Realising that I have a highly sensitive child

My 4, nearly 5 year old is highly sensitive. How did I come to this conclusion? A book. “The Highly Sensitive Child” by Elaine N Aron. (HSC) How did I come across the book? Well, Ollie has always been clingy, hates noise, doesn’t like change and is very risk averse. As someone who works in arts and play, is a Change Manager and encourages risk taking and being social this was quite difficult for me! The hand dryers in public toilets frightened him and he wouldn’t even stay with another parent and friend without me even if he knew them really well and their child had been with us on her own a hundred times! Then, about a year ago, a good friend told me that she had discovered that her daughter was highly sensitive and that Ollie was and that I should get the aforementioned book.

A revelation! There’s a True/False questionnaire of 23 statements. Get more than 13 and bingo. Ollie got 16. It even says you could have an HSC if your child has 2 of them but strongly. Well he has that too! The questionnaire can be found here - It includes things like; “doesn’t do well with big changes”, “seems very intuitive”, “very sensitive to pain”, “considers if it is safe before climbing high”. Bought the book and then read it! It was a useful read, It is very American in places (for example, it suggests taking days off etc. for which in the UK would be an “unauthorised absence” and speaking to the head teacher about which teacher you would like your child to have because they are good with HSCs! Can you imagine?!) However, there are some really good tips and there are areas that you think “Ah that’s why he does that!” In fact probably the most useful thing I got from the book was realising that he is NOT shy, he is highly sensitive. There is a big difference. People always say “He’s so shy (I used to and don’t anymore because it’s inaccurate!) or he hasn’t got any confidence” when he stays with me or won’t join in an activity, but give him time and he doesn’t stop talking and once he’s assessed the situation he’ll join in! My friend’s daughter is different, she shows that she is overwhelmed by getting aggressive. It’s the feeling things deeply (often presenting as a seemingly overreaction) and thinking and pondering on without realising that many other children would brush off that we have to be careful about. So the book was extremely helpful in changing my mindset slightly, not thinking of him in terms of being shy and over reacting but being sensitive and becoming overwhelmed and thinking about that.

The author tells us that if your toddler drops your keys down the shop escalator you shouldn’t go mad and shout because of all the inconvenience it is going to cause. Please! Yes of course it’s the same as them dropping them on the floor but really, who is going to not get really annoyed? Anyone? Well Superwoman keep away from me because you make me feel thoroughly inferior! In theory of course it’s right and of course the HSC is going to feel it more deeply but let’s get real, we aren’t going to get it right everytime and some situations are just plain stressful! The HSC will survive, but not too well if shouted at and berated at every opportunity. There you may find a big difference anyway, Ollie loves his routine and anyone breaking it, he tells off! So he actually gets told off less than many of his peers. No knocking any character building and assertiveness though and there’s the fine line isn’t it?

It took some getting through the book before I finally got the sentence I believed the most though. “You need the patience of a Saint” yep, and I don’t have it! The very slow decision making, the fussiness with food (won’t eat that piece of meat now that it has a herb on it!), the sticking like glue... But on the flip side apparently HSCs are less likely to take to drink and drugs when they are older so that’s good!!

I knew already he didn’t like noise and lots of people but it upset me (and still does to some degree) that he didn’t like parties as I felt that he was missing out. There was the crunch. If you think/know you have a HSC you will know what I mean. You go to parties and your child doesn’t want to join in. S/he watches by the side, puts hand over ears and then possibly will join in for the last ten minutes as children are going home and it’s getting quieter. Similarly leaving him at nursery, he took a long time to settle, I had to stay a long time each day but that got shorter and he never cried as we got into a routine. Compare this with the child that just gets left each day and cries. (Of course it works for many, probably most children, up to a couple of days and they are off happily enjoying themselves but is ISN’T right for all children). We were lucky that we had a nursery where staff kept their practice up to date and were happy for me to stay. I know of a nursery attached to a school nearby which closes doors after a week and parents/carers have to leave regardless of how much the child is crying. How distressing for both child and parent/carer. I’ll say it again for anyone who thinks that it’s ok to leave all kids whether they are crying or not (and I’m not talking about the child who stops the instant you walk out the door!) before they have fully settled into nursery, it isn’t. Nurseries have policies around Meeting Individual Child’s Needs. Just as one child likes art and another likes maths, or one child can’t have milk and you provide accordingly, so you should for a child’s emotional needs. I never forced Ollie to get away from me and join in or go into rooms he didn’t want to just to “make him enjoy himself”. However frustrating that was for me and believe me it is! You can’t do that however much one feels he’s missing out. But oh do some parents without an HSC have no understanding?! “Just leave him and go” “Make him come in” and similar comments. Why? Why would I do that? Would you put your young child into a room where they are scared, or really hate something? You’d ignore your child’s emotional needs? Really? Would you take your young child into a room full of snakes if they were screaming, insecure and petrified? No. So why would I take my child into a room which he finds overwhelming and then leave him there to scream and cry for 2 hours? Any of these things could scar children. They will remember the time as when you, the person they trust above all else forced them to do something that was so horrible to them it upset them more than anything else ever! You left them when you needed you. But the parents who have a HSC what a support! Ollie went to a party at a soft play place which he has been to many times before so I actually thought he would be okay. He wasn’t, he was still overwhelmed (and that’s what parties do to HSCs). I almost felt embarrassed, but the mother of the birthday boy was great “Don’t worry his older brother was always like that.” I picked up on the past tense....

