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Parenting Highly Sensitive Kids

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Welcome to the Whole Parent Podcast. My name is Jon. Do you have a kid who seems to get really overwhelmed by things, who just absolutely melts down over really simple things? I'm not talking about just in toddlerhood, but it becomes a thing later in life. Anytime they get hurt, they just react with huge, seemingly oversized emotions. Maybe they're sensitive to loud noises, maybe they don't like things like fireworks. For those of you who live in the United States, we're coming up on the 4th of July. They seem to have more emotional needs than maybe you expected for your kids to have.

Or maybe you have other kids, and they don't have those same emotional needs, educational strengths, and sometimes some educational difficulties. Well, then you might have a highly sensitive kid, and this episode is all about highly sensitive children: how we can help highly sensitive kids, how we can parent highly sensitive kids, and what high sensitivity comes from. We're gonna define it, we're gonna get into it. So, yeah, stick around; we're gonna talk about some things. Once again, my name is Jon. This is the Whole Parent.

We are talking about high sensitivity today, and one of my great criticisms of many parenting authors, creators, some of the big ones, is that this high sensitivity thing has. There was somebody who really came up with this and we often do not give her the credit that she deserves. Her name is Dr. Elaine Aron, and she wrote a best-selling book called *The Highly Sensitive Person* and then some subsequent books, including *The Highly Sensitive Child*, which was my first introduction to Dr. Aron, and she really is the groundbreaking mind, researcher, and thought leader behind the concept of high sensitivity. There was a really weird documentary with Alanis Morissette and Elaine Aron about highly sensitive persons. Maybe that's how you were first introduced to it, but before we go any further into the episode, it's really important to give credit where credit is due. Because oftentimes, in the world of social media, I find myself doing this. I'm not trying to criticize anyone in particular, but in the world of social media, we’re so quick to want to tell everybody about what's going on and give people good advice. Those are all good things, but sometimes we forget to share where we got that information, and so I wanted to do that right at the top of the episode.

If you're looking for more information, I'm going to have links to the show notes for additional resources. If you have gone and looked at the show notes in recent episodes, or even in past episodes, we have really overhauled the show notes to try and make them more helpful. They give you some timestamps and additional resources. Some of those will be mentioned directly in episodes, like I am right now with her book *The Highly Sensitive Child*. Others will be things that I just think might help you on whatever topic that we're talking about.

Highly sensitive kids, it's an amazing topic to talk about today, but I wouldn't be talking about it, and I would not be half the parent for my oldest that I am today if it wasn't for the work of Dr. Elaine Aron, who again gets so overlooked when people call it other things, not high sensitivity, right? Because this can go by a lot of names. People often will say highly sensitive kids are explosive kids, referring to the work of Dr. Ross Green, and while there is definitely some overlap and I would say an extreme amount of overlap, the Venn diagram of explosive kids and highly sensitive kids has a big middle section. Highly sensitive kids are not explosive kids. Some people call this deeply feeling kids. There's a very big author who uses that term. I don't know what that means. I'll let that author define that and share that. But this concept of high sensitivity has been around a lot longer than the concept of anything by any other name that I can find. If somebody else came up with this first and Elaine Aron is the one who is building on that, you know all research builds on past research. If that's the case, please shoot me an email or just to hear your thoughts about the show in general.

Just send it to That again is If you have other sources related to this, please shoot them to me. We’re already pretty far into the episode, and I want to spend this episode as kind of an introduction because there's way too much to cover about highly sensitive children. If you have a highly sensitive child, this may be totally eye-opening to you, groundbreaking for you, and there's way too much to cover in one episode. I don't know when the next time I'll talk about this is. But I really think that this is required listening if you have a kid who, as I described before, has any of those types of sensitivity.

The first explanation that I would like to give about high sensitivity or the place I think we should start in understanding high sensitivity is understanding what it is. We're going to talk a lot about symptoms of

high sensitivity and how those things manifest, and understanding the needs of highly sensitive kids, and some practical strategies for parenting highly sensitive kids. I know that’s why a lot of people tune into these episodes – for the practical, understanding-type stuff.

