Our highly sensitive toddler

With 2.5 years of parenting our daughter under our belts, my husband and I have come to believe that we have a wonderfully aware and sensitive child. I wrote about this as one of the traits we saw back at 22 months. 

As she’s blossomed further into toddlerhood and has even begun to seem more child-like, this has become even more clear. Earlier this year we learned of the term “highly sensitive child”, and it’s provided a useful construct for understanding and talking about the special qualities our daughter possesses. 

What is a highly sensitive child? 

Recognizing our daughter is a highly sensitive child means that we believe our daughter, like 15-20% of the population, has a heightened physiological response to certain stimuli. 

Highly sensitive children tend to be creative, intuitive, and empathetic in addition to being introspective and easily overwhelmed by such sensory experiences as sights, sounds, smells, tastes, and feelings. 

If you are wondering whether your own child might be highly sensitive, Dr. Elaine Aron, the foremost researcher and author into high sensitivity, offers a tool here

Yesterday I listened to an episode of Susan Cain’s podcast, Quiet, which included a great description. By the way, if you have an introverted child, I highly recommend her podcast, a 9 part series on parenting introverts.

In the 9th episode, she interviewed a researcher of highly sensitive children who described them as Orchid children. An Orchid child is much more sensitive to their environment than the average child. In contrast to a Dandelion child, who will grow similarly well in all sorts of environments, an Orchid child’s outcomes will depend more heavily on the environment in which they grow up.

In a tough environment, an Orchid child will struggle and wilt. They may be seen as weak and may not come to utilize and value their strengths. But in a nurturing and supportive environment, they will flourish, outperforming their peers in areas like creativity, innovation, and understanding. If you have a highly sensitive child, the most valuable thing you can do is to value and help them capitalize on their unique traits. 

Why do we think we have a highly sensitive toddler? 

Highly sensitive children are not exactly alike, but I thought it might be helpful to share what we see in our daughter that has helped us to identify that the community and parenting resources for parents of highly sensitive children are particularly helpful for us. 

She is upset by other children’s crying

One of the earliest signs that we saw in our daughter was her high responsiveness to other children’s emotions. This came out most strongly when she would hear other kids, usually babies, crying. It would distress her, sometimes leading her to cry too. As she began to understand language better, it seemed to help when we would acknowledge that there was an upset baby or child and reassure her that someone was caring for them and helping them to feel better.

More recently, our daughter started in a daycare where she is in group care for the first time. There are several other babies and toddlers there, and when she describes her day to us she often talks about the crying. We’ve talked with the daycare staff and know that there’s not an unusual amount of crying there, but the crying of children at daycare ranks high on her awareness of what happens in her days there. 

She is bothered and scared by loud noises

“Too loud” is one of her most frequent phrases. From the sounds that are nuisances to most of us, like construction work or a loud motorcycle, to the more benign, like the buzzing of the machines that keeps a bouncy house inflated, loud noises make her cover her ears and she frequently stops what she’s doing and needs reassurance. It’s too the point where she is scared to see new machines even when they are off. She recently cried and covered her ears when we got a new window a/C and when she found my breast pump in a box of baby stuff. Even though the machines were off, both situations took some time and soothing to get through. 

She’s always been highly responsive to music

Her first clearly intentional arm movements, at under 2 months old, were along to the beat as a friend held her and sang a rhythmic song. As a baby she would be calmed by soothing music, and we soon noticed that she would reflect the mood of the music, even getting sad or scared when the music suggested it. As a toddler, we’ve had many a time where we are walking down the street and a car or boom box goes by playing loud music and she dances and moves to the beat. 

She is very focused and loves quiet play like puzzles, Legos, and drawing

As a baby, other kids would crawl to her and check her out, and she’d be more absorbed in the toy she was looking at. As a young toddler, she would happily play on her own more than other kids her age, engaging with her stacking rings, blocks, or board puzzles. Nowadays, she does 24 piece jigsaw puzzles (with some help) and can even stay engaged enough to do 3 or 4 of these in a row. 

And here are a few more signs:

  • She doesn’t like tags on her clothes or loveys
  • Lately, she has lots of trouble with her shoes being uncomfortable
  • She wants to change immediately when her clothes get wet
  • It’s always a struggle to wash her hair because she doesn’t like the feeling of water dripping down her face
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