Then there is the wonderful Julia. Mother to Peter aged 9 years and Jane 4 years. Having met when Jane and Ollie were 6 months we became good friends and it became apparent that Ollie was like Peter. It began to show around 2 years old, the fussy eater, the hater of noise, the dislike of change, the uncomfortable parties. Each thing Julia would say, that’s like Peter. Julia doesn’t have that awful habit of saying you should do this because I have a child older than yours so you should listen kind of way! (You know the types I mean! You could be a terrible parent, just because you have children it doesn’t mean you know better than the person who doesn’t, nor does having older or more children mean you know better than another parent either. In fact, who do I go to for the most advice? My best friend. She doesn’t have children but was an exceptionally good teacher and now a fantastic headteacher. I don’t ask just about education either! In fact now I think of it, the amount I ask probably annoys her!) Anyway, I digress, back to lovely Julia. After a while I started to pre-empt a discussion by asking “Did Sam.....?” When it invariably gets a yes it’s usually followed up by “When did it stop/change/develop...” (Which might counteract my argument earlier about people having older children but you get my gist and she’s ASKED!) That’s been great. So if you have an HSC one of the best things you can have is a friend of a similar older one! (Although all HSCs present differently as the book describes and indeed Annabel’s daughter mentioned earlier gets very aggressive when she is overwhelmed. Annabel (who is one of those mothers who you never see shout and you live in awe of) has learnt how to deal with it well and has said that after reading the book she gets on a lot better with Isla and she has calmed down a bit! Certainly the tantrums (which are more frequent and last longer into an HSCs life (in age not necessarily duration)) are fewer, they’d be fewer still if I could just remember not to shout as it achieves nothing! When I remember this, it works really well. (That’s probably all kids though isn’t it?!)

One of the most ridiculous things I was told by a parent who had no understanding of a HSC was when Ollie was about 2 years and he wouldn’t go anywhere without me and she said it was because I carried him (sling) for the first 9 months or so of his life! Please don’t ever think that about your child or a friend’s child. It’s hurtful to hear and it couldn’t be more wrong. Google “Attachment Theory” and all the benefits of “wearing” your child, not least the amount of crying being reduced by a significant amount! Wikipedia definition Therefore, given the enormous benefits for all babies imagine how much more it is benefiting the HSC! S/he would cry so much more if you weren’t given him/her that extra security.

In hindsight, I now know that the baby massage I took Ollie to which he adored, over stimulated him! Every other baby zonked out and slept really well that night. Ollie? Woke up 3 times a night to be fed. Now older, any new situations, activities, or busy days which for other children you would say, “He’ll sleep well” will keep him awake for a long time before his over stimulated brain lets him sleep. He’ll usually sleep well the following night! HSC’s are processing everything, they take in far more than you would think, observing the details. So of course they tend to be bright because they take so much in! (Not my words, honest!!)

I wondered about the security muslins he’s always had. Will he ever get rid of them? Again other parents saying oh “oh just get rid of them” “Make sure they are gone by nursery” “get rid of them at Xmas” The most funny thing was hearing this from people whose children still had a dummy? Huh? The muslins went everywhere and we just reduced them gradually. Without any fuss thank you very much, he went to nursery without them. Only once did he ask for one when he fell over and really hurt himself. Staff didn’t have a clue what he was talking about. He has reduced it for himself in his own time. He has them at bed time and a comfort. Why would you take that comfort away? especially (sometimes added with a pinch of, when you don’t take YOUR child’s dummy away at night time) was often an internal cry! Same as using the potty. HIS potty. Bet many mothers have had that?! The nuisance of having to take the one and only potty everywhere. Apparently I was the same! But didn’t realise just how common it is! You know what? The many many people who saw me do this who said their child/grandchild etc. was the same? Not one of them said they denied the child their own potty. People who advise it are people who have not had a child attached to their potty!! And you know what else? With gradual encouragement he got rid of it himself. When we thought he was ready and he had something to aim for, we discussed with him and encouraged him over some days (we are going on aeroplane and we won’t be able to take it will we?!) and made a big thing of congratulating him and letting him put it in the bin forever so it couldn’t come back. He did it in his own time. I always said it was the penalty for him being dry and clean at night within two weeks and the only 2 accidents he did have was because he was in a new and therefore strange place! It all went too easily!

Ollie has 3 really good friends that he sees nearly every day. One quite sensitive like himself and with similar maths and science interests and whose brother is at nursery and another friend in reception the latter two being the first to run away and the first to climb anything and everything. It’s helpful and nice that we all have very similar concerns we can share or completely opposite ones to discuss and usually laugh about! We’ve given them all their job titles in their future Company! Because the children are all so different they all get the best (rarely the worst... yet) from each other and that’s the best you can hope for when it comes to friendships for your child isn’t it? That, similar manners and you get on with the parents of course!

Here is a good article about HSC and some tips

For Helen’s blog see for a humorous look at effectively complaining!


If you would like space to be supported with the challenges of mothering, or just need some rest and nurturing, explore the Mamas' Retreats and one-to-one support that we offer at Story of Mum - we'd love to look after you so that you can look after your children.