You head to the couch with your children to watch The Lion King! You’re hooked from the first notes of the famous “nants ingonyama bagithi baba.” Everything is going wonderfully until your eldest bursts into tears. Of course, this is normal. Who hasn’t cried when Mufasa dies? However, for your boy, this sorrow doesn’t subside—so much so that he has trouble continuing the film without sobbing. Later that night, at bedtime, he returns to the film and now starts crying thinking that he might lose you one day. If this scene seems familiar to you, one of your children may be hypersensitive.
what is hypersensitivity?
Children come into the world with a biological makeup that is unique to them. For example, a child’s temperament is not acquired. It is an innate element of their personality. This is also the case with sensory regulation, which refers to the ability to process and respond to internal sensory stimulations, which come from our own body, as well as external stimulations, which come from the environment.
More specifically, hyposensitive children need a longer exposure time to stimuli and a greater frequency and intensity to understand what is going on around them. On the opposite side of the continuum, a hypersensitive child may respond rapidly and strongly to stimulation and remain in a state of vigilance longer than most children because they perceive certain stimuli as being more threatening. These stimulations may be visual, sonic, tactile, olfactory, or emotional (sensitivity to their own emotions as well as those of others).
Elaine Aron, an American psychologist who has focused on this issue, describes five points that are characteristic of hypersensitive people:
- a tendency to be more easily overwhelmed by one’s feelings
- a greater awareness of the nuances of the environment
- a higher emotional responsiveness
- a lower detection threshold
- a more developed empathy
It’s true that in recent years, the word hyper- sensitive has carved out a place for itself in common language. However, some parents may have trouble understanding what it really is and—especially—knowing how to help their children with it. Indeed, what can you do with a child who doesn’t tolerate any labels on their clothing, who feels attacked by the rain if it’s too cold, who categorically refuses to eat certain foods, and who may fiercely push friends away in the schoolyard because they are “too close” or talking “too loud?”
As a parent, it is important first of all to set aside the categorization. Beyond having a heightened sensitivity or a high sensitivity (which are more accurate terms to describe this trait, since the prefix hyper refers to what is excessive), your children have individual characteristics and contexts that lend a particular colour to this way of understanding the world. Furthermore, children (and adults!) who have a heightened sensitivity are not necessarily outside the norm. As with height in humans, there is an infinite number of variations with- out this being “abnormal.” Sensitivity lies on a similar spectrum. That said, if your child’s functioning at home, school, or elsewhere is affected, talk to a healthcare professional to rule out the possibility of a sensory modulation or regulation disorder.
some data on heightened sensitivity
The figures vary, but according to Aron’s work, it is reported that, in general, 20 to 25% of the population lives with high sensitivity. In addition, the proportion of women in this group is higher. That said, a few hypotheses may explain this deviation between the sexes:
- The existence of a biological difference (genetic or hormonal, for example) in terms of sensitivity.
- The influence of culture on sensitivity, which might be caused by stereotypes attributed to women and men.
- The presence of a bias when individuals take psychometric tests when it comes to their sensitivity. More specifically, men tend to minimize their sensitivity, while this is not the case with women. There might therefore not be any real difference in terms of sensitivity between the sexes if this bias is considered.
Furthermore, it would be interesting to observe how hypersensitivity is perceived and quantified elsewhere in the world, since expressiveness and sensitivity are not experienced and approached the same way in all cultures.
supporting a child living with heightened sensitivity
Let’s return to your child who watched The Lion King. In that moment, it might be tempting to respond that he is exaggerating and that you won’t ever watch a movie with him again if he reacts this way. However, this response could make him suffer even more. Experiencing these sensory and emotional flows isn’t easy for children. They are often confused and fearful of all these stimulations themselves. The smaller they are, the harder it is for them to name or even understand what they are feeling. One of parents’ allies is therefore empathy. Try to put yourself in your child’s shoes to help them recognize and deconstruct their emotions. That way, you will help them navigate through them.
Patience will also be necessary. Your children learn through their life experiences how to bet- ter live with their sensitivity and identify what overstimulates them. They often feel different from others, or even shameful. They therefore need to find their own bearings to regulate their emotions. This won’t happen without tears, tantrums, or other strong reactions that may seem irritating to you. Remember that your child is making an effort, and just because you aren’t seeing results quickly doesn’t mean that they aren’t trying very hard to soothe their feelings.
Sensitivity is a wealth in our society. When it is highly present, the challenge is to find strategies to promote a return to calm. Creativity is a good asset to allow you to find different tools that your child can explore to see if they work for them. Breathing techniques, making art, sports activities, soothing objects, and role-playing games to become familiar with situations that activate heightened sensitivity responses are just a few examples of what you could implement in your family. Encouraging your child to expose themselves gradually to intense stimulations for them and congratulating them when they use their self-regulation strategies will help them tame their beautiful sensitivity. Because at the end of the day, that’s what they really need: to be accepted as they are!