Whether we care to admit it or not, it’s hard to not have expectations of who we want our children to be. Of course, at its core, we want our kids to be healthy, safe, loved, and happy. Beyond that, we may wish for them to be liked, resilient, easygoing, fun, kind, strong, creative, hardworking, etc. These characteristics are all subjective and can vary depending on your own moral values as parents. One of the greatest challenges as a parent is realizing you have little, if not any, control as to who your child is or, in many instances, even how they will act. A conflict can then arise when we attempt to mold them to our likeness or fit our expectations, regardless of who they naturally are.
There are certain expectations that are worthy of being placed on our children. We want them to be respectful of themselves and others. We hope they demonstrate gratitude for the blessings in their lives. We want to raise anti-racist children who will stand up for injustice and value diversity. We ask our children to be responsible and trustworthy. In short, we want to raise good human beings.
But, we should also understand that our children deserve our wholehearted acceptance of who they are, despite our parenting style. This is where the old adage “nature vs. nurture” comes into play and we need to be accepting of their innate traits and temperament, even if they are polar opposites of who we are. They may be wild and free-spirited when we are introverted and more reserved. Or, if we are more naturally extroverted, they may be introverted little humans who thrive in smaller settings with alone time as a vital component of their need to replenish their energy.
Maybe you are also raising an introverted child in an extroverted-preferred world. In other words, you are aware that society places great value on individuals who are outgoing, flexible, display leadership characteristics, friendly, and bold. Yet, you wouldn’t quite describe your child using those precise adjectives. Instead, if you have a child like mine, you would describe him using a term child development experts refer to as a highly-sensitive (HS) child.
I had never heard of this term “highly-sensitive,” but when I started to conduct my own research it was uncanny how closely it explains the temperament of my child, even from his infancy stage. To learn more, I enlisted the expertise of two child development/parenting experts to share their insights and guidance on raising and understanding highly-sensitive children. Claire Lerner is a licensed independent clinical social worker and a nationally recognized child development and parenting expert. Beatrice (Bea) Moise is a Board-Certified Cognitive Specialist, parenting coach, author, and national speaker. Both Claire and Bea have extensive experience supporting parents who have HS kids. They offer parenting tools and strategies which are attainable, rooted in compassion, and understanding of the needs of our sensitive children.
I am a proud mother of a highly-sensitive child and many times I have felt lost on how to be the mother he deserves. I hope to help moms like me who need some expert guidance on raising HS children, but also so we do not feel like we are the only ones with sensitive children. Please note, having a HS child is not a burden—on the contrary, they are true gifts to any parent. They are extraordinary individuals with empathetic hearts and great intellectual capacity, among other qualities.
Below is an overview of what defines a highly-sensitive child, lessons I have learned from having an introverted, sensitive child, and concrete advice from our parenting experts on supporting HS children. My hope is that this empowers you to raise your HS children in a way that honors the uniqueness of their temperament so they can thrive.
Highly-Sensitive (HS) Children Defined
When I look back, I can reflect on noticing the characteristics of a HS child very early on in the infancy of my son. According to research psychologist Elaine Aron, who popularized the term “highly sensitive” in her 1996 book The Highly Sensitive Person, roughly one in five children are highly sensitive. Dr. Aron developed a 23-question quiz which can be helpful to determine if you have a highly-sensitive child.
You may sometimes hear the terms “orchids,” “dandelion,” and even “tulips” when referring to highly-sensitive children. Dr. Michael Pleuss, a professor of developmental psychology at Queen Mary University of London, developed this terminology to differentiate the temperaments of children. Dr. Pleuss defines them as “highly sensitive [children], whom he calls ‘orchids,’ which are beautiful flowers that need very particular environments to thrive; hardy ‘dandelions,’ which can grow virtually anywhere; and a middle group — the largest—’tulips,’ which fall somewhere between the two extremes of the sensitivity scale.” Dr. Pleuss emphasized that not one personality is better than the other—all three have their unique strengths and challenges.
A highly-sensitive (HS) child can have any of the following characteristics, as defined by both child development/parenting experts Beatrice Moise and Claire Lerner:
- Tend to be more observers of people and situations before they engage.
- Get more easily overwhelmed by their emotions.
- Do better in a smaller setting, and communication is better when it is individualized rather than in a group setting.
