7 Highly Sensitive Child Symptoms (+ Key Tips For Caregivers)

Highly Sensitive Child Symptoms: A daughter with face paint in between her mother and father laughing & smiling.

If you’ve landed on this post, you may already have a hunch that your child or a child you care for may be one of the 15-20% of children who are born “highly sensitive.”

You may be wondering, “What exactly is high sensitivity? Does it mean my child is neurodivergent? Will they outgrow it? Most importantly, how can I best parent my highly sensitive child?

In this post, we’ll cover the top 7 highly sensitive child symptoms and address the most common questions parents and caregivers face when raising a “HSC”.

Are your kids easily overwhelmed or bothered? You might have a highly sensitive kid. Read more on highly sensitive child symptoms and learn how to understand, care for, and help manage them. By Such a Little While

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What exactly does it mean to be “highly sensitive?”

First, let’s discuss what high sensitivity is not. High sensitivity is not about being introverted or feeling shy (Fun fact: Many HSCs are extroverts!).

According to Dr. Elaine Aron, psychotherapist, researcher, author of the best-selling book The Highly Sensitive Child, and creator of the highly sensitive child quiz, sensitivity in children is four-fold. Highly Sensitive Children (HSCs):

  1. Deeply process and analyze the world
  2. Are easily overstimulated
  3. Experience intense emotions & empathy
  4. Notice and respond to “subtle stimuli”

Researchers also refer to this group of factors as Sensory Processing Sensitivity.

As a highly sensitive parent to a HSC, I cannot recommend Dr. Aron’s book enough for parents and educators wanting a deeper understanding of high sensitivity in children.

If you’re reading about HSCs and thinking, “Wow, the apple didn’t fall far from the tree!” you’re not alone. Parenting a HSC as a highly sensitive person yourself is complex, challenging, and a fantastic motivator to dive deeper into conscious parenting.

Be sure to check out Dr. Aron’s books, The Highly Sensitive Person and The Highly Sensitive Parent, for a comprehensive look into the work of sensitivity in adults.

One of the most confusing aspects of high sensitivity in children is the undeniable similarities in symptoms to many forms of neurodivergence, including:

  • Sensory Processing Disorder (SPD)
  • Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD)
  • Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD)
  • Intellectual giftedness

For example, HSCs and ADHD children may both experience strong emotional reactions. Furthermore, HSCs, as well as kids with SPD and ASD, may be prone to sensory sensitivities and overstimulation. Finally, intellectually gifted children often possess as strong attention to detail, just as HSCs do.

Highly Sensitive Child Symptoms: A teacher seated in between two students painting with watercolors in a classroom.

So are all HSCs neurodivergent too?

Researchers, medical experts, and mental health professionals are not all in agreement on this one. Some argue that high sensitivity is a standalone form of neurodivergence, while others feel it is more an aspect of innate human temperament.

The bottom line: Not every HSC will meet the criteria or receive a formal diagnosis recognized in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM), such as ADHD or ASD.

Highly Sensitive Child Symptoms: "...HSCs are superb humans.  Being superb at what they do best by nature provides them with the highest form of happiness."
-Dr. Elaine N. Aron, The Highly Sensitive Child
Graphic by suchalittlewhile.com

When navigating the confusing waters of HSCs and potential neurodivergence, consider how a child’s sensitivity impacts their daily functioning.

If a child’s sensitivity significantly interferes with their ability to navigate daily tasks or access learning, it may be time to speak with their pediatrician and/or educators to explore further support.

As a Certified Positive Parent Educator, I advocate for all families to strive for a positive approach to discipline. This framework adopts the true meaning of discipline, “to teach,” rather than “punish”.

Positive parenting also emphasizes connection and collaboration over coercion and control.

Research shows the benefits of positive, authoritative parenting for all children, especially for HSCs.

The good news? Researchers have also found that when HSCs receive positive parenting with high emotional responsiveness, they tend to be more socially competent and show fewer challenging behaviors than non-sensitive children raised with the same parenting style.

Highly Sensitive Child Symptoms: A boy outdoors on an autumn day wearing headphones and listening to music while closing his eyes & smiling.

