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Is Your Child a Highly Sensitive Person?

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Don’t try to change them, that’s just who they are

Are you or your child a Highly Sensitive Person (HSP)? For 15 years, psychologist Elaine Aron has studied this concept in adults and children. In her view, this doesn’t signify that anything is wrong with a person – it's simply a particular personality style. But oftentimes, schools or society try to change Highly Sensitive People; this is where the problems begin.

What are some characteristics of Highly Sensitive People? These qualities may include keen awareness of other people; becoming overwhelmed in crowds; an intense focused on art or music; needing to be alone in order to recharge; worrying over having done the right thing; and a preference to working alone rather than competitively or in a group.

Many times, Highly Sensitive Persons are introverts, but the two concepts are not exactly the same. Some Highly Sensitive Persons are thrill seekers, and may even appear to be extroverts to others. These fine shades of difference are explained in Aron's book.

Others might think a Highly Sensitive Person has a psychological problem, as some qualities in HSP overlap attention deficit disorders, generalized anxiety disorders, and perhaps even OCD. It becomes a problem when others try to change a highly sensitive person, thinking that they should be different in order to be “healthy.”

Schools often try to change Highly Sensitive Children. They are made to sit at tables facing other children so they can learn to “cooperate,” when in fact they do their best work sitting in a row. They may hold back from many school activities because these have become competitive events. They would rather enjoy sports, art, music, or dance for intrinsic merits, rather than trying to win a blue ribbon or first place.

Sometimes, even the liturgy seems to favor outgoing, hale-and-hearty personalities. There are reasons for facing the priest, shaking hands and hugging, creating round-style churches where congregants face each other, or including many people in an active way in front of others. But when Highly Sensitive People become uncomfortable in situations like this, it is not because they are protesting the liturgy, but rather because it is a proper response given their temperament. Perhaps proponents of such forms of liturgy need to consider the differences in temperament between people, as some need more quiet space with God than others.  (There are many rooms in the Father’s house, yes?)

It is a lucky HSP who can figure out a vocational choice that reinforces personal style and yet allows the person to make a secure living. Highly Sensitive Persons can be found among forest rangers, teachers, writers, religious educators, musicians, scholars and researchers, doctors, and stay-at-home parents. Sometimes homeschooling is a good option when both parent and child is a Highly Sensitive Person.

Aron speculates that in many fields (because of the economy), there are more persons who are competitive, outgoing, and wanting to change people and systems who no longer seek jobs in competitive business ventures.  This may account for changes in fields of education and medicine, where the bottom line and profit are now becoming more and more important.

We've just touched very briefly on the very enriching and intriguing concept of HSP. If you would like to learn more, please consider reading Aron’s books, The Highly Sensitive Person and The Highly Sensitive Child.

Author’s Note: I would be interested in hearing about any of your thoughts for possible articles on psychology/parents/children. Please write to me at wvornum@americanmentalhealthfoundation.org.

Dr. William Van Ornum is a licensed clinical psychologist who graduated from Loyola University of Chicago. He is professor of psychology at Marist College and director of research at American Mental Health Foundation.

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