But before that, we have to understand first what makes a person highly sensitive. According to Dr. Elaine Aron, high sensitivity is not just a human thing, it's a nature thing. Specifically, it occurs within species of animals, of which humans are one, where they are pack or group species. This could be a herd of horses or deer. This can obviously be other apes like chimpanzees and bonobos, but it also is in humans. The concept that Dr. Aron promotes or forwards is that they have observed this – for lack of a better term – eccentricity in about 20% of the members of any given pack species, so one out of five. She would argue that this is not a disability in any way, not even an abnormality. In order for it to be an abnormality, it has to be less common. Rather, 20% means that this is a feature, not a failure. So, because of that, we have to understand: why would this be the case?

What Dr. Aron posits for us is that the reason this happens is because it was beneficial for the survival of the whole for one out of five of the members of the group to have increased sensitivity to everything. Increased sensitivity to all of the world. The idea behind this is that in a pack environment, the strengths of the pack could be built by the diversity within that pack. For anyone who understands genetics, which is something that I'm just learning about, this is really interesting. Relating to parenting and genetic traits and turning those on and off based on environment – all that stuff is fascinating. But anyone who understands genetics knows that there are certain genetic traits, like where your nose goes on your face, that are very resilient and not diverse. Other aspects, like what foods you like to taste, how sensitive your sense of smell is, and which colors look good to you, are more diverse. This diversity, even within twin pairs, is beneficial. The evolutionary biologists forward that diversity allows for a greater chance of survival for the whole.

So, if you have a bunch of different members of a pack that have different strengths, that’ll be better for the whole. That’s a really beautiful thing to think about. One of these strengths, according to Elaine Aron, is that the sensory input for about one in five of the members of that pack is just going to be higher.

The first way to understand this is to imagine if you're not a highly sensitive person. Maybe you are a highly sensitive person, because there is a definite genetic component in this, where it tends to be that children who are highly sensitive have at least one parent who is highly sensitive. Not always, but it's much more common. Just imagine that if you’re not a highly sensitive person – I am not – imagine that the sounds that you hear that felt kind of loud, to a highly sensitive person, that would be 40% louder. Or when you hear a sound and it’s loud, if you are a highly sensitive person, to a non-highly sensitive person, it would be about 40% more tolerable. Strong smells? The same thing, about 40% more tolerable. Strong tastes? Same thing, 40% more extreme or 40% more tolerable.

Just imagine that if you had a dial on all of your sensory input, you would just turn it up by a couple notches. That's what's happening in highly sensitive people. They just have that genetic trait that it turns up. It amplifies the experiences, the sensory input. There are a lot of reasons why evolutionary biologists would say that a species may have certain members that are better at smelling, better at tasting, have a more refined sense of taste or smell. The reason is that it allows the pack as a whole to have a sort of canary in the coal mine. If one member is more alert to noticing abnormalities in the change of routine, or more alert to noticing that, “Hey, this smells a little funny, maybe we shouldn't eat this,” or “This tastes a little funny, maybe this has gone bad,” then the rest of the pack can respond to that. Even if the rest of the pack doesn't taste the inappropriateness, they can rely on the highly sensitive member to keep them safe. So it's a strength, not a weakness.

However, the way in which our society is set up is generally speaking for the masses. If there's only 20% of people who are bothered by how loud something is, chances are society is going to keep making it loud because only one in five people are experiencing that negatively. Similarly, because we are a deeply social species, the likelihood that a person says, when they're in a room full of people, “Oh man, this smells really bad,” while others do not think it smells that bad, is high. Because we're a social species, the way that often we are conditioned to respond to that is to downplay our own experience in favor of the group's experience.

When we understand that our children may be experiencing this, it will explain a whole lot of things very quickly. So that's what high sensitivity is in the most basic terms.

How does this manifest specifically in kids? We'll get into adults maybe in a later episode. Maybe I'll do one on highly sensitive parents. My wife is highly sensitive, so I do have a window into what that would look like. But for now, I want to focus on what that looks like in kids.

