Understanding Temperament:
Sensory Sensitivity

Temperament Matters

Do you have children who seem to get annoyed by the tags in the back of their clothing or who hold their hands over their ears when you enter crowded areas? Do they appear to have strong reactions when they scrape their knee or smell something they do not like?

On the other hand, do you have children who seem to go through the day easily without really noticing or reacting to any of the stimuli listed above?

The degree to which your children are aware of and react to various sensations is an innate part of their temperament. An individual’s temperament consists of ten traits and is what makes all children unique in how they respond to the world around them. Understanding your children’s temperament can guide you in helping them become more successful in managing their responses to the world in which they live.

 

What is Sensory Sensitivity?

Sensory sensitivity refers to how aware your children are with regard to each of their sensory channels: sight, sound, taste, smell, touch, and pain.

All individuals have varying degrees of sensitivity and have varying ways of outwardly responding and expressing their awareness of these sensitivities.

Highly sensitive children tend to have very strong reactions, sometimes even explosive reactions, when events or surroundings are highly stimulating; while less sensitive children tend to be less responsive to the same factors.

 

How can you determine how sensory sensitive your children are?

To identify your children’s level of sensory sensitivity you can use the following questions to help you. Each sensory channel should be rated on a separate scale since children’s degrees of sensitivity in each area can vary.  Track your answers on the following scales from one to five:

  • Do your children have strong reactions to painful situations, like falling off a bike or getting a splinter?

  • Are your children extremely sensitive to certain fabrics or the way certain clothing feels? Do tags in their clothing or socks that do not fit “just right” bother them? Are your children sensitive to textures of foods?

  • Are your children able to distinguish flavors and differences in brands of foods? Do they comment often on how things taste?

  • Do your children have strong reactions to smells and odors? Do they notice the smells and odors when they visit other’s homes or the smells drifting through an open window?

  • Are your children aware of sounds that are soft, in the next room, or from far away? Do your children respond to changes in sound, like a slight increase in volume or direction of a sound?

  • Do bright lights, such as a flash from a camera, bother your children? Do they need their room to be completely dark in order to go to sleep?

 

Low                                                                                    High

 1                     2                      3                    4                     5

No                                                                                         Yes

Does not notice pain                                    Feels pain very strongly

No reaction to contact                               Easily irritated or pleased

Cannot tell the difference                                Notices tiny variations

Does not notice odors                               Has a keen sense of smell

Does not notice noise                                          Sensitive to sounds

Visually insensitive                                                 Visually Sensitive

 

Children with high sensory sensitivity

the word "ouch"If the majority of your responses fall toward the right side of any one of these scales, then you have children who are more sensory sensitive.

This means that your children have a tendency to feel certain senses very strongly and they tend to react to those overwhelming feelings very strongly as well.

  • Highly sensitive children can be more challenging for parents simply because it can seem like their reactions are out of proportion to what others may be feeling or are extreme for the situation.

    For example, taking your highly sensitive child shopping at a large, crowded mall can lead to a potential meltdown if the child has an overpowering reaction to the lights, the overcrowding, the loud sounds and even the smells of the mall.

  • It helps to try to keep in mind your children’s sensitivities and plan outings accordingly. You may need to go to a smaller, less crowded store so as not to overwhelm the senses.

  • As adults, these children who are highly sensitive to external stimuli could do very well in a career as a chef, interior designer, fashion designer, or in the music industry.

 

Children with less sensory sensitivity

one child covering ears, other is notIf, on the other hand, most of your responses on the scales above fall toward the left side of the scales, then you have children who are less sensory sensitive.

  • These children tend to be less discriminating and less particular about things. They react less to stimuli in their environment and may not even notice the things the highly sensitive children notice.

  • They tend to be a little easier to parent simply because they put up less of a fuss about things. They tend to be less critical of foods, sights, sound, smells, and even the feel of new clothing. They have fewer complaints in general because these things truly don’t bother them.

  • Children who are less aware of sensory stimulation may not naturally be aware when they are in pain, or their pain tolerance may be high so they do not react quickly to protect themselves from potential danger, such as hot things or loud noises.

 

Things Parents Can Do

  • Understand that sensory sensitivity is a part of your children’s in-born temperament.

  • Help to monitor when things become too overwhelming or stimulating for your children and help them to find ways to stay calm, such as removing themselves from the situation, wearing earplugs if they know they will be somewhere with loud noises, or wearing sunglasses if bright light bothers them.

  • Avoid negatively labeling your children who may be more sensitive as “picky”, “a complainer” or “cry-baby.” Instead, use descriptive, more positive words like “discriminating” and “tenderhearted.” Remember your child is not being contrary; his sensitivity to external stimuli truly bother him.

  • Avoid negatively labeling your children who may be less sensitive as “oblivious,” “in the clouds,” or “out of it.” Instead, use descriptive, more positive words like “easy-going,” “accepting” or “non-judgmental.”

  • Acknowledge your children’s temperament and help them to understand their own temperament.

  • Learn to appreciate your children’s unique sensitivity so you can understand their reactions.

  • Avoid discounting their reactions and sensitivities, or shaming or embarrassing them for being who they are. Those tags in their clothing really bother them.

  • Understand that your sensitive children may feel, see or hear things that you do not. Talk with them about their experiences.

  • Teach your highly sensitive child to ask for accommodations, such as not having to go on errands where he will be overly-stimulated by too many sights and sounds.

  • Help children who are not as sensitive become more conscious of stimuli by pointing out and labeling the sensations.

    For example, when eating a new food, talk about how it tastes, feels and smells. When shopping, point out the sights and smells. By doing this, you teach them to become more aware of their surroundings.

  • Teach children the words to use to express how they are feeling more accurately and appropriately.

  • Learn to work together. Understand how your own temperament, including your own sensory sensitivity, fits or does not fit with your children’s temperament and create strategies to help each other.

  • Send messages to your children that help them to appreciate their unique being and help them to feel good about who they are.

  • “You have very discriminating taste”

    “You know what you like.”

    “You are very observant and very aware of things around you.”

    “You are aware of which spices are used in the food you eat.”

    “You go with the flow of things.”

    “The sun is really hot today; you need to pay attention to how long you are outside.”

 

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For more information about temperament, check out the following books. Purchasing from Amazon.com through our website supports the work we do to help families do the best job they can to raise their children.

Raising Your Spirited Child by Kurcinka The Difficult Child Understanding Temperament by Schick The Challenging Child by Greenspan
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