In this post, learn about how difficult childhood is when you don’t know you’re highly sensitive and are taught to suppress your highly sensitive person (HSP) identity. Then discover how to identify high sensitivity in children and practices to become a better support system.
- Before I Begin…
- Discovering The Highly Sensitive Person (HSP) Label
- What Is A Highly Sensitive Person (HSP)?
- My Experience Being An HSP In Childhood
- 7 Signs Of A Highly Sensitive Child
- How To Support A Highly Sensitive Child
- The Perks Of High Sensitivity
Before I Begin…
The HSP trait is still a relatively new concept for me.
It is a personality trait I learned about for the first time roughly four months ago.
I am disclosing that this is a new term for me as a reminder that I am not an expert in this field–although I am an authority having lived as an HSP.
And not being an expert was also what kept me from sharing this post last week.
Because I am new to this particular topic, I was really suffering from imposter syndrome and felt I didn’t have a right to write about it.
But being an expert and providing academic-based articles is not the purpose of this blog.
In this blog, I share the things I am learning that allow me to reflect on my lived experiences.
And it’s very important to me to show my process of discovering, learning, reflecting and accepting new traits and insights into what makes me–me. My goal for sharing this process is that it may help and encourage others to attempt the same.
So, again, this post is being written by someone who has just recently learned they are highly sensitive, are understanding how it has impacted their past and sharing their general observations and opinions.
Disclaimer: I am not a medical doctor, psychologist, therapist or similar. This blog offers ideas, tools, strategies and recommendations based on my experience with anxiety, panic attacks and mental health. I do not guarantee any results or outcomes as strategies that have worked for me may not work for you. For diagnosis and treatment of any physical and mental health condition, consult a licensed professional.
Discovering The Highly Sensitive Person (HSP) Label
I first discovered the label on Instagram. Since my general interests include personality and mental health, my social media accounts recommend many fascinating pages and articles in both fields. I like it because even though not everything I discover will reflect me, it does help me to understand and be more considerate of others.
And, as I always do when I see a new term, I started researching it.
As I went down the Google rabbit hole, I was completely captivated.
Reading about the characteristics of an HSP, including their strengths and struggles, checked all the boxes for personality traits that I couldn’t categorize as being specific to my introversion or anxiety.
It also allowed me to start reconciling events from my past. Specifically, I started reflecting on the moments I was told I was too sensitive and the missteps I took while trying to deny that part of me.
What Is A Highly Sensitive Person (HSP)?
Before I continue, let’s get a general idea of an HSP.
Both introverts and extroverts may identify as HSP. This is because HSP goes beyond a specific personality trait and is believed to be rooted in biology and genetics.
Researchers believe that being highly sensitive is linked to an increased sensitivity in our central nervous system. And this increased sensitivity leaves an HSP more open to physical, emotional and social stimuli.
However, the level of sensitivity that an HSP experiences may also tie into their environment.
For example, an HSP child who is encouraged to express their sensitivity may develop differently than one who is discouraged from the same.
And let me make it clear that discouraging displays of sensitivity in a child only makes it more difficult for them to connect and communicate their thoughts and emotions constructively. It does not make them less sensitive.
General Characteristics of an HSP
HSP is a personality trait that you can identify with based on generalized characteristics.
Some of these characteristics include:
- Emotional to the degree that people may describe you as “too sensitive.”
- Empathic with the ability to sense others’ emotions and adopt them as your own.
- Intuitive as having the ability to immediately sense the overall “feel” of a room.
- Sensitive to external stimuli, whether the stimulus is sound, emotions, light, energy or something physical.
- Quick to feel tired or overwhelmed during social situations.
There are many more characteristics, so I have provided a few links below to help you find more detailed information.
Remember that when we discuss generalizations, not all the characteristics will fit every HSP to a T. But if you can identify with the overall description, then there is a good chance that you are an HSP.
Is HSP a Mental Illness?
HSP is not a diagnosable condition and is therefore not a mental illness.
Nor should it be considered a sign of poor mental health.
Yes, it comes with some struggles that, in my opinion, are primarily tied to our society discouraging strong displays of emotion.
But it is not an overtly negative trait to have.
Read more from the pros (I have no affiliation with these websites, but have found them useful on my journey):
Very Well Mind – What Is A Highly Sensitive Person (HSP)?
Highly Sensitive Refuge – 21 Signs You’re a Highly Sensitive Person
My Experience Being An HSP In Childhood
I would prefer to share specific examples of when I encountered and struggled with specific HSP characteristics, but I feel that will require longer and deeper consideration. So instead, I am opting to be very broad while sharing my experience as a highly sensitive child.
