What Does “Highly Sensitive Children” Mean?

Isabella is talkative and opinionated, quick to argue her point or get angry about the injustices of the world (she has a temper). She gets mad when upset- and confrontational.

Hunter is quietly talkative, quick to hide in his room and draw or play Lego, and wants a hug when there is unfairness apparent to him. He gets tearful and whiny when upset- and withdrawn.

They are both Highly Sensitive Children!

Sweet Izzy.

Sweet Izzy.

I speak a lot about their highly sensitive nature but I haven’t explained it properly for a long time. Anyone with a highly sensitive child will have read the HSC bible, The Highly Sensitive Child: Helping Our Children Thrive When the World Overwhelms Them, by Elaine N. Aron. Reading this book was a HUGE a-ha! moment for Josh and I. Before this book we were trying several parenting techniques with our kids and having them all fall short. This realization does not make our kids more special or any different than others, but it did help us identify how they think so that we could adjust our parenting strategies accordingly.

Highly sensitive is the last thing we thought our kids were. We thought that kids that were super sensitive would have to be super quiet, mousey kids that sat in the corner quietly observing, only talking when convinced they had to, and nervous about everything. Not so. I mean, it can be. I don’t think I realized I was a highly sensitive person until I started researching it for my kids, but looking back it makes perfect sense. I was basically that kid I described above when I was very little. I remember panicking when Halloween was coming up because it made it so I would have to speak to strangers to get candy and I knew that some of those strangers would stand too close, be too loud, ask me to sing, or to explain my outfit. So, yah, I have always been sensitive. I can walk into a room and read every individual person’s mood and that can be both overwhelming and confusing. How I didn’t realize it until I had kids, I don’t know.

A highly sensitive child (HSC) will find the world baffling and overwhelming. Even at a very young age, they will see the bigger picture and wonder why other children their age don’t connect the dots. They will be able to gauge everyone’s moods, expect everyone to follow the rules since they do (it’s in their nature), and will hear sounds you don’t hear or be over-stimulated by light or smells, to name a few characteristics. Needless to say, the world is extremely overwhelming for the highly sensitive child.

This does not mean that it makes all of the children that are highly sensitive shy away from social interaction. Not all HSC’s are introverts or incredibly shy. About 30% are extroverts, they just respond to the world differently and need to process it more carefully. My children, for example, are very social at school and love playdates. However, they need a lot of downtime afterward and require a minimum of 20 mins alone time every day. They see everything and hear all conversations and will be vocal about it. They are not shy about asking questions and are infinitely curious. Like me, both of my kids intuitively read the emotions in a room, instantly, for each person.

Thoughtful Hunter.

Thoughtful Hunter.

They see everything, as well. Once, my daughter was upset after school and I was astounded when she told me the reason. They were colouring pictures at school to put up as collective wall art and were supposed to be using a red pencil crayon. Across the room (all the way across the room!) from her she noticed a classmate using a green crayon instead, which would throw off their pattern, and it upset her for the whole day. She has also noticed a boy squishing a ladybug from across the soccer field and playground and run across to tell him that we need all bugs to support our ecosystem or our environment will be in trouble. My son, too, sees all, and will say to me in the supermarket, ‘that wall is dirty over there’, and I have to squint across the entire store to see the tiny dark smudge near the ceiling that is bothering him.

I hope this gives you a picture of how they think and see all things. Lights are brighter for them, sounds are louder and distractions can be intolerable. It makes it so they can be inflexible about change, injustice, cleanliness and shifts in routine. My kids, as HSC kids can be, will adapt to please the person but it is very taxing for them and results in private meltdowns when they are safe at home. This does not mean they always adapt or edit to please people. They can be extremely upfront and borderline rude at times, but it is only because they appreciate people being that cut and dried with them. Alternatively, they can seem rude but it is only because the second half of their thought is stuck inside their lively brain. HSCs have a complex and rich inner life and sometimes fail to communicate their whole thought, forgetting that their friends aren’t mind-readers and don’t appreciate implied or subtle meanings as much as they do.

On the Goodreads website, the explanation for the book describes it the best:

“Rooted in Aron’s years of experience as a psychotherapist and her original research on child temperament, The Highly Sensitive Child shows how HSCs are born deeply reflective, sensitive to the subtle, and easily overwhelmed. These qualities can make for smart, conscientious, creative children, but with the wrong parenting or schooling, they can become unusually shy or timid, or begin acting out. Few parents and teachers understand where this behavior comes from–and as a result, HSCs are often mislabeled as overly inhibited, fearful, or “fussy,”or classified as “problem children” (and in some cases, misdiagnosed with disorders such as Attention Deficit Disorder). But raised with proper understanding and care, HSCs are no more prone to these problems than nonsensitive children and can grow up to be happy, healthy, well-adjusted adults.” 


As for the conscientious part, Isabella is extremely conscientious at heart but not always aware of how her blunt observations or opinions can be taken and will often say things that sound hurtful or are downright rude. When pointed out to her how her opinion sounded, she will get very embarrassed and ashamed, resulting in anger which seems directed outward but is directed at herself. Upset, she will run to her room to process it and (most of the time) never make that specific mistake again.

Hunter is very conscientious and creative as well and usually avoids blunt or hurtful opinions. However, sometimes he can seem demanding and needy but it is only because he is so intuitive to other people’s needs, he expects you to be that way as well and is baffled when you don’t anticipate what he needs. He is extremely stubborn once he gets started on a task but is quick to cry when he gets frustrated because he is overwhelmed.

I guess you could say both of my kids are “outgoing, highly sensitive introverts” that can be very social as long as there is a lot of downtime in between. I am careful to make sure they only have one extracurricular activity and one playdate a week maximum. I have learned their limits and every once in awhile we stretch those to see if anything has changed in their tolerance. We often face backlash in behaviour when their calendar gets too full and suffer crabby, argumentative, whiny children as a result because they don’t have the language to identify that they are just “peopled out” as we say. There are often physical symptoms too, if they are too busy or taxed one week, or if their routine is vastly different that week; including headaches, stomach aches, or joint pain. I mean, my daughter asked for a pictorial chart of her daily routine when she was three years old, so they are both really attached to their routine. Hunter loves a chart on what to clean up when in his room so he feels less overwhelmed. My HSC kids, as many of them do, love structure a LOT.

Goofy faces

Goofy faces

As I said above, I would describe my kids, both of them, even though Hunter is more shy than his sister, as “outgoing introverts”, and to describe it I think the best thing is to google it (two great sites are here and here). Basically, they can be outgoing in short bursts and then need to rest. The cheetah of personality; short sprints are possible rather than a long-distance run.

I hope this helps you understand my kids a little better when I talk about them on my blog or if you happen to meet them in person. I also hope this helps you identify if you have highly sensitive children or are a highly sensitive person yourself! If this sounds like you or a family member, I would check out Elaine N. Aron online or buy her book. Her research and knowledge has become indispensable to us and has resulted in better-suited parenting for our littles as well as  better self-care for ourselves as both Josh and I are highly sensitive on different levels.

Are you highly sensitive? What coping strategies do you employ?

Do you have highly sensitive children? What kind of parenting strategies have been perfect for your kids?

How do you handle the holidays if you or part of your family is a highly sensitive person?

Related Posts: 

When Schedules Change



Carving Out Personal Space


The Damaging Sentence I Will Stop Saying to My Kids


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