Here is your really quick test. By the way, this is a little bit of a brief aside, but I want to get really heavy into quizzes because I think understanding yourself and understanding your kid is one of the most fundamental parts of becoming the parent that you want to be and reacting and acting and responding in the ways in which you want to respond. My whole punishment-free parenting paradigm is much, much easier when you have more information related to “Okay, this is not, for example, a character flaw. This is not my kid whining unnecessarily or my kid trying to get my attention.” Not that those are necessarily horrible things all the time. Sometimes we need our kids to get our attention, but this is just how they're experiencing the world. I think those are better.

So I want to make a quiz that would be much easier than this, where it just says kind of like, “How much agree, strongly agree, strongly disagree,” type quiz where I could take the work of Elaine Aron and make a 10 to 15 question quiz, “Do you have a highly sensitive kid?” I think that would be a really helpful tool.

I actually did create this quiz. Click the button and check it out!

Okay, back to what we're talking about. Here's how I would recognize if I had a highly sensitive child. Often in my membership, when we talk about this, with parents group coaching calls, which are basically these very small group calls, like usually between three and five parents who can just ask me whatever questions they want. Those are like a pre-scheduled time, so like anybody who shows up can just ask me whatever they want. We even did a whole workshop on highly sensitive kids. When people in those environments want to go back and forth, I'll just ask them questions like these and then we'll kind of say like, “Okay, does this sound kind of like your kid? Does he do this, do they do that?” So here are some kind of things that I will often talk to parents about.

Number one is the heightened sensitivity to sensory input. Do you have a kid who just gets really bothered by the tags on their clothes? I'm not saying that many kids get bothered by the tags on their clothes, but for your child, is it something that they can't seemingly get past? It bothers them and they can't get past it. If so, you might have a highly sensitive kid. If you're listening to this episode and you're thinking, “Jon, this sounds a lot like ASD or ADHD,” high sensitivity and ASD are fundamentally different things. Yes, there is absolutely some overlap in some of the things, but you'll notice very quickly there are other things that are completely different. So scratchy tags on clothes. They do get really bothered when things are too loud. For example, my son absolutely, if I'm doing any sort of yard work with something with a motor, he wants to either leave me alone completely or wear ear protection. Too bright of lights, does that bother them? Are they generally bothered by their physical environment, and they can't seem to move past it?

You may have a highly sensitive kid. If

they have no sensitivity to any sensory input, I would be pretty surprised if they are a highly sensitive kid. So that would be step one, and part of the reason why they can't move past it – we’ll understand the needs here in a moment and get into some of the practical steps of working with highly sensitive kids. Part of the reason why they can't get past those sensory things is because in their genetic coding, like if we take the example of the member of a species – let’s use a deer, I think that's the example from Elaine Aron's book. If you have a deer, and the highly sensitive deer is the one that goes up and sniffs the berries first and sees if they’re poisonous or not. They’re the ones with the highly tuned sense of smell. If they were able to just kind of get over it and ignore the smell because the other deer want to eat this and they're waiting for the all-clear, that would not be good for the survival of the whole, right? Highly sensitive kids have a much harder time moving past the overwhelming sensory information, not only because it's 40% more, but also because something in them says, “No, stop, this is too loud, this is going to damage your hearing, stop now, stop now.”

So that's number one, the sensitivity to any sort of high sensory input. That's a big one. The second is some behavioral stuff. How do your kids react when, for example, they get hurt? If they react huge every single time, like it's the end of the world when they stub their toe, they just have a huge, oversized emotional reaction. That could be a sign of high sensitivity. So they're highly sensitive also to pain sensation because that's a form of touch, right?

But then other things unrelated to sensory. Does your child have a really hard time with changes to the plan? Again, some of these things sound a lot like ASD, but they're not. You could have a highly sensitive kid who also has ASD. You could have a highly sensitive kid who does not. So do they struggle with the concept of a change in the routine? Like, if this person said, for example, that they were going to be able to go to the park with me this afternoon, but now it's raining. Is that a huge disappointment or is that just a minor inconvenience? Highly sensitive kids often have a really hard time with changes to the routine.

