There are no tags on any of my child’s clothes. When she needs new clothes, we spend hours in dressing rooms trying to find ones that are comfortable. Deeply intuitive, in need of quiet downtime, challenged by change, a perfectionist, she is not alone. There are, in fact, two people in my family of four who fall into the 20% of the population known for being highly sensitive.
Elain Aron, Ph.D. is the author of The Highly Sensitive Child: Helping Our Children Thrive When the World Overwhelms Them. She herself was often misunderstood and even shamed for being too sensitive.Elain writes, “… it is primarily parenting that decides whether the expression of sensitivity will be an advantage or a source of anxiety.” Because a highly sensitive person (HSP) brain works differently, they need understanding and support. Homeschooling can offer a highly sensitive child the environment they need to thrive.
Below, you’ll find ways to help your child embrace the gift of sensitivity.
There is Nothing Wrong With Your Child
While a child who is highly sensitive may respond differently to situations and stimuli than their siblings or peers, they should be assured their responses are not wrong. They are born with a nervous system that is highly aware. Highly Sensitive Children (HSC) are also often intuitive, creative, empathetic, and reflective. They tend to be conscientious, in tune with their senses, and have a rich inner life. Loud noises, smells, textures, tastes, or change can be a true challenge for your HSC child. Therefore, it is important to give assurance that it’s okay to be who they are.
Maybe sitting at the kitchen table with talkative siblings or loud co-op classes aren’t a great fit for your HSC and hinder their learning more than they help them. They may need time in a quiet room, or to be able to listen to music or audiobooks while they work on math. Skipping loud activities or ones that require uncomfortable clothing is okay and sometimes necessary.
My child loves her biweekly wilderness class but struggles to wear the layers necessary to participate in winter. Going there in the winter is painful for her. We’ve realized until she’s able to handle snowsuits and being bundled, it’s best to sit out that season. We find other ways for her to experience nature. And we make sure on the warmer winter days, she gets plenty of time outside.
Support Their Efforts
It’s hard to want to do things that feel uncomfortable, but sometimes a highly sensitive child wants to push themselves through their discomfort. When my HSC tries to push past what is uncomfortable, I’ve found it is important she’s in control. My role is to remind her she can do hard things. And I strive to be supportive when she needs a break or to try again another time.
I recently watched her determination pay off. Every year we attend a mother-daughter camp with a huge rock wall. She is very much challenged by the feeling of the harness. The first year, she quietly cried the entire time it was on. Determined to climb, wearing the harness was a major accomplishment. The second year, she spent a good thirty minutes adjusting the harness before she was ready to climb. This year, she put it on, looked at me with her this is so uncomfortable face and headed for the wall. While it’s hard to watch my child struggle when she chooses to do so, it’s important I give her the time and space she needs.
Sometimes we are late to classes, and getting out the door takes a lot of time. We’ve discovered a few helpful tricks to make this easier:
- make sure her comfy clothes are clean
- give a lot of transition time
- keep her bag packed with all the things she might need
Sometimes, she just needs a few extra minutes. The alternative to giving her this time is not attending classes or rushing her, which leads to tears and fighting. While we have gone in both directions, extra time is always the better option. When it’s hard to be patient, I try to remind myself she is not defiant or lazy. She would much rather jump in the car and be comfortable.
While it can be hard and even frustrating to figure out an HSC’s needs and triggers, it’s important they have what they need to feel comfortable. My best advice is to take them with you when you buy clothes, school supplies, and food. Let them touch, smell, and pick out things that appeal to their senses.
Take note of what your child loves to touch and taste. Are they someone who craves things that are soft or rough? Foods that are hard like ice or mushy like applesauce? Do they need clothes that are tight or don’t have seams? Offer options and then let your child decide.
Again, it’s worth the time it takes to figure out the best pencils, pants, and foods that help an HSC feel their best. And it’s okay if the things they like or need are different from the rest of the family.
Communicate with Friends and Family
The research on Highly Sensitive People is not new. Unfortunately, neither is the tendency to label HSP as too sensitive. Friends and family might need help learning about what it means to be highly sensitive, and they might need gentle reminders. A well-intentioned family member who sees your child in a struggle can make the situation worse by raising their voice or telling them to get over it. Belittling a child’s need only creates shame and more struggle.
Communicate with friends and family, so that they know how to help when your child is having a hard time. Talking with them can also help them understand why certain gifts and activities need to be avoided. My family knows not to give my child clothes. They also know we don’t go to loud restaurants with multiple televisions blaring.
Regardless of our child’s needs, we can help them to understand who they are and what they need.
They need to learn to identify their triggers and to recognize the things they enjoy and need. Help your child tap into their senses. Maybe you can play games where they touch a variety of textures or get out the spices and let them find their favorite smells. Help them collect the stuffed animals, blankets, music, and toys that bring them the most comfort. Create a special corner in their room for some of the things they love. Then, they know they can head there when they need a break.
My daughter has a basket of things she loves and sometimes needs. When she’s feeling overwhelmed, she can take it outside or to a quiet space in our home. She also knows that having a journal and pencil nearby is always helpful and has placed one in pretty much every room, car, and space she might be.
Help Your Child Advocate for Themselves
Once your child knows what they need, it’s vital we help them find their words so they can speak for themselves. People are going to ask why they always wear sweatpants or are having a hard time. They don’t need to feel embarrassed or to have a parent jump in and explain what is going on. Instead, we can empower our children by letting them know there is no shame in the truth.
I’ve heard my daughter tell both adults and children why she needs what she needs. Not only does advocating for herself help her embrace who she is, it helps her create deeper connections with the people in her life. They are given a chance to accept her for who she is.
When my daughter was four, we were talking about how she needs extra time. I’ll never forget her looking at me and saying, “I’m worth the extra time it takes, Mom.” She is, and so is every child and adult who needs extra time, certain clothes, foods, and settings.
Success is Attainable
Homeschooling a high sensitive child takes time and patience, just like homeschooling every child does. But it’s important we take the necessary steps to know what our HSC needs, help them know what they need, and make sure their home and learning environment supports them. Supporting our HSC does not mean they are never triggered or are always comfortable. It means we help them know they can do hard things, let them be who they are, and give them plenty of opportunities to find success.
About the Author
Kelly left teaching middle and high school English to homeschool her children and reclaim how she and her family spent their time. Followers of interest-led learning, her family's days rarely look the same, but they tend to include a lot of books, art supplies, and time outside.
Kelly facilitates local writing circles for women and children and blogs about nurturing the love of learning on her blog, Curiosity Encouraged. She loves to journal, read memoirs, hike, and travel. She seeks quiet mornings and good coffee daily.