5 Things That Help a Child with High Sensitivity and Anxiety

Preteen with long hair under light blue hat stands leaning back against fence, looking thoughtfulAnxiety is a surprisingly common problem in children. If your child has sensory processing issues or sensory hypersensitivity, you may have already witnessed how these can bring about or intensify anxiety. These sensory issues aren’t always limited to one type of sensory input. Hypersensitivity can be found in any sensory system, and affect a person in one, two, or several systems at once. The intensity of experience common to sensory hypersensitivity, sensory processing issues, or other sensory issues can be a challenge for anyone, but for a child it can be overwhelming.

For instance, to children with tactile hypersensitivity, a sock seam might feel like the scratchy side of Velcro on tender skin. A voice that seems perfectly normal to most people might be painfully loud. Children who experience sensory input this intensely may naturally avoid or try to delay situations where they will be overstimulated by the offending sensations.

Anticipating future situations like these naturally leads anxiety-prone children to worry. A child may worry so much that anxiety becomes a day-to-day response. As parents, we are in a very good position to help our children avoid these pitfalls, and to develop good-feeling, healthy habits and attitudes.

There are many positive and healthy ways to manage anxiety that stems from sensory issues. Three examples of anxiety neutralizers are understanding, fun, and mindfulness.

Understanding

Understanding is key—both understanding oneself, and feeling understood by others. Understanding the relationship between one’s own hypersensitivity and anxiety can be empowering for children. Feeling understood by others, especially by parents, makes a big difference. Both of these will ease fears, and as parent, you are in the perfect position to help.

Feeling Understood

Children need to know that their parents understand where they are coming from, and that they are not being judged. Parents can ask questions, acknowledge their children’s feelings, and help them develop an action plan.

For example, if your child has a fear of leaving the house before school, listen carefully to your child and seek out the underlying problem. Convey that you understand. Help your child express herself using words, so that instead of reacting to her anxieties with a tantrum, she can explain the discomfort. Feeling understood helps your child feel nurtured and supported, and helps promote positive coping skills.

Self-Understanding

Likewise, your child needs to understand himself. Educate your child about his brain function. Explain that a special part of his brain works to keep him safe. When this part of the brain gets a message from a sensory organ (such as the skin, eyes, nose, tongue, or ears), it responds accordingly.

For instance, when nerves on his hand send a message to his brain that the stove feels hot, his brain responds quickly by moving his hand away from the heat. Likewise, if his brain receives a message that something seems wrong or unknown (like intense smells, loud sounds, etc.), his brain does its best to understand (interpret) the sensory information and respond in ways that might keep his body safe.

In people with hypersensitivities, the signals from the sensory organs send some messages to the brain that are intensified, amplified, or confusing. This is why the brain might send a message saying “Be anxious!” to the body so that it will be ready to run, hide, or maybe even fight.

Just knowing the cause of anxiety won’t make it go away, but it’s a beginning. Your child may need the support of a licensed, qualified therapist to develop positive and healthy coping skills, but learning to pay attention to their own feelings when anxious can be very helpful right from the start.

Fun

The sensations linked to having fun can be powerful against worries and sensory intensities. Fun is not a direct antidote to be applied during an emotional crisis or time of heightened anxiety, but rather a component to build upon and reinforce.

Habitual anxiety can distract a child’s natural inclination toward play, humor, and wonder. Facilitate your sensitive and anxious child’s sense of adventure. Point out when you notice joy and positive feelings. Laugh together (but never laugh at your child). Identify and help your child find humor, and use a sense of humor as a positive coping skill.

Mindfulness

Serenity, feeling calm and at peace, is the opposite of anxiety. One way serenity can be found is by breathing naturally and being fully present in the moment. This type of focus on the here-and-now is called mindfulness. Presence of mind comes with practice. For some, mindfulness is second nature. For the rest of us it’s a state we can learn to live in.

There are specific skills and habits that can be adopted to build a more mindful way of living. Mindfulness techniques have been proven to reduce anxiety, which in turn can reduce the intensity of sensory overstimulation. It is worthwhile to make time to teach your children how to focus on the present moment, and to be more mindful.

Learning about your child’s sensitivity or anxiety, communicating your understanding and support, and focusing on positive feelings can go a long way toward promoting excellent mental health. Your attitude as you travel this path is very powerful. Hold firmly the belief that your child can find peace and calmness. This can generate confidence and mastery. Your approach will be reflected in your attitudes and expectations, which can encourage your own efforts and help your child better cope, overcome difficulties, and ultimately thrive.

References:

  1. Brown, A. P., Marquis, A., Guiffrida, D. A. (2013). Mindfulness-based Interventions in Counseling. Journal of Counseling and Development, 91(1), 96-104.
  2. Engel-Yeger, B, Dunn, W. (2011). The Relationship Between Sensory Processing Difficulties and Anxiety Level of Healthy Adults. British Journal of Occupational Therapy, 74(5), 210-216.
  3. Felver, J. C., Doerner, E., Jones, J., Kaye, N. C., Merrell, K. W. (2013). Mindfulness In School Psychology: Applications for intervention and professional practice. Psychology in the Schools, 50(6), 531-547.
  4. Gourley, L., Wind, C., Henninger, E., Chinitz, S. (2013). Sensory Processing Difficulties, Behavioral Problems, and Parental Stress in a Clinical Population of Young Children. Journal of Child & Family Studies, 22(7), 912-921.

