Friday, February 13, 2009

"It hurts!" - raising a sensitive child

A mum asked me how I dealt with Lesley-Anne's sensitivity as she has a very sensitive child as well. I'd previously mentioned that Lesley-Anne is extremely sensitive which sometimes drives me to despair, and I know a few other mothers who face the same issues with their sensitive children.

YY pointed me to this book "The Highly Sensitive Child" by Elain Aron and I found it at Borders (thanks YY!). The bad part first, Aron does tend to ramble and her writing style is not the most engaging. But the book's good points far outweigh the bad. While many things merely confirmed what I already knew, I also learned many new and interesting facts.

For instance, I did not realise that emotional and mental sensitivity is directly linked to physical sensitivity, ie an emotionally sensitive child is more likely to have heightened physical sensations as well. It explains why Lesley-Anne has a very low threshold for pain, and her skin cannot endure scratchy clothing, anything dirty and harsh soaps (I used to have to cut off all the labels from her clothes before she would wear them which drove me bananas). Sensitive children can be overwhelmed by things that hurt their senses like noise, strong light, smells or tastes. When we were in Beijing, Lesley-Anne refused to go for a foot massage with the rest of us because she said that she "didn't want strange hands touching her."

According to Aron, about 15-20% of children are born highly sensitive. These are children who seem to get easily hurt or upset, are picky and overreact to little things. The problem is that sensitivity tends to be viewed negatively, like it's some sort of disorder and many parents believe their kids should just be taught or trained to be less sensitive. Aron takes a different view. Her research found that sensitivity is an inborn trait. Rather than try to change or deny it, parents should accept it as part of their children's unique personality and work with it.

There is a wide spectrum of variance among what Aron coined the Highly Sensitive Child (HSC) but it's too long to get into in this post, so I'll just summarise what she says are some of the common traits:

1) Aware of subtleties: the HSC notices little changes in the environment, not just physical but sometimes nuances like increased tension in the room. This may cause distress to the HSC even without the child knowing why. As such, the HSC is often described as intuitive.

2) More easily overstimulated: The body reacts to stimulation and because HSCs are more easily aroused, things or situations can be more frightening, more uncomfortable or more nerve-racking for them. HSCs frequently suffer from performance anxiety.

3) Deep inner reactions: HSCs feel emotions more keenly, internalise them more and remember them longer than other children. They are more disturbed by injustice and they worry more. On the flip side, they also feel more intense positive emotions, so you may find them overwhelmingly happy over a minor incident.

4) Aware of others' feelings: Because HSCs are more intuitive, they can also be more aware of others' emotions, without being told in words. Sometimes even when the other party is not aware of his/her own emotions! This doesn't necessarily mean they're more empathetic to others though.

5) Extreme caution: HSCs typically hate change and trying anything new and unfamiliar. They can obsess over every possible danger (real or imagined) and impose rigid restrictions and rules on themselves.

In her book, Aron goes into detail on how parents can help their HSCs at the different stages - infants, pre-schoolers, schoolers, teens and young adults. She also describes the different challenges facing parents who are not sensitive or sensitive themselves. Can't give you the whole hog here, so I'm just going to give a sprinkling of tips for parents that she provides:

- Believe your HSC and do something about it when he says something hurts or is uncomfortable. Try not to thrust your HSC into an environment with multiple, intensive stimuli.

- If your HSC suffers from performance anxiety, rehearse the skill many times with her, don't let her go into a test or performance underprepared. Try not to add to the pressure and make sure she has plenty of rest and breaks.

- Don't just quash your HSC's emotions, acknowledge and respect them. Talk to him about his emotions and how to handle them, especially in public.

- Be careful about sharing your own troubles or judgements of other with your young HSC because she is so understanding - she may be overwhelmed with the responsibility of having to provide emotional support for an adult.

- HSCs can feel bad saying no to others. Teach her how to stand up for her wishes and to express her own opinions (without trampling on others' toes, of course!)

- Encourage your HSC to try new things by taking it one step at a time and assuring him that you are there for support. Sometimes, HSCs need that gentle push.

- Don't belittle or dismiss your HSC's feelings and behaviours. Saying things like "you shouldn't care what other people think" is unhelpful because the HSC can't help feeling that way. It will only make him feel more distress.

- But don't overly slop on the praise or pity either. Being over-protective only reinforces the HSC's feeling that he is different and is deficient in some way.

- Positive encouragement rather than strong correction usually works better for HSCs when it comes to discipline and achievements. HSCs can take criticism much to heart and it paralyses them instead of spurring them on.

