There are many children incorrectly diagnosed as being either ADHD or as having Oppositional Defiance Disorder who are really just highly sensitive children who are overwhelmed by the rush of sensory input that they’re unable to filter out. I know; I’m one of them. When I’m in a noisy restaurant I can’t block out the background noise, I struggle to hear the people I’m sitting with and I tend to become frustrated and irritable. I don’t like parties and crowds – I prefer one-on-one interactions in open spaces. Picnics are great! I struggle to learn in a group setting, particularly where there are discussions going on while I need to concentrate. I did my degree by correspondence.
I’ve learned over the years to manage this. I take time out for myself. I’ve learned breathing and meditation. I know when I need to step away and which events to simply refuse. But I’m an adult and I have a measure of control over where I do and don’t go and what I choose to be involved in. Most kids don’t have this freedom. They don’t get to decide whether to go to school or not, or which social functions their parents attend to stay out of. There aren’t many public places that have quiet corners.
Unless a