Supporting the Highly Sensitive Child: The Brain-Body Approach

I was five years old when my public-school counselor referred me for psychological testing. The concern: I never spoke up in class and didn’t answer when the teacher called my name or asked me a question.

Was I mute? Did I have anxiety or a speech delay?

As my mother remembers it all these years later, after testing me, the psychologist explained that I was “socially awkward, unsociable.”

My mother found that ridiculous—at home I was anything but awkward–and summarily dismissed their opinion.

In time I developed into a good student. I loved reading, tended to have one close friend at a time, and I was shy, sensitive, and quiet. I had an aversion to large groups and didn’t speak in class until 11th grade.

I was hardly unique. Psychology has many terms for people with the sorts of traits I exhibited as a child and teen: “Highly Sensitive Person” (HSP), “introvert,” “emotionally sensitive,” and “deeply feeling,” among others.

What should parents, teachers, and others know about the best way to support these individuals?

That question was part of what inspired me to pursue the field of psychology in the first place. I wanted to understand why speaking in front of a group—or even being with large numbers of people—caused me such stress.

What I was told was that such aversions could be “cured” by altering my thinking with the help of cognitive behavioral therapy. Not only was that unsuccessful, but the effort to shift my thoughts actually increased my anxiety.

The truth was that that anxiety didn’t originate from my thoughts. It came from my body. What gave me insight into helping kids with those feelings wasn’t talk therapy but my experience with neuroscientists and pediatric occupational therapists. They taught me about how it’s the body that leads the way we experience the world.

The scientist Dr. Stephen Porges deepened that understanding with his description of how we experience the world through our sensory systems. Dr. Porges changed how I perceived highly sensitive, introverted, or emotionally reactive people with a single word: interoception, the deep process by which our bodies process sensory information.

That understanding leads us to a breakthrough in how we support sensitive humans. In addition to trying to change our thoughts, we learn to notice and be aware of our body’s natural reactions. We honor those reactions, and discern what is serving us, and what’s holding us back.

In short, it’s the body that leads the way, not the mind.

As parents and educators, instead of labeling or fearing children’s natural reactions, we should appreciate them—from early on. Our question shouldn’t be “Is my child going to become an anxious person?” but rather, “How can I help my child feel comfortable and safe in his or her body?” We should work to help children make friends with their nervous systems as early as possible—by nurturing the self-regulation that grows out of trusting relationships.

Some tips to help highly sensitive children:

 *Respect the child’s natural responses. Avoid pushing them to do or say things they aren’t ready to do or say (e.g. answering unfamiliar adults who ask them their name or a question).

*Try not to avoid challenging situations, but use co-regulation (sharing your calmness and sturdiness) to help compassionately stretch the child’s challenge zone.

*When you see your child struggling with a situation, try to join in their world and start a conversation about it, by normalizing the range of reactions. (“I thought that was a loud movie theater. I’m glad we’re out now— what was that like for you?”)

*Have compassion for yourself if watching your child struggle makes you feel anxious. Remember, your child may share some of your own tendencies— and will have years to work through learning to feel safer as they develop.

Oh, and I eventually got over my fear of public speaking. Now I enjoy speaking in front of groups—especially when I’m talking about shifting the lens away from labeling people and towards an appreciation of the body-brain connection. I share more about how to help sensitive children in my new book, Brain-Body Parenting.

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