire Heffron et al (2015)
- Understanding Your Childs Sensory Signals: A practical Daily use Handbook for Parents and Teachers – Angie Voss (2011)
- Your Essential Guide to Understanding Sensory Processing Disorder. Plus: Travelling with a sensory Kiddo – Angie Voss (2011)
- The Highly Sensitive Child: Helping our Children Thrive When the World Overwhelms Them – Elaine N. Aron (2015)
- The Out of Sync Child – Carol Stock Kranowitz (2005)
If sensory difficulties are preventing you and your family from doing the things that you want to do together don’t be afraid to ask for some support.