Learning About The Sensitive Child

Here’s a question that I’ve been pondering lately.  What’s a parent to do when their child with special needs also happens to be a highly sensitive child.  It is a tough balance to decipher the highly sensitive parts from the special needs parts.  Can they even be separated?  Recently, we went to see the new Avengers movie.  No worries, no spoilers from me here.  I will say though, I love you 3000!  This is the portion of the movie where I hear *sniff, sniff, sob, sob*.  I look around the very full movie theater and I settle my eyes to my right.  To my direct right was my son, P.  He was overcome with emotion.  I didn’t know if we were going to have exit the theater, because the sobbing was getting louder.  I grabbed P’s hand and encouraged him to take a deep breath.  Through the sobs and sniffs, he says to me, “I miss Grandma Lou so much my heart is aching.”  Ugh!

Here this kid is so in tune to the emotion and feelings of the character on screen.  I was proud of him for making connections.  I felt sad for him because I truly believed his heart was aching missing his best pal Grandma Lou.  I hugged him telling him it would be OK and encouraged him to take some deep breaths.  Now, if this same scenario played out in real life, I have no doubt that P would not have had the same emotional reaction.  P would have to engage, offer eye contact, reciprocate the feelings, and in general be attune to what was happening around him.  That is the balance that we try to decipher.  We recently had a provider that needed to separate the special needs from the sensitivity.

These two fractions are part of the whole.  Even though I can see them individually.  How can I separate them apart?  It’s what makes P who he is.  I’ve seen P react emotionally in the moment.  All because of an offending odor, deafening noise, food that wasn’t right for him, or seeing an animal that he wants for himself.  Honestly, it’s frustrating AF.  We rehearse going out, we rehearse what will be on the menus, we rehearse appropriate responses for questions that may be thrown his way.  I’m not going to lie that I handle perfectly every single time.  I don’t.  I’m human.  I try my best.  However, I sigh.  I become exasperated.  My temper is short.  All while trying to help P decipher what caused the emotional reaction.

I am aware that highly sensitive children seem to have a nervous system that seems to work in overdrive.  These children are easily overwhelmed and the reactions are emotional.  Sounds are louder.  Smells are smellier.  It’s all about regulation.  There are a few things I’ve learned about parenting the highly sensitive child.

  1. Know their triggers:  What makes the child react?  Crowds?  Noise? Smells? Change in routine?
  2. Talk about how they feel:  Let the child tell you how they feel and LISTEN to the child.
  3. Validate their feelings:  Listen to the child, say I hear you saying you are feeling scared, anxious, etc.
  4. Help them relax:  Teach the child deep breathing techniques
  5. Don’t react immediately:  Bite your tongue.  Sit on your hands.  Hum a Tune.  Count to 10 or 100 whatever it takes to not have a knee jerk reaction to the situation

When these issues pop up it never seems to be in an appropriate setting or time.  Socially others may want to offer their two cents.  I’ve heard everything from deal with it, toughen up, and there’s nothing to be afraid of here.  These phrases all minimize the problem.  I never want my child to feel like their emotions or feelings are not important or to be fearful of the reprimand.  We need children to be resilient and find a positive way to reframe those situations that can bring out emotional reactions.


All my best to you,


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