My Child is Highly Sensitive

Caitlin Houston
5 min readFeb 5, 2024

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Why does my child have big emotions? What is a highly sensitive child? How do you support a child with empathetic abilities? Over the last two years I have been searching for answers. Here is our story.

My Child is a Highly Sensitive Empath

Three years ago I wrote a blog post titled, “Why is my 7 year old so emotional?” I didn’t think my story would resonate with so many parents, but it was one of my most read posts in 2023. As life goes, we now have another 7 year old in the house — but she is a little bit different.

One of my daughter’s best qualities is also one of the things she struggles with most: Ailey was born with BIG emotions. Like all humans, she experiences complex emotions (shyness, shame, guilt, empathy, envy). But unlike children her age, she is highly sensitive and hyperaware of how she feels. She is quick to react with everything — sadness, anger, fear, joy — and it can be difficult to calm her down.

Kids who are highly sensitive possess an under-appreciated trait: empathy (source). Our daughter recognizes the emotions of others and often feels them herself. I cannot fathom how she handles it, consuming the emotional energy of others — but I’ve been a witness to it happening.

Sometimes she can read a room filled with people, picking up on hidden sadness or quiet excitement. She may take the hand of a shy friend or offer a hug to someone in need of comfort without being prompted by an adult. Those situations, especially social situations like school, can be challenging and exhausting. She will come home tired, drained, and take a nap after emotionally stimulating experiences.

Does your child have a highly sensitive brain?

After months of tantrums and outbursts, inconsolable moments and feeling like we were doing something wrong — my husband and I learned something about our daughter. A child therapist and pediatrician confirmed our daughter is highly sensitive with empathetic abilities.

According to psychologist Elaine Aron, who popularized the term “highly sensitive person,” roughly one in five children are highly sensitive. Being highly sensitive is a trait and not a disorder though — it is a normal variation of human temperament and personality. Parents need to be alert for certain signs that their child is high in empathy and struggling with it. Here are some common signs:

  1. They notice subtle details, such as a teacher’s new outfit or when furniture has been moved.
  2. Other people’s moods really affects them. They easily absorb emotions from others, taking on their feelings as if they were their own.
  3. They have a hard time shaking intense emotions like anger or worry.
  4. They complain when things feel off (e.g., scratchy bedsheets, itchy clothing labels, tight waistbands).
  5. They feel stressed and fatigued in loud, busy environments, like gyms or perfume counters because of the strong odors.
  6. They hate feeling rushed and prefer to do things more carefully.
  7. They respond better to gentle correction rather than to harsh discipline.
  8. They make insightful comments and seem wise for their age.
  9. They have a clever sense of humor.
  10. They read people well and can infer, with surprising accuracy, what they are thinking or feeling.
  11. They refuse to eat certain foods because of the smells or textures.
  12. They startle easily at sudden noises, like when someone sneaks up on them.

How to Help a Highly Sensitive Child with Big Emotions

Kids need to learn to recognize, understand, and cope with what they are experiencing, and feeling “seen” and accepted can help tremendously. Dr. Judy Orloff, author of “The Empath’s Survival Guide” defines an empathic person as one who is deeply in tune with the feelings of others in their environment. She further describes an empath as an “emotional sponge who absorbs both the positivity and the stress of people and the world” (source).

As a parent of three girls, I want them to know I accept, love and believe in them for who they are. Here are ways to support a highly sensitive child with big emotions and empathetic abilities.

Give feelings a name.

As far as my daughter’s personal emotions, she has yet to discover all the words necessary to describe her sentiments. For example, envy is a new emotion we are learning to break down. Emotions cause sensations in her body and mind, but it is so important to give the sensations a name: fury, fatigue, stress, etc.

Validate your child and her emotions.

Listen, really listen, and empathize with your child. Allow her to describe what she is feeling and validate her emotions. “I understand you are feeling angry because _________.” I find my daughter feels most understood when I recognize she experiences the world in a different way. She also enjoys when I tell stories about times I have felt the same way as she feels.

Encourage sensory breaks.

Sometimes new sensations can be the most difficult part about being her and my daughter will say, “Mommy I don’t want to feel this way anymore.” As parents we need to emphasize to our children that feelings can come in like big waves. Even though they feel as if they’re toppling over, the waves will crash and subside. The aftermath can be messy, but teach your child ways to reset and calm down. We encourage naps, meditation stories, or even dance/art breaks after emotionally stimulating situations.

Provide structure and routine.

Highly sensitive kids flourish on structure and routine because they know what to expect. My daughter loves when we follow a schedule. What she does not handle well a quick change of plans or being rushed. I’ve noticed she breaks down when we are in a rush for school in the morning, so I’ve been working to stay calm if we are behind schedule. Parents should model flexibility and how to cope if the unavoidable occurs.

Encourage your child.

All kids thrive off praise, but highly sensitive children are more self-conscious. Highly sensitive children can feel pressure from being evaluated or receiving attention for performance, so they will fear of disappointing others. It is crucial to applaud your child’s strengths and notice their thoughtfulness when being empathetic.

I am happy we have a highly sensitive child. She is brilliant, passionate, intuitive, and a shining light in everyone’s life.

More sources: “Helping your empathetic child manage big feelings” by Liz Nissim-Matheis Ph.D., “Understanding and Supporting Highly Sensitive Children (HSC)” by Claire Lerner L.C.S.W., “Highly Sensitive Parenting Strategies” by Amy Nasamran, Ph.D.

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Caitlin Houston

Caitlin Houston is a Mom of three and creator of Connecticut based life + style site Caitlin Houston Blog.