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Figuring Out the Highly Sensitive Child

“Figuring Out the Highly Sensitive Child” originally appeared on The Good Men Project and was reprinted with permission.

Image Source: Thinkstock
Image Source: Thinkstock

I hadn’t heard the term “highly sensitive child” until I published an essay about some of the challenges — and blessings — that my son, now 5, had brought to our family.

After reading my essay, a reader asked if I had read Elaine Aron’s book, The Highly Sensitive Child. The title of the book resonated with me, and I bought it right away. According to Aron’s definition, the highly sensitive person is born with a more sensitive nervous system, and is therefore aware of subtleties in her surroundings, and is also more easily overwhelmed when in a highly stimulating environment.

If you’ve ever had a lightbulb moment, the kind where it truly feels like there is a switch turning on with a loud ping above your head like in the cartoons, then you will understand how I felt within seconds of reading her book. This is my son. This is me. This is my husband, I thought.

Sure, I had always considered myself sensitive, and of course, over the years people have called me “overly sensitive” in a rather demeaning way, but Aron’s book defines high sensitivity as much more than simply “feelings are hurt easily.”

Her definition includes emotional sensitivity (characteristics like observant, astute, possessing that “old soul” quality) and also physical sensitivity (i.e., tags feel itchy, and sensitivity to temperature, light, and sound). My son? Check. Check.

One issue we have had with our own highly sensitive child (HSC) is finding a successful approach to discipline. Yes, the word “discipline” conjures outdated images of spanking, yelling, and dunce caps. However, in reality, many children do need rewards and consequences for their behavior.

We had not found an approach that consistently worked well at home. Common punishments like timeouts and taking toys away only seemed to shatter him, not motivate him to behave well. But abstaining from any kind of consequence and only offering rewards felt overindulgent and left out a key piece — helping him recognize when certain actions or behaviors were not okay.

By day three of winter break, things were rough at our house. My husband and I were at a loss: most HSCs like routine, rules, and structure. Winter vacation lacked all of that, and my son was not doing well. His frustrations were taken out on all of us, and our whole family was exhausted and unnerved.

Where was our sweet, funny, inquisitive little boy? we wondered.

Then I remembered a system his wonderful kindergarten teacher uses, which is basically a chart that the children can move up and down throughout the day. Her system gives young children a constant visual reminder of positive behavior during the school day, and it works like a charm for my observant, goal-oriented son.

Every day, all of the students start at Ready to Learn — a clean slate; a fresh, optimistic start to the day. When the teacher observes positive behavior (listening well, following directions, being kind to others), they can move up the chart to Role Model, Excellent Effort, and Super Student. Alternatively, if they are having a tough day, they might (temporarily) move down to Make Better Choices or Parent Contact.

I love that her chart rewards positive actions but also helps children recognize times they need to change their behavior.

Instead of tearing (anymore) of my hair out, I grabbed a set of markers and a manilla envelope and created a similar chart for home use. It took less than five minutes.

Those might be the most wisely used five minutes of my life.

I cannot express what a difference the chart made for the remainder of winter break; it continues to positively influence our family life. This visual reminder helped everything click for my son. He is happier, we are happier, and best of all, my little guy is clearly proud of himself.

He is motivated to move up the chart throughout the day. Ending each day on the top half gives him a sense of achievement, which is so important to him. It also gives my husband and me a sense of success — we were helping our son feel good about himself while reminding him the importance of certain rules in our house.

I believe high sensitivity is a gift. I wouldn’t change my son; I love his passion for learning, his creativity, his humor, his observant nature. However, every temperament trait brings with it a set of challenges, and for my son that means he can be demanding and emotionally turbulent.

It is one of our jobs as parents to figure out ways to help our kids successfully navigate the world and face their challenges. Like most parents, I can use all the help I can get, and I’m thankful for those rare but exquisite lightbulb moments and starting each day ready to learn.

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