As a side note, Aron mentions that quite a high percentage of gifted children are HSCs. This is somewhat supported by Kazimierz Dabrowski's Overexcitabilities theory, where he found that gifted children react more strongly and for longer to a stimuli than non-gifted children in five areas: psychomotor, sensual, imaginational, intellectual and emotional. The intensity of each differs from individual to individual but Dabrowski claims that all gifted children have at least one of these traits. Important note though: just because a child is sensitive, doesn't mean she's necessarily gifted.

For parents of sensitive children, I hope this post is helpful (obviously you'll need to read more about it, this is just an appetiser). At the very least, I hope it will encourage you to embrace your child's sensitivity along with her other traits, instead of trying to change it. Afterall, it's part of what makes her unique.


Anonymous said...

wow... actually this describes me very well... When I was in school, I would always feel terribly conscious of myself and of what others think of me... it drove me nuts playing the emotions over and over again in my head and then feeling awful about the situation and about myself...

The flip side of being sensitive was truly about being intuitive... somehow I knew how pp felt about things, I knew how they would react to situations... it was uncanny how i sometimes am able to predict the very words which they will say...

I'm less sensitive these days.. What helped me was supportive friends who told me to snap out of things... who told me not to take things too seriously... :) And of coz, the school of hard knocks help me grow a thicker skin.

Thanks for sharing the book. I should go get it... I thinkn my eldest child shows signs of HSC too

monlim said...

Anon (is it Jo?): I understand perfectly, I'm also that way though as you say, you learn to be more thick-skinned as you grow up. Although I don't think I was as sensitive as Lesley-Anne, it's good there's someone in my family that understands this trait of hers cos Kenneth and Andre are as sensitive as bull-dozers!

What was the most enlightening for me about the book was how sensitivity can be a very positive thing, not a negative one.

elan said...

My younger son is very highly sensitive too ( The one who is more mathematically gifted compared to his linguistically gifted brother) - same problem with clothes labels and emotional ups and downs, tantrums over little things and bouncing off the walls joyfulfulness over other things. He doesn't like dirty things but ironically is a typically dirty little boy who wipes his mouth on his sleeve despite a million reminders. He is also sensitive to smells. He gets very upset when anyone drinks coffee in front of him for example.
However, when it comes to other people's feelings and emotions, he doesn't seem to care at all about hurting them.
Does the book say anything about helping them be empathetic?

monlim said...

Elan: Aron does give quite a few case studies on HSCs with different personalities and how to handle some of the problems that might arise. The thing is, it's not so easy to find where she speaks about specific issues cos there's no index in the book and the info could be better organised.

But I do recall that she mentioned some HSCs have problems with empathy so perhaps she does go into what parents can do (sorry, just couldn't find it when I was thumbing the book again).

Anonymous said...

I see the HSC characteristics in my child. When my child was younger, I was so much more annoyed, almost tear my hair out...I supposed I got adjusted to it now in most areas except one. bwaaaaaaaah...come to terms with it myself...born like that, what to do? She never asks for it.

Anyway, my personal experience is maturing helps in the process. Mind over matter....and understanding helps to manage some of these sensitivities better. It will never be totally irradicated but I am just happy to see minute progress, every step counts since this is a born trait.

On a positive note, she also exhibits all the positive sides of HSC which makes me proud of her. So if I focus on the positive side of things, it cannot be so bad la. And my child is not gifted, only a gift from God to us.


monlim said...

QX: Great to hear that you recognises the plus points and are handling this positively! Takes an intuitive mum to be able to manage this role, it's not easy. I still get easily irritated by L-A sometimes but have to remind myself that I was probably like that as a kid as well.

Perhaps it would be helpful for you to get the book (or borrow from the library) as Aron does have quite a lot of useful tips on what to do.

Jo said...

Thanks for the post and tips Monica ! I shall certainly give the book a read.

I understand how such sensitivity can be viewed negatively. Just last weekend at her chinese class there were tears again ( this is the 7th lesson already :( ). Daddy was with her and he said it was because at the start of the class the teacher stood close to her and spoke loudly ! Yet at the end of the class she's as happy as a bird ... We have stopped trying to understand this roller coaster of emotions and we just accept that's how she is and try to give her the support she needs.

I can identify with you on the low pain threshold ! (still doing the label cutting !) I have to go on a search for alternative school shoes this weekend as her "Bata" ones are uncomfortable !


monlim said...

Jo: Wow, your dd is definitely a HSC alright! What the HSC probably needs most is a secure family to reassure and be with her in this bewildering world where everything is too loud, too bright, too painful, too uncomfortable. It's great you have made a point to accept and support her - that's half the battle won, I think. Good luck!!

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