- Tend to be more fearful and cautious.
- Enjoy their alone time.
- Can be particularly inflexible.
- Tend to have a lower tolerance for frustration.
- Can be perfectionists.
- Have a higher intolerance for losing.
- Tend to be more self-conscious.
- Tend to feel more easily slighted.
- Uncomfortable when being “corrected.”
- Often more sensitive to sensory input which can increase their reactivity.
For a more extensive explanation, as well as tools and strategies on how to support your HS child with any of these characteristics, please refer to Claire Learner’s article on Understanding and Supporting Highly-Sensitive (HS) Children.
Lessons Learned From Having a Highly-Sensitive Child
Now that my HS child is older, I can look back and be honest with myself on how lost I was in understanding the needs of my HS child. I remember feeling:
“Why doesn’t my child enjoy birthday parties?”
“Why doesn’t he play with the other kids and constantly cling to me instead?”
“Why does he get so emotional over seemingly small matters which don’t appear to bother his peers?”
“Why do certain sensory stimulations aggravate and/or soothe him?”
“Does my child fall on the autism spectrum?”
Overall I worried there was something “wrong” with my child. But, I have evolved and have developed a deeper understanding of my child. I now know he is absolutely a HS child with many of these defined characteristics that make him special and in my eyes, almost magical. He is different, yes, but those differences are actually also his strengths. There is nothing wrong with him. I am the best mommy for him because I see all the depths and layers of his personality. It is an honor to be his mom. He has taught me so much about myself, his own needs, and the society we live in. Below are the lessons I have learned in having the privilege of being a mom to a HS child.
1. We live in an extroverted-preferred society.
Whether we care to admit this or not, American society values individuals who are “go-getters,” outgoing, and flexible. We live in a society that elevates extroverted individuals as the “gold-standard” on what we want everyone to be. Just look at any job description and you see terms like “strong ability to work in a fast-paced environment,” “strong public speaking skills,” and “strong interpersonal skills.” These are just samples of code language for characteristics more common in “dandelion” (extroverted) individuals.
This translates to expectations we place on our children from the onset. We feel “proud” of our child when they make friends easily and perform in the school concert. I can recall a playdate with my son’s class and most, if not all, of the kids were playing together and having a great time. My son clung to me and refused to join the group. He preferred to play alone and asked if his sister could come and join the play date. He was the only kid not joining the class. Luckily, at that stage, I understood more of HS needs and didn’t force him to interact with his classmates. I whispered in his ears and said, “You do whatever feels comfortable for you. I love you no matter what you prefer doing.”
Moise suggested parents “not force your child into a situation that they have not fully mentally prepared for; allow plenty of time for the child to take in the environment. Taking in the environment can be one event or repeated at times; it may not occur the first time, but be patient and gentle.”
Even though my son knew all his classmates and sees them daily, the playdate was a change in his routine. Lerner said we should avoid trying to change the child’s behavior or feelings and instead “show your child that you understand and accept his emotions; that you aren’t judging them as right or wrong, good or bad. Practice and prepare in advance [for any group settings]. Ask your child what would help him feel more comfortable engaging in the activity.”
In other words, in preparing your HS child to engage in a social activity, be patient, practice what to expect from the setting, and follow their lead. If they are uncomfortable, do not push the interaction and allow them to do what feels best for them.
2. Highly-sensitive children can be misunderstood.
This has been the hardest lesson to experience as a parent. People make assumptions about my HS child because he is reserved, cautious, and at times fearful and emotional. These become even more apparent when your child is in a school setting and adults naturally compare their children to others. I can recall a mother of my son’s friend confessing to me that she notices my son “stares out into space.” A seemingly innocuous statement by her sent me into an emotional tailspin wondering if there is something wrong with my child. I retreated to the bathroom to cry while Googling, “Why does my son daydream so much?” I’m embarrassed to admit this now, but I fully panicked when people didn’t understand my son’s behavior.
Another situation that has happened in recent years is teachers thinking he is not paying attention in class because he is “daydreaming.” As his parents, we have had these conversations with his teachers on understanding my son’s temperament. We have had to translate what looks like daydreaming to them is actually him observing and processing his whole environment.
As his parents, we have had [to] translate what looks like daydreaming to [his teachers] is actually him observing and processing his whole environment.
