Posted by Kristen M. Ploetz in Bookshelf on March 6, 2013
Here we are at Book # 6 of my Top 8 Parenting Books. If you have a child that seems to experience emotions (like happiness and sadness) in a very profound way unlike his peers, or one that is extraordinarily in tune with or often overwhelmed by her environmental surroundings (like touch, bright lights or loud noise), then you may find the following book helpful.
The Highly Sensitive Child: Helping Our Children Thrive When the World Overwhelms Them, by Elaine N. Aron, Ph.D.
From a very young age, M has shown certain traits that seem to set her apart from her peers. Take empathy, for instance. Even as young as two years old, we (and her doctors and teachers) noticed that she displayed a depth of empathy not commonly seen at her age, particularly toward other children and animals. She also has always taken even the slightest amount of disappointment or rejection that someone might express toward her so very, very personally, crumpling into a pile of tears and wanting to talk about the interaction sometimes up to days later (where many other kids might brush it off within 10 minutes or after distracted by something else). She has always had a good sense of the emotions of the people around her, very often getting a good read just from body language. She has never tolerated loud noises or certain kinds of tactile sensations with clothing (particularly this last one when stressed or feeling anxious). She prefers a very quiet, low key environment. She will sometimes tear up when she is very happy, seemingly unable to contain the emotion bubbling inside her.
She is, it appears, a highly sensitive child (HSC). It is a trait that is found among 15-20% of children, according to the book’s author. The author goes on to explain that high sensitivity, rather than shyness or anxiety, is the fundamental trait that many people experience or express, and why this kind of trait is an advantage, not a hindrance. That there is an evolutionary basis for it.
After a short introduction, there is a 23-question questionnaire to help determine whether your child might be an HSC. If you answer true to 13 or more, there is a strong likelihood your child is highly sensitive. When I take the quiz with M in mind, I answer “true” to 21 of them. I am a HSP (highly sensitive person) myself, and there is certainly a hereditary component to being highly sensitive (Note: The author also has another book out for adults who may be HSP and a workbook as well. Additionally, at the end of Chapter 3, there is a quiz for adults to take to determine whether they are highly sensitive too.). This is all not to say that other non-HSC people are not “sensitive”, it is just that they do not feel emotions and physical feelings to the extreme as HSCs do.
This book is helpful in explaining what an HSC is, and what it is not, and why you can have a range of sensitivities among different HSCs (some might be more emotionally sensitive while others might be sensitive with just new situations and people, for example). It helps the parent, particularly a parent that may not be highly sensitive himself or herself, understand how certain things can be overwhelming for the HSC. The book clears up misconceptions about HSCs (like that they are not born “shy”, that they are just often in observation mode for a lot longer of a period than others, such as on the first day of school). The author describes the interplay with introversion (not all HSCs are introverted), among other traits and tendencies.
After this very instructive first chapter, the author continues with the nuts and bolts of raising the HSC. She shows that it can be a positive and rewarding experience, even though it certainly comes with some challenge. Of course this requires a shift in the parents’ thinking by not expecting the child to change his or her personality to adjust to someone else’s (the parent’s, a teacher’s or society’s, as the case may be) preferred temperament. The book notes six common problems that are associated with raising the HSC, and offers very helpful pointers in how to work through them.
In Chapter 3, Dr. Aron offers advice for non-highly sensitive parents who might be navigating uncertain terrain and want to know how to adapt to make a better fit that embraces the child for who he is. One example is how certain HSCs do not like a lot of physical affection; her advice includes a reminder to not take it as rejection and offers alternative ways to approach the child with physical displays of love.
She also provides an equally good chapter (Ch. 4) on how highly sensitive parents can optimize the effects they have on the dynamics of the HS parent-HS child relationship. This is the chapter I found perhaps most helpful because I am highly sensitive and can become easily overwhelmed in some situations, though it has become easier for me the older she gets. Though not entirely—I teared up yesterday during Kindergarten registration. The whole overwhelming sense of her growing up, mortality just blindsided me out of nowhere, simply because the PTO representative was handing me a flyer about what’s to come. I’m sure they thought I was a crazy woman, tearing up in the lobby of the elementary school during the mere registration process. But I’m like that with everything, and I cannot control it most times. Especially if there is music too–M’s ballet recital last year? Basket case. I carry a lot of tissues around to say the least. And so that’s why this chapter was helpful, because I do need to be able to keep it in check (like if we’re at the doctor’s office for M and I am overwhelmed by something that she is going through) because she is looking to me for how to react and for a sense that all is OK. She offers insight about how to go about this, particularly when dealing with the world outside our home.
The last half of the book rounds out with “keys to raising a joyous HSC” (i.e. promoting self-esteem and how behavior correction and having consequences, rather than traditional discipline methods, works best with the HSC), followed by several age-specific chapters (infants; toddlers and preschoolers; school-age and adolescents/young adults) and how to handle various situations at home and “out in the world”. I purchased this book long after M left the infant stage, but did find the toddler/preschooler “out in the world” chapter particularly useful when dealing with some of her tentativeness about preschool. I am keeping this book at the ready for some summer reading now that we are moving toward the “school-age” phase and I see some potential challenges with the nature of how classrooms are set up and the predominate kind of social expectations she will face. I might not necessarily agree with every single bit of advice (like her suggestion to help your child develop athletic skills, especially a team sport—I don’t agree that that is necessary simply because not all kids are athletic, number one, and even if they are they may very well prefer a more “solitary” sport, like cross-country running . . . like I used to do), but she certainly sets forth a wide range of things to consider, all with the larger goal of creating self-confidence in the child and being able to navigate through the world at large.
For all of you teachers out there, the very end of the book has a “twenty tips for teachers” section that might help you better understand the HSCs sitting before you every day. For the rest of us, the book has a fairly good resource list (books, temperament websites, videos and regional therapists working in this field).
If your child tends to feel things “more” than other kids, you just might find (after reading this book) that you have a highly sensitive child. This book will help put that trait in context within daily life, and show you just how lucky you are.
Copyright (c) 2013 Kristen M. Ploetz