Shy or Highly Sensitive?

I recently read The Highly Sensitive Child by Dr. Elaine Aron. Before the book begins, there is a survey for parents to answer “True” or “False” to characteristics of their child. Some of the statements on the survey include:

  • startles easily

  • doesn’t enjoy big surprises

  • seems very intuitive

  • doesn’t do well with big changes

  • prefers quiet play

  • feels deeply

  • notices subtleties (something's been moved, a person looks differently, etc)

I think what fascinated me the most about this book is how often the term “shy” gets thrown around when actually, based upon the research Dr. Aron writes, the child is highly sensitive. Since I work with school-aged children I thought I’d describe how a typical school day might affect a highly sensitive child.

First, for parents of kindergarteners I bet you can attest to the transition period that happened during the first days, weeks, and even months of school. Transitions are hard for kiddos in general; they thrive on routine but especially hard for highly sensitive children who need to know what to expect. Showing your child the setting ahead of time is incredibly helpful. This is why most schools offer back-to-school days for students and families to walk around the school, see where classrooms are, where the lunch room is, etc. If your child takes the bus helping them know where they’ll get dropped off at school and where to catch the bus are important transitions as well.

Second, the classroom can sometimes be overstimulating for highly sensitive children. Working with your child’s teacher to help identify ways to self-regulate during overstimulation times is important. Many teachers have reading nooks or sensory corners where children can take breaks and over time develop strategies to regulate their emotions.

And the last point I wanted to share is about naming emotions and normalizing them. If you bring your child to a classmate’s birthday party at a jump house and notice tears, name that feeling. “It seems like you’re feeling scared. It’s okay to feel scared when you’ve never been in a jump house before. I know that sometimes I feel scared the first time I do something new.” In this example, you might also add a recommendation that Dr. Aron talks about which is tapping into a familiar experience. “This is your first time going to a jump house but you’ve been on a trampoline before at Sam'’s house and I remember at first you felt nervous but then you found it fun.”

I’d be happy to connect you with other resources or talk with you further about school transitions. And for parents of high schoolers, college is a big transition too and I do a lot of work with students preparing for that transition.