What does it mean if your child is considered 'highly sensitive'?

As many as 20 per cent of children are considered "highly sensitive." However, some parents say their kids are often misunderstood. Kim Smith has more on the challenges they face.

Being highly sensitive is a personality trait that impacts as many as 20 per cent of children, according to Dr. Elaine Aron, author of The Highly Sensitive Child, who led the way in researching the subject in the 1990s.

However, despite its prevalence, some parents say their kids are often misunderstood.

“A lot of her anxiety comes off as disrespectful sometimes to people who don’t understand where she’s coming from, when that’s not what she’s intending to do,” Megan Finnamore said of her 10-year-old daughter, who is highly sensitive.

“I feel like a lot of people aren’t sure how to deal with her when she’s emotionally charged up.”

What are the characteristics of a highly sensitive child?

Highly sensitive children are described as more attuned to their environment and the people around them, according to registered psychologist Tammy Auten-Dye, who has a practice in Ponoka, Alta.

“They are more aware of the colours around them, the sounds around them, the textures that are on their clothing or other things that they might be wearing,” Auten-Dye said.

“A child who maybe has difficulty regulating their emotions because they feel things so big compared to the rest of us.”

Highly sensitive kids might be sensitive to noise, uncomfortable in certain clothes or sensitive to different textures in their mouth.

“We might see them leave the room or they might sit in the hallway to escape what’s going on. They might be seen covering their ears,” Auten-Dye said.

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According to Aron, a highly sensitive child is born with a nervous system that is highly aware and quick to react to everything. She provided an online questionnaire that parents can fill out if they suspect their child is highly sensitive.

Being highly sensitive is a characteristic people often carry for life. However, as adults, we’re better equipped at managing big emotions and are able to remove ourselves more easily from difficult situations.

“This trait is pervasive and it sticks with us. But as an adult, we can choose how to manage that. If we don’t want to be talking to people or if we’re feeling overwhelmed, we can pop in our earbuds and listen to music or a podcast,” Auten-Dye said.

“Children aren’t allowed to do these things. They don’t have the same freedoms. They might have to sit through a class instead of taking the break that they need.”

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Auten-Dye said more and more research is being done on the subject, and schools are becoming more accommodating for kids.

“Now, we can give those kids what they need to survive in school, to excel in school, to enjoy playground time and extracurricular activities.”

Parents should understand that being highly sensitive is normal, Auten-Dye said. Some tips and strategies include giving kids certain clothing types, having strict bedtimes and wake-up times, giving children routines and having food options that the child can tolerate.

WATCH BELOW: Registered psychologist Tammy Auten-Dye describes what it means to be highly sensitive.

What are parents saying?

Global News posted an interview with Auten-Dye on its Facebook page and had an overwhelming number of parents weigh in on the topic.

Jessica Dewald, from Wetaskiwin, Alta., said her seven-year-old daughter used to have difficulty brushing her teeth and hair because of the sensitivity. Now, her daughter has difficulty wearing certain clothes. She only has one pair of pants that she’s able to wear.

“She desperately wants to wear other pants but she just can’t,” Dewald said via Skype.

“She’s got probably more pants than anyone else in this family, just trying to make something work. She’s got pants with sparkles, pants with unicorns, and she can’t wear any of them.”

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Kelly McLean, from Rimbey, Alta., said her six-year-old son has been highly sensitive for as long as she can remember but that the trait has been more noticeable since he began kindergarten.

“Some of the things that you might see in his behaviour would be tantrums or retreating or disobedience, not listening to instruction,” McLean said. “You can tell he gets red over his face. You can tell that he’s just extremely heightened in emotion.”

Although being highly sensitive impacts about one in five children, the parents Global News spoke with said they’re encouraged that more people are talking about the subject.

“I’ve experienced with my son that it seems like maybe it’s easy for parents who don’t have a sensitive child to misinterpret the behaviours of sensitive children,” McLean said.

Auten-Dye will be speaking on the subject at the upcoming Children’s Annual Mental Health Conference in Edmonton.

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