Let’s dive into what sensory sensitivity looks like in kids. Here are the 7 most common signs and symptoms of Highly Sensitive Children (HSCs):

  1. Heightened attention to detail
  2. Intense emotional reactions or anxiety
  3. Increased empathy
  4. Sensory processing differences
  5. Easily overstimulated
  6. Deep thinking
  7. Difficulty with changes & transitions
Highly Sensitive Child Symptoms: 7 Highly Sensitive Child Symptoms. (1) Heightened attention to detail. (2) Intense emotional reactions. (3) Increased empathy. (4) Sensory processing differences. (5) Easily overstimulated. (6) Deep thinking. (7) Difficulty with changes & transitions. Graphic by suchalittlewhile.com

One of the greatest assets among HSCs is often their remarkable attention to detail. Dr. Elaine Aron refers to this as “being aware of subtle stimuli.

HSCs may:

  • Take a moment to assess new situations or environments before engaging
  • Notice and recall small details in books or pictures
  • Possess a strong sense of smell
  • Pick up on subtleties in social interactions, such as tone of voice or body language

While a heightened attention to detail can serve a child very well in their learning and relationships, remember these small details can overflow a child’s sensory threshold more quickly than in other kids.

Be prepared for new situations that may overwhelm your child, and provide breaks as needed to recharge.

Furthermore, remember that your HSC often experiences the world differently than others. For example, just because the volume at the movie theater seems reasonable to you doesn’t mean it’s not way too loud for your child.

Always validate their perspectives, even when you struggle to relate or empathize.

Big emotions are both a challenge and a virtue for HSCs and their caregivers.

Yes, high “emotional reactivity,” as Dr. Elaine Aron puts it, often means tears and tantrums for HSCs, but it can also mean enthusiasm and bliss.

HSCs possess strong emotions in both positive and negative experiences.

A friend once said it perfectly, noting that my HSC “does everything with such joy!

Highly Sensitive Child Symptoms:: "What could we need more right now than people who think carefully, feel deeply, notice the subtle details, and end up having the big picture?"
-Dr. Elaine Aron, The Highly Sensitive Child
Graphic by suchalittlewhile.com

If your child experiences big emotions, here are a few essential positive parenting tips:

  • Unless it is an imminent safety concern, avoid parenting/discipline decisions in the “heat of the moment”
  • Help your child build an emotional vocabulary and regularly talk about their feelings
  • Introduce and teach healthy coping skills first when kids are calm
  • Connect with your child before “correcting” their behaviors
  • Validate emotions even when you cannot condone the behavior that accompanied it

For more tips, be sure to join Such a Little While’s free positive parenting challenge:

Managing Routines & Transitions in Early Childhood: Positive Parenting Challenge PDF Workbook by Such a Little While
Graphic of free PDF workbook.  Text Reads "Positive Parenting Challenge 3.0, must-know positive discipline do's & dont's, 30 powerful, easy-to-follow tips & tools, unlock 10 key features of positive parenting, customizable parenting solutions, master the art of effective consequences).

    HSCs not only have strong emotions, but they often take on and experience the emotions of those around them.

    Undoubtedly, empathy is a quality every parent hopes their child will possess. At the same time, caregivers must recognize the mental and emotional load that “deeply feeling kids” often carry (a term coined by Dr. Becky Kennedy).

    Growing up as a HSC, I can vividly recall classmates being yelled at or shamed by teachers and feeling like I was in trouble, even when I was not.

    • Regularly check in with your child about their perspectives and emotions.
    • Help your child identify what is “in their control” and “not in their control” in difficult situations (helpful tool below)
    • Monitor children’s intake of books, television, or games that may elicit intense emotional reactions beyond what they can handle.
    Circle of Control for Kids: cover photo Printables for Kids (Layflat image of 3 PDF pages from Circle of Control for Kids Activity) Such a Little While LLC

    Helping children hone in on what they can control can help HSCs who may feel responsible for others’ emotions (learn more here).

    Did you know that humans experience eight unique forms of sensory input?