“HS children are what I think of as ‘processors.’ Their brains never turn off,” Lerner explained. “They keenly focus on and analyze everything. It’s like they don’t have an internal filter to protect them from absorbing more than they can handle.” She also said HS children are very empathetic and insightful.
When I think about my son, he is a masterful observer. In fact, I feel he can sense my emotions so deeply, even before I express them. I have been proactive now to respond to these assumptions about my child to explain that he is not being unattentive, but, on the contrary, he is paying attention to every word said, the nagging feeling of the shirt tag on his back, and the noise of the trash truck in the background all at the same time.
3. Highly-sensitive children have a lot of depth.
My son has been blessed with some truly special teachers who understand his needs as a HS child and appreciate his contributions to the classroom dynamic. I recall one of his preschool teachers coming to me during a Christmas concert where my son refused to participate. Instead, he sat on my knee and watched his friends perform. Afterward, perhaps sensing my sadness, she said lovingly, “We love your son for who he is. We never want to change him. He is special.” I had tears in my eyes as I thanked her profusely. She saw him for who he is and accepted him. It was the first time someone outside of my immediate family acknowledged him in this way.
Bea Moise explains that the HS child values quality alone time. She shared, “Time spent alone helps them take in the environment and process the world through their lens.”
They are deep thinkers and highly intellectual, creative children. Another of my son’s teachers told me children like my son have “still water which runs deep.” It has been the greatest blessing to have teachers who value and accept my son for his unique personality traits. It’s also important that teachers have strategies to engage with him so he feels supported in a classroom setting. Beware of adults who brand your HS child as “not a good listener” or “too shy.” You can help them understand and value the many depths of a HS child.
4. You need to advocate for them until they develop their strength.
What I shared in lesson #3 means you have to be your child’s biggest advocate, cheerleader, and translator until they develop their own voice to advocate for themselves. This lesson I learned the hard way. I began to notice my son being ignored or misunderstood by family, friends, teachers, and even playmates. I found myself “explaining” his behavior so they would see the “real” him. I advocate for him—and not in a defensive fashion, but, rather, from a place of love and acceptance for this magical child I have.
If individuals fail to accept my child for who he is, I no longer personalize it. It’s their loss if they do not see the beauty of a HS child. My only job is to advocate for his HS needs, but not to change people’s minds. As long as my child is happy and supported, I am content. I understand that, for the time being, my role will be to speak up for him and also model this advocacy so he can develop his own self-advocacy skills long-term. This will serve him well when he applies for jobs and looks for a partner. Self-advocacy is a life-long skill that I practice with him regularly. Claire Lerner said it best when she shared, “Sensitivity is a strength, not a weakness. HS children need our support to help them manage their big emotions and reactions… Then watch them thrive.”
5. Adapting to an extroverted world and developing self-advocacy are really important for a highly-sensitive child.
Because our role as parents is to raise these tiny humans to one day be independent humans, we also have to prepare them to live in this extroverted-preferred society. Because the “dandelions” tend to dominate spaces and often get the attention, parents of HS children need to provide tools and strategies on how our HS kids can navigate an extroverted-preferred society. Do your research, reach out to parenting experts, talk to your child’s teachers and your fellow mama friends. Pull your network so you can learn the best ways to teach your HS child to thrive, despite any challenges they may face.
Such simple lessons like how to prepare a HS child to participate in classroom discussions are valuable teaching moments. What may come so easily for dandelion children may be a huge obstacle for a HS child. Perhaps you practice raising his hand at home or you teach your child how to ask questions 1:1 with a teacher and/or classmate. There is no magic formula on how to raise a HS child since they are all so unique. However, you can equip them with tools to best navigate society’s joys and challenges so they are as prepared as possible. Remember, resilience and self-advocacy are empowering lessons no matter the stage in their development. Ultimately, the biggest lesson you can teach them is to love and accept themselves for who they are.
If you are a parent of a HS child, count your blessings. Aren’t they amazing? They are kind, empathetic, creative, intelligent, sensitive souls who can teach us unique ways on how to parent and how to value differences. I feel so much closer to my son now that I understand him more. I have forgiven myself for being so lost in the beginning and making so many parenting mistakes. I have evolved and continue to learn from him. He is my greatest joy and I am forever grateful for having a HS child.