Raising a child in this world of high stimulation is a new art and science. What does a parent know about parenting? Conventional wisdom tells us we parent either as we were parented or in reaction to our own experiences. Then, we read parenting advice books, many of which are excellent, and very few of which address raising children with finely tuned nervous systems. More than 20% of children are born with the trait of high sensitivity, evenly dispersed across sex and gender. We can recognize them by their deep thinking about the world, and they notice every little thing from the tag in their shirt as a young child to an obscure political issue as a teen. These remarkable youngsters have especially strong emotional reactions to what they observe and a heightened empathy toward others.

Dr. Elaine Aron, author of The Highly Sensitive Child and internationally known psychologist, discovered and researches sensitivity. She calls what we see in people with this common trait, emotional leadership. Whether the first child in the preschool classroom to begin screaming at the top of his lungs when free play has become too loud and unruly or the fifth grader who seems to feel anxious at the end of her school day and refuses, perhaps frantically, to go to gymnastics, these children show how their environment is impacting them, and how it will eventually effect all of the children in their community. Emotional leaders with finely tuned nervous systems know, before everyone else, the impact of an overstimulating world—they feel it deeply and think about it carefully.

While sensitive kids might be introverts or extroverts, they are sponges. In a world with gun violence, war, dying glaciers and oceans, entire species facing extinction, and refugees living desperate lives, the news of the world can be intensely overwhelming to young people who notice and process everything deeply. We might find our sensitive youth feeling profound sorrow and crying about strangers or raging uncontrollably about injustice. Sensitive children and tweens are likely to understand much more detail of the news reports than parents expect and can even develop anxiety as a result of feeling overwhelmed and over-aroused by the information. Teens might pursue more extensive knowledge of the issues, listening to endless podcasts about a horrific issue that began as simply a headline. How do we help these kids process a world that seems designed to bulldoze over our sensitive canaries? While these youth are getting on buses and planes to go to Washington, DC, to change the world, they need our support. At one in five, every parent knows at least one of these children, and every adult can help them thrive in a world that overwhelms them.

Questions for Teens—Am I Finely Tuned?

  • I find it unpleasant to have a lot going on at once.
  • Some music can make me really happy.
  • I love nice tastes.
  • Loud noises make me feel uncomfortable.
  • I am annoyed when people try to get me to do too many things at once.
  • I notice it when small things have a changed in my environment.
  • I get nervous when I have to do a lot in a little time.
  • I love nice smells.
  • I don’t like watching TV programs that have a lot of violence in them.
  • I don’t like loud noises.
  • I don’t like it when things change in my life
  • When someone observes me, I get nervous. This makes me perform worse than normal.

Wondering if you are highly sensitive?

Listen to a short talk on it.