Is your child highly sensitive? It's a real thing: What it means and how to be a supportive parent

Little girl is illness. Napping on mother lap.

Is your child highly sensitive? It's a real thing: What it means and how to be a supportive parent

Health and Safety

Is your child highly sensitive? It's a real thing: What it means and how to be a supportive parent


Do you ever feel like your kid notices EVERYTHING? And reacts really strongly? Maybe becomes overwhelmed easily?

They’ll sometimes withdraw and seem a little anti-social.

I don’t just mean going crazy at the smell of cookies in the oven… I’m talking the texture of their clothes, sounds in another room, every single color in a picture.

If this sounds familiar, your kid may just be “highly sensitive.”

What is a highly sensitive child?

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The scientific name is sensory processing sensitivity. It’s not a disease, nor does it develop over time.

It’s a temperament, and about one in five kids is born with it, says Candy Crawford a licensed clinical social worker and therapist who operates a private practice in Chicago.

Crawford works with Dr. Elaine Aaron, the researcher and psychologist who coined the term ‘highly sensitive person’ and wrote the book, “The Highly Sensitive Person” and “The Highly Sensitive Child.”

Being highly sensitive means you recognize and process every little detail around you. 

Think of it like this, Crawford says:

“Picture an orange factory: The oranges come down the conveyor belts and are divided into three different slots like large, medium, small. (For) the kid who has this wiring, it’s like 15 slots. All that information is coming in all the time.”

And the real kicker is that it’s EXHAUSTING for the child! Which of course means, it’s also exhausting for the parents.

When you’ve got different stimuli coming in from all different directions all at once, it becomes extremely overwhelming, which then causes the kid intense emotional reactions and an inclination to want to retreat to isolation.

“They’re overwhelmed and they need downtime for the brain to get re-regulated,” Crawford says.

Is high sensitivity the same as autism?

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Though the two are often conflated, Crawford says they are not the same.

Both a child with autism and a child who is highly sensitive tend to withdraw and become overwhelmed.


A child with autism will often experience a “hyper” or “hypo” reactivity, meaning they react very actively or react abnormally low, “due to problems in properly processing information, social and otherwise,” she said. “They fail to sort out the information, so it’s there all the time. 

“For the highly sensitive kid, they process information very carefully, and yes, we become overstimulated if there too much for too long, but … we do not become fixated in an extreme way.

Another key difference:

Highly sensitive people have extremely high emotional intelligence and pick up on social cues exceptionally well, Crawford says.

What’s important to know about raising a highly sensitive child

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A few key notes:

  • These children MUST have downtime. They do well relaxing in nature, going somewhere quiet, closing their eyes and often practicing yoga.
  • Parents should practice self regulation. This means learning to remain calm in intense situations because highly sensitive children are so easily impacted by their parents’ emotions.

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  • Highly sensitive children thrive when in the proper environment. Crawford says HSCs are brilliant and excel easily when put in a comfortable atmosphere.
  • If possible, limit daily activity to two errands or less. And if your child still becomes overwhelmed, it can help to take them outside for a breather or allow them to rest in the quiet car for a bit.
  • The best possible form of rest for these children is sleep. Sleep is fundamental to their ability to live happily!

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For more information on highly sensitive children, check out this website, where you can also take a quiz to see if you or your child may be highly sensitive.

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