Third, does your child tend to be a little bit more wait-and-see before they just dive right in? That's another sign of high sensitivity, and this is different, by the way, from introversion. So, as we talk about all these things, you might think, “Well, I just thought that was a trait of my kid being kind of introverted.” You can have a very extroverted kid who still doesn't want to necessarily be the first kid to climb up on top of the tree or maybe wants to watch the game being played for a little while before they jump in and join. That wait-and-see approach before they dive headlong into something, especially something new, is very typical of highly sensitive kids.

Lastly, your own gut feeling and observation. If you find yourself during social events, school activities, family gatherings, worried about how your child will react to changes and different things, then you may already be acting in such a way as you know in your subconscious that there is something with your child where they require a little bit more of your involvement. If that is the case and you’ve said yes to some of these other things, then there’s a good chance that you have a highly sensitive kid, because the chances already were about one in five. If you add to that that you or your partner have a level of high sensitivity, it’s much more common. It can be much more difficult to assess in adults because a lot of adults, especially those raised in the '80s and '90s, have developed coping mechanisms since a lot of the behaviors that come from high sensitivity are not socially accepted. Adults may often deny their own experiences because of social conditioning.

If you suspect you have a highly sensitive child and you’ve answered yes to a few of these questions, I would almost guarantee you have a highly sensitive kid. If neither you nor your partner knows whether you are highly sensitive, and you’re still answering yes to these questions, I would still treat your kid as though they’re highly sensitive. Nothing we’re going to talk about in terms of understanding the needs of highly sensitive kids or practical strategies for dealing with high sensitivity will hurt your kid if you’re wrong. But if you’re not doing these things and you do have a highly sensitive kid, then you’re going to be fighting an uphill battle.

Recognizing high sensitivity can be challenging, especially if teachers or other family members point it out. Sometimes it’s hard for us to see because we just know them as them. Teachers, however, can notice differences because they have a whole class of kids to compare. I noticed much more assuredly that my oldest was highly sensitive when my next two kids came along and did not exhibit the same signs. This helps in understanding the needs of highly sensitive kids.

I want to take a quick break here to say, if you haven't gone to the bottom of the show notes and subscribed to get updates on this podcast, please do so. You don’t want to miss it. Also, I haven’t checked the reviews because this is a Tuesday episode. I try to give you guys some time. The Spotify listeners are doing better at rating and reviewing the show than the Apple listeners, so Apple listeners, you need to catch up. Spotify listeners, keep doing your thing.

Returning to our subject matter of highly sensitive kids, I want to break down their needs into three categories: emotional needs, physical needs, and social needs. For emotional needs, highly sensitive people, and kids specifically, often struggle with having a good internal sense of validation and self-worth. They may need a lot more processing on the front end than you might expect. It can be very taxing as a parent of a highly sensitive child to constantly deal with overwhelming emotions related to sensory issues, but it’s important to take their experiences seriously. Gentle communication and validation are key.

For physical needs, sensory needs are actually simpler than other things. There are certain sensory needs you can't handle, like preventing them from getting hurt. But you can provide tools like ear protection or noise-canceling headphones for loud environments. Trust your kid when they say something bothers them. Fix it if you can. Cut tags off clothes or avoid certain fabrics if necessary.

Lastly, for social needs, the world is not set up for highly sensitive people. It’s set up for the majority. Your kid may need help being more assertive or may need you to push them carefully. Understand that social interactions can present unique challenges. Help them build confidence in social settings and recognize their need for a supportive environment.

To conclude, highly sensitive kids have unique gifts and abilities. By understanding and supporting their needs, you can help them thrive. Highly sensitive kids are not a burden; they are often the most empathetic and intuitive people, capable of deep connections and insights. Embrace their sensitivity as a strength and help them develop the skills they need to navigate the world.

If you’ve liked this episode, if you think you might have a highly sensitive child, please make sure to subscribe to the podcast and get email updates. Follow me on social media to stay connected. Until next time, this has been the Whole Parent Podcast.

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