    HSCs may be more prone to sensory sensitivities across any of the following stimuli:

    1. Visual (e.g., bright lights, fast-moving or changing patterns)
    2. Auditory (e.g., loud, high-pitched, or overlapping noises)
    3. Tactile (e.g., undesired textures, physical contact, changes in weather)
    4. Olfactory (e.g., intense smells or odors)
    5. Gustatory (e.g., food with undesired tastes or textures)
    6. Proprioceptive: (e.g., rough play, heavy lifting, or tight clothing)
    7. Vestibular: (e.g., spinning or swinging)
    8. Interoceptive: (e.g., inner-body sensations such as hunger, pain, or emotions)
    What is Overstimulation: 8 Types of Sensory Input. (1) Visual (e.g., bright lights, fast-moved or changing patterns). (2) Auditory (e.g., loud, high-pitched, or overlapping noises). (3) Tactile (e.g., undesired textures, physical contact, changes in weather). (4) Olfactory (e.g., intense smells or odors). (5) Gustatory (e.g., food with undesired tastes or textures). (6) Proprioceptive: (e.g., rough play, heavy lifting, or tight clothing). (7) Vestibular: (e.g., spinning or swinging). (8) Interoceptive: (e.g., inner-body sensations such as hunger, pain, or emotions). More information at suchalittlewhile.com. Graphic by suchalittlewhile.com

    Sensory sensitivities can look incredibly different from child to child. One child may struggle with “picky” eating and have a strong aversion to the seams on their socks, while another may need to exert loads of physical energy each day to stay regulated.

    If sensory sensitivities significantly impact your child’s ability to navigate daily tasks, it may be time to talk to their pediatrician and inquire about referral to an occupational therapist (OT).

    OTs work with sensory-sensitive children and their families to adopt a personalized “sensory diet” to meet their specific needs. This diet does not consist of food, but rather tools and routines that help children stay regulated.

    From weighted blankets to sensory swings to seamless socks, the right tool can make a world of difference.

    If you are interested in identifying a sensory diet for your child, I also recommend checking out Harkla’s comprehensive online course for parents below:

    If your child resists certain clothing or food, can’t seem to sit still, or struggles with self-regulation, a sensory diet tailored to their individual needs can make a tremendous impact!

    Harkla’s Certified Occupational Therapy Assistants will help you design a customized sensory diet to best support your child’s needs and help them thrive.

    What is Overstimulation: Harkla Sensory Diet Course

    At any given moment, we all possess a unique sensory threshold. In other words, there is a limit to how much input our brain can receive before it becomes overwhelmed or overstimulated.

    Highly Sensitive Child Symptoms: "Sometimes it is easy for parents to realize they are overstimulating their infant with things to see, but do not notice when they themselves are the source of stimulation." 
-Dr. Elaine Aron, The Highly Sensitive Child
Graphic by suchalittlewhile.com

    Overstimulation is not a phenomenon unique to HSCs; however, they often have a lower threshold for reaching the point of sensory overload in various environments or in response to certain stimuli.

    As parents, we are usually no strangers to overstimulation.

    If you’ve ever been on an important phone call when a toddler tantrum strikes or attempted talk to your partner amidst a bout of sibling rivalry, you know first-hand how overstimulation feels. You also know how hard it is for humans, even into adulthood, to keep calm and rational once sensory overload hits.

    Signs of Highly Sensitive Children: 7 Signs of Overstimulation in Kids. (1) Covering Ears or Eyes, (2) Irritability or Restlessness, (3) Crying or Meltdowns, (4) Difficulty Sleeping, (5) Avoiding, Triggering Environments (6) Difficulty Focusing/Following Directions, (7) Anxiety. More information at suchalittlewhile.com. Graphic by suchalittlewhile.com.

    Here are some key signs and symptoms of overstimulation in children:

    1. Covering ears or eyes
    2. Irritability or restlessness
    3. Crying or meltdowns
    4. Difficulty sleeping
    5. Avoiding triggering environments
    6. Difficulty focusing/following directions
    7. Anxiety

    Helping your child ward off and cope with overstimulation is highly dependent on their sensory triggers; however, here are a few examples of interventions and tools that can help HSCs:

    • Avoiding or limiting time spent in highly stimulating environments
    • Taking frequent breaks
    • Providing noise-reducing headphones
    • Providing deep pressure (e.g., weighted stuffed animal, firm hug- with permission)
    • Validating feelings of overwhelm or worry in response to environmental triggers
    • Maintaining a predictable daily routine
    • Keeping directions/directives simple and providing one at a time
    • Avoiding punitive discipline and offering a safe space to process feelings
    • Keeping open communication with your child’s other caregivers or educators regarding which strategies/tools work best
    7 Red Flag Signs of Overstimulation (Loving Parents Often Miss!) by Suchalittlewhile.com (text overlay an image of a smiling young girl wearing a red shirt.)