© Copyright 2014 GoodTherapy.org. All rights reserved. Permission to publish granted by Grace Malonai, PhD, LPCC, DCC, therapist in Lafayette, California

The preceding article was solely written by the author named above. Any views and opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by GoodTherapy.org. Questions or concerns about the preceding article can be directed to the author or posted as a comment below.

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  • julius

    julius

    July 9th, 2014 at 10:30 AM

    I sure do wish that my parents would have had access to this information when I was a kid because noises, even soft ones, would bother me a lot and they would always just have the retort to not let things like that bother me and they had no real clue how much this did interfere with my daily life. I know that this was a big reason why I never did well in school because things like that always bugged me. As an adult I won’t say that I have grown out of some of it but I guess I have learned to deal with it a little better. Still there are some days when small things drive me nuts, I just now have a little better concentration to ignore it.

  • Stacy

    Stacy

    December 21st, 2015 at 11:00 PM

    I can relate to your comments. My parents never had a clue why I was over sensitive. The. With the anxiety I developed I struggled raising my young of 2sons he having ADHD & ODD. I’m amazed we all are functioning so well 😀

  • Todd

    Todd

    July 9th, 2014 at 3:31 PM

    Showing your children that you understand and trust their feelings acn go a long way toward making them feel a little more normal, and I don’t mean that in a bad way. It’s just that I think sometimes kids and adults alike all become a little anxious about their anxieties and feel like this makes them so different that they will never quite fit the norm. Show them that you care and understand, and let them know that we all have our little quirks that we live with and that this is okay, this is just all a part of what makes us unique.

  • beatrice r

    beatrice r

    July 10th, 2014 at 11:16 AM

    Encouraging your child to love himself and have good natured fun can be a huge weight lifted off of his shoulders.

    You know that there are bound to be times when he is worried about other things that he forgets that life is all about having fun when you are a kid. Things don’t need to be so serious and just let him be himself and be a kid, hopefully a little more worry free!

  • alma05

    alma05

    July 10th, 2014 at 5:47 PM

    My son his eight and he especial with golden hard syndrome he a mild retardation.every time he is on my cel he needs to have the sensation of putting it in the mouth what will do

  • Delilah

    Delilah

    July 11th, 2014 at 2:02 PM

    I know a child who has this sensitivity to certain foods, not like allergies but there are all these foods that she won’t eat because they make her gag, I don’t know maybe it’s the texture or something. Anyway she can hardly get her to eat anything other than smooth foods like yogurt or pudding but then that’s a whole lot of sugar and very little protein. I think that she has talked to all kinds of specialists and no one has any real answers that help her.

  • hapimomi

    hapimomi

    January 9th, 2015 at 3:12 PM

    My son is 5yrs old but he only eats spaghetti & bread with peanut butter but he drinks milk & that’s what makes him healthy i think. He doesn’t like anything rough in his tongue like nuts,meat,etc. even rice. And he doesn’t want to try other foods for such reasons. I hope someone can help me with these.

  • Rebecca Billy

    Rebecca Billy

    May 12th, 2015 at 11:17 PM

    When my son was younger, I followed a rule of 10. I would introduce him to new or disliked foods 10 times to give him a chance ro become familiar with them. He would see others eating those foods and be offered them himself, but I didn’t try to force him to eat them. New foods were offered alongside familiar foods, so it didn’t seem like we were “giving in” if he wouldn’t eat the unfamiliar food.

    If, after being exposed to the new food 10 times, he still wouldn’t eat it, I stopped serving it to him, unless he specifically asked for it. (I would still cook it sometimes because I liked it, but I wouldn’t serve it to him.)

    My theory is that sensitive people are wary of unfamiliar things, and I’m happy to say that he is not a picky eater (at 13 years old). He likes a wide variety of foods, and sometimes will try new things just out of curiosity. I’m sad to say that he will not eat squash, no matter how I prepare it, but everybody has some foods they don’t like.

    I don’t know if this method will work for your child, but it was effective for us, and it’s relatively stress-free. No pleading or threatening, no whine-filled mealtimes, just introducing new foods multiple times as an option.

  • Cherith

    Cherith

    July 12th, 2014 at 6:05 AM

    Please don’t isolate someone simply because you don’t understand the issues that they are facing.
    You need to look at it as the fact that you DON’T understand their issues without trying to talk to them about it.
    With sharing comes understanding and knowledge.

  • raleigh

    raleigh

    July 14th, 2014 at 4:16 PM

    If you can give your child something to smile about everday then that will go a long way toward helping to ease all of that anxiety that he feels.

    Giving him a way to discover how to smile on his own, finding something in that day to amuse him, then that could be even better. It will give him some tools that he can use even during times you may not be around but he may need a way to relieve anxiety that he is feeling.

  • Jamie W.

    Jamie W.

    October 7th, 2014 at 11:54 AM

    Great post these 5 things really are the foundation to helping children with High Sensitivity. I will be publishing a book soon helping people to understand the highly sensitive child through their eyes. When parents, grand parents and teachers get high sensitivity and tune in to the child they are set to thrive. Come and join our communites at familyfeelings.today/ and facebook.com/myhighlysensitivechild

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