Pretty much since her birth, my daughter has been what we’ve called “extra sensitive.” She’s always hated loud noises or busy places. On her first birthday, when the cat accidentally sneaked out of the house, my raised voice of frustration spooked her so badly that my mom had to take her back to her bedroom for a half hour to get her to stop crying. On Christmas morning when she was two, she grew so overwhelmed by the number of presents we expected her to open that we had to cover them up, and it took her four days to open them all. When we took her to her first movie in a theater, when she was two and a half, the movie was Winnie the Pooh—basically, the sweetest and gentlest of films possible, and with a character she’d already fallen in love with. But the minute the lights dimmed, the picture and sound were such an assault to her senses that she had what amounted to a panic attack and we never made it through the trailers. She was too scared to try another movie until age 5. She’s never liked surprises and rarely likes being the center of attention.
As she has grown, those sensitive traits have persisted. She still grows anxious at the prospect of loud rooms, and usually requests that when we dine out, we choose a quiet restaurant. Our raised voices unnerve her to the extent that we end up apologizing to her (even though the reason they are raised may be that she has made us angry in the first place). Her feelings are hurt easily. A few weeks ago, when a friend of hers made the innocuous comment, “You have shorts on,” she cried to me that her friend had been mean.
And on the last day of her week-long spring break theater camp (an experience she greatly enjoyed), she was so sad that it was over that she cried through the entire wrap party and into the evening, not to mention repeatedly since, when the subject of it has come up. For days we were instructed not to bring it up to her.
She’s just as sensitive to others’ feelings, and is highly unsettled when she witnesses others being mistreated or spoken to roughly, often crying over bullying she’s only seen and not been part of.
Transitions have always been a source of stress. In her first week of kindergarten, she cried nearly every night over not wanting to grow up. When she started first grade, it was more of the same. The first week of school was hard on all of us, with tears over wanting to return to kindergarten capping off each day—missing her old teacher, hating that things were different.
She never quits anything, never can stand giving up a single thing, because every goodbye, big or small, is fraught with emotion. Donations of her toys must be done without her knowledge. When I asked her to donate a book to a friend who was expecting a baby, she cried so hard at the prospect of giving up the book, which she’d only marginally liked as a toddler, that I had to put it back and take another one without telling her. And take, for instance, this evening’s tears over not being able to find a skirt she had only just remembered having. “You better not have donated that skirt!” she yelled through tears. “That was V-V-VERY SPECIAL!” (sob sob)
She’s physically sensitive as well. She has always refused to wear denim, calling it scratchy, as well as clothes that have any buttons. Many lovely new clothes have languished in her drawers, tags still on, because they felt weird or scratchy or hot or poky, or were too tight or too loose. It’s like Goldilocks around here sometimes.
To some extent, much of this normal kid stuff. You may recognize several of these traits in your own kids.
But the extra-touchy stuff has on occasion been trying for us as parents. We find ourselves agitated when she’s upset over stuff that for most people would bring merely a sigh or head shake. We’ve been frustrated when we try to explain how she has broken a rule and made us angry and she can’t hear any of it because she’s crying so hard. “Stop being so sensitive!” we want to shout. “Get over it! This isn’t something to cry about! Snap out of it!”
I have to remind myself that I, too, was this way as a child. I was constantly being told I was “too sensitive” when something upset me. I’ve never been able to watch violent movies or TV shows and I go out of my way to avoid them. I’m kept awake at night with worries that aren’t necessarily reasonable, and I’m unusually sensitive to the tones of people’s voices or the expressions on their faces. I know if someone’s upset the moment I’m with them, and it stresses me out, whether they ever say a word about it or not. And for much of my youth, when I confronted people who had, I thought, said or done something hurtful, I was told, “Stop being so sensitive!” Like it was a bad thing to feel my own feelings. That I wasn’t right for even having them.
Dr. Elaine Aron calls this “highly sensitive.” A clinical psychologist who has spent 25 years specializing in the study of high sensitivity, Dr. Aron says that 15-20% of the population is what she terms “highly sensitive.” According to her research, the brains of highly sensitive people actually work differently. They are more aware of subtleties, more easily overwhelmed, often misunderstood, have rich and complex inner lives, easily rattled, and extra responsive to sensory input. Her website lists common traits—which align almost exactly with our daughter’s—and even provides self-assessments.
I’m not here to diagnose anybody or to pretend I’m some psychology expert. But knowing that this research exists, that this is actually a thing, might help to explain this stuff. And it shines a light on the language people use surrounding sensitivity. Often, we hear language like, “You’re too sensitive,” or “you need to get over it,” and the commonly accepted wisdom is that sensitive people are “drama queens,” or that they’re “just looking for attention.” This language is judgment. Its underlying message is “your feelings aren’t correct and you shouldn’t have them.” It excuses bad behavior by putting the onus on its recipient. It says, “It’s too bad you took it so personally” rather than “I’m sorry I was a jerk.”
Being sensitive is not a flaw, and it’s not weakness or a desire to create drama.
For our part, my husband and I are careful not to use language like this at home. We celebrate our daughter’s empathy and depth of emotions, and how perceptive she is to others’ thoughts and feelings. We love how intuitive she is, and how she asks questions that provoke deep thought. We appreciate that she’s concerned about how things feel—for herself and for others—and we never want her to feel that her emotions are wrong.
Now, as to how she deals with them, that’s behavior she can learn. Feelings are okay, but expressing them in the right way is important. We have learned that she responds better to gentle corrections and private talks than strong punishments. We are learning to acknowledge her emotions and let her take breaks to calm herself. We practice and rehearse for difficult situations so she can anticipate what others might say and do, and how we could respond. We’re no experts, and I’m certainly not claiming to be a therapist, or anyone who’s capable of offering psychological advice.
But as someone who was told most of her life—by teachers, friends, and even a few lousy boyfriends—that I was too sensitive, I can say that it hurts and is unproductive. Rather, we should all be searching for ways to understand and respect each other’s feelings a bit more. A bit more sensitivity can only be a good thing, no matter who we are.