    HSCs often have a heightened capacity for deep thinking. They tend to process information profoundly, ask complex questions, or use a remarkable vocabulary.

    On one hand, this deep thinking can be a tremendous asset for HSCs, fostering creativity, empathy, and a heightened awareness of themselves and their surroundings.

    On the other hand, deep thoughts and emotions can sometimes overwhelm HSCs, who often have a lower threshold for overstimulation.

    Highly Sensitive Child Symptoms: Stock photo of young boy looking deep in thought.

    Here are five examples of how you might support your HSC and nurture their deep thinking:

    1. Provide a calming environment to process thoughts and unwind after periods of overstimulation
    2. Take steps to minimize stress, chaos, and clutter in their learning and living environments
    3. Nurture your child’s talents and interests. Help them find a teaching or helping role to share their gifts with others
    4. Provide opportunities for your HSC to converse with adults (according to Dr. Aron this helps boost self-confidence!)
    5. Understand and respect your child’s need for processing time, avoiding pressure to conform to external timelines or expectations.

    Without question, significant life changes are difficult for all children. For HSCs, even small daily changes, such as transitioning from one task to the next can be tough.

    Between the shift in stimuli and change in their surrounding environment, it can feel overwhelming or anxiety-provoking for many HSCs as they deeply process the new setting, people, or activity at hand.

    Highly Sensitive Child Symptoms: "Transitions are easier if they are steps in a routine, not sudden orders."
-Dr. Elaine Aron, The Highly Sensitive Child
Graphic by suchalittlewhile.com

    Establishing a predictable daily routine is often key to supporting HSCs.

    The predictability of a daily rhythm fosters the resilience and coping skills necessary to adapt to life’s daily transitions and unexpected events.

    Visual cues are particularly helpful for young children, empowering them to take ownership of their daily tasks.

    School morning and bedtime routine charts: Tips for implementing a successful routine chart: Involve your child in the preparation process Skip rewards + punishments (helps foster INTERNAL motivation!) Avoid making demands (simply ask, "What comes next?") Ask open-ended reflection questions (e.g., "How did it feel to arrive at school on time?" For more tips, visit our blog at suchalittlewhile.com.
    Signs of Highly Sensitive Children:
Printable AM/PM Routine Charts by Such a Little While LLC

    A punitive approach to discipline (e.g., one that uses fear or harsh/arbitrary consequences to “control” behavior) is particularly ineffective and even harmful for HSCs.

    Since HSCs possess a heightened awareness of their emotions and the emotions of others, punitive measures by a caregiver can trigger stress, feelings of shame, and exacerbate anxiety.

    A more empathetic, nurturing approach is essential to helping HSCs thrive.

    A positive approach to discipline focuses on the caregiver-child connection and teaching HSCs the social-emotional skills they need to celebrate their assets and overcome their unique challenges.

    I invite you to join the thousands of parents from around the world who have said goodbye to yelling and threats and hello to calm and connected parenting through Such a Little While’s 30-Day Challenge:

    Managing Routines & Transitions in Early Childhood: Positive Parenting Challenge PDF Workbook by Such a Little While
Graphic of free PDF workbook.  Text Reads "Positive Parenting Challenge 3.0, must-know positive discipline do's & dont's, 30 powerful, easy-to-follow tips & tools, unlock 10 key features of positive parenting, customizable parenting solutions, master the art of effective consequences).

      You’ve got this!

      My toddler refuses to brush their teeth blot post, written by Tana from Such a Little While
      Hi, I’m Tana! I’m a mom, certified positive parent educator, and former school counselor. It’s my mission to help you foster social/emotional wellness through positive parenting.

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