As with anyone, much of what I experienced in my childhood impacted who I am today.
When I reflect on my elementary school days, specifically, I mainly remember instances of being told I was too sensitive or having an overall feeling of being different, broken and better off alone.
I received criticisms from other students and teachers for my inability to regulate my emotions. This is understandable since I didn’t know how to express my emotions other than through crying.
To adapt to overstimulation, I often retreated from others and preferred quiet places alone.
I also began to teach myself to hide my feelings, or more specifically, to suppress them.
In my mind, this is the greatest mistake I have made for my overall mental health and happiness.
This is because my unchecked overthinking and overwhelm resulted in panic attacks. They were so common I had even visited the hospital and was tasked with wearing a heart monitor at one point. And though it was determined nothing was physically wrong with me, I assumed I was dying.
I wonder how different it may have been had people accepted that children might have panic attacks.
Thankfully, we know better now.
7 Signs Of A Highly Sensitive Child
I have created this list after reflecting on my experience in hopes that it may help parents and teachers to identify high sensitivity in children.
And to that end, I have endeavoured to explain how each sign may present.
However, keep in mind that this list is not comprehensive as it sticks specifically to my experience.
If you believe your child could be highly sensitive, it may be best to seek a second opinion from a professional trained in supporting highly sensitive children.
Again, HSP is not a diagnosable condition.
However, a psychologist or therapist may be able to offer advice and resources.
- Constant crying.
- Yes, all children cry and throw tantrums from time to time. But a highly sensitive child may be seen to cry more often than most and with very little cause.
- Highly empathetic.
- Tapping into their intuitive skills, they may sense the feelings of others and be seen to comfort those around them.
- Adopting the emotions of others.
- A highly sensitive child may be impacted by the emotions of those around them, often changing their mood accordingly. This change is done completely subconsciously and can be very overwhelming.
- Feeling uncomfortable in clothes.
- Again, an HSP is more sensitive to physical stimuli. Whether the discomfort is from the fabric, the fitting or an itchy clothing tag, the child may be difficult to dress or remain clothed.
- Being very cautious and careful.
- The highly sensitive may be less likely than other children to charge into a new environment, opting instead to observe first before acting.
- Seeking solitude and quiet time.
- A highly sensitive child may often opt for quiet time away from large groups and noisy environments. Solitude removes them from the overwhelming stimuli.
- Susceptible to panic attacks.
- Many people assume children do not have the awareness to succumb to panic attacks. But panic attacks do not require much life experience.
- Many children can experience panic attacks due to overwhelming situations or the inability to share or release their emotions productively.
- Symptoms of panic attacks include hyperventilation, sweating, trembling, chills, chest pain, nausea and dizziness.
Read more from the pros (I have no affiliation with these websites, but have found them useful on my journey):
Jenna Fleming Counseling – Traits of a Highly Sensitive Child
Today’s Parent – 9 Signs You Have A Highly Sensitive Kid
What To Expect – Highly Sensitive Child (Toddler)
How To Support A Highly Sensitive Child
I grew up in the 90s—when mental health and high sensitivity were not well-discussed or understood. There was a lot less information and research available. And significantly less awareness and widespread professional resources to be found.
That being said, I was supported while growing up as best as possible with the limited information available at the time.
Unfortunately, that support often presented as pushing me to be less shy and less emotional so that I would fit in better.
And this taught me to recognize a significant portion of who I am as a negative thing. Mainly, I was encouraged to suppress rather than utilize my highly sensitive skills.
I earnestly believe that had I learned how to use my skills, I may not have struggled as much with anxiety and would have a better understanding of myself and my emotions.
Thankfully, today there is a wealth of research and information available online to better understand high sensitivity and how we can support an HSP.
5 Practices to Support A Highly Sensitive Person
Using some of the research and resources I have found, I have chosen five practices that I believe would have benefited me as a child.
I have also adopted some of these strategies as an adult to support my own journey.
These practices seek to help an HSP accept themselves, understand their feelings, express their feelings and find healthy, productive ways to handle their high sensitivity.
As always, when we use the term “practice,” we must remember that these things take time, patience, effort and repetition to be effective. It is not a quick, one-and-done solution.
1. Do not encourage children to be less sensitive.
As I stated earlier, discouraging sensitivity does not make anyone less sensitive. Instead, it promotes harmful habits.
I believe much of my anxiety is tied to suppressing my highly sensitive traits.
Humans are emotional creatures, so boys and girls should be encouraged to express their emotions—regardless of whether they are highly sensitive.
2. Encourage children to share when they are struggling with overstimulation, overthinking or feeling overwhelmed.
As a child, these were very heavy feelings for me.
And I still sometimes feel a need to hold them inside, so I don’t burden anyone else.
Like the first practice I mentioned, consistently checking in with the child will encourage them to accept you as a safe person and confirm they are in a safe place for these discussions.
Checking in involves reinforcing that you want to understand by validating their emotions (good and bad) as a positive thing.
If you believe you may not be available to the degree the child may require, there are many outlets that a child can use, such as journaling, exercising, creating art or speaking with a psychologist.
Sharing heavy emotions is a practice that can benefit everyone.
Read More | Why You Should Start Journaling
The next three practices will make use of a feelings or emotions wheel. And I would recommend starting slowly and introducing one practice at a time. You may find free feelings wheels below–I decided to find multiple options so you may choose the wheel that is best for you and the child. If these versions do not speak to you, try searching “Feelings Wheel” or “Emotions Wheel” online. There are also paid versions available on Etsy.
I have no affiliation with these websites, but have found them useful on my journey:
Ages 1-4: iMom – The Feel Wheel
Ages 5-12: iMom – Printable Feelings Wheel for Kids and Adults
Ages teen-adult (with additional worksheets): Avan Muijen – The Emotion Wheel
3. Teach children to name their emotions.
Being able to name an emotion is incredibly empowering.
The vocabulary of emotions is extensive to cover everything we may feel.
However, most people (adults and children alike) limit their wordlist to either feeling happy, sad, angry or fine.
So it is helpful to develop this vocabulary.
Using a feelings wheel, start in the middle and work your way out.
This practice will help a child to narrow down their big feelings.
And once a child understands what they are feeling, they can better communicate their needs.
Practice using the wheel when the child is both calm and upset so they can understand their range of emotions altogether.
4. Connect the emotion to a physical reaction.
At times, our emotions can feel like a puzzle, but our bodies can help us to decode them.
Therefore, it may help a child to learn to connect their physical reactions to their emotions.
Using the feelings wheel, ask the child to point to the wheel and their body.
For example, I know that I feel anger in my chest, sadness in my shoulders, anxiety in my back and nervousness in my legs.
You may also choose to describe to the child where you feel each emotion in your body.
A perk to demonstrating you are also doing this work is that it will help confirm to the child that they are in a safe space to share their experience.
5. Demonstrate positive expressions of emotions.
As I explained earlier, I did not know how to express my emotions as a child apart from crying. I knew since I was a baby that crying gives attention. So whether I was hurt, frustrated, excited or genuinely sad, I would always cry. I simply did not know a better way. And it did not help any caregiver to understand my needs in that moment.
So for this practice, remember that children learn by mirroring and positive reinforcement.
Practicing expressing emotions may provide a resource for the child when they experience that emotion.
To that end, point to the feelings wheel, state your current emotions and demonstrate how you express them through body language.
This practice can include allowing the child to see you cry so that they understand it is okay and genuinely good to cry sometimes.
It can also be useful to show healthy expressions of anger—which do not include shouting or directing anger at the child.
Some healthy expressions of anger are screaming into a pillow, walking away, or opening a conversation in which you explain that you are angry and why.
Use an internet search to find more ideas for expressing different emotions.
These steps will allow the child to identify what they’re feeling. And once the feeling is identified you can consider the cause and find a solution together.
Again, it is helpful to start by introducing the wheel before identifying the physical reaction and adding the element of expressing emotions last.
Read more from the pros (I have no affiliation with these websites, but have found them useful). This list is in no particular order:
The Gottman Institute – An Age-By-Age Guide to Helping Kids Manage Emotions
Very Well Family – 8 Discipline Strategies for Parenting a Sensitive Child
The Highly Sensitive Child – 10 Things A Highly Sensitive Child Needs To Be Happy
Raising Children – Understanding And Managing Emotions: Children And Teenagers
Beyond Blue – Managing Emotions
The Pragmatic Parent – 7 Ways to Help Kids Identify Feelings & Control Emotions
Proud To Be Primary – Emotions for Kids
The Perks Of High Sensitivity
Having taken time to reflect on my past and learning strategies to use my high sensitivity effectively, I have decided that there are more positive than negative aspects to an HSP personality.
- I have the ability to make connections with others very quickly.
- I can be a source of sympathy for people.
- I value emotions and can assist others in understanding theirs.
- I also have a way with relaxing others emotions (though I’m still trying to figure out how this works).
- And as a teacher, I can connect with my English as a Foreign Language (EFL) students beyond words.
Sensitivity and intuition kind of feel like superpowers!
I still have a lot to learn and hope to share more as I do.
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If you are a highly sensitive person, what struggles did you face growing up? And what helped you to accept and grow your high sensitivity skills?
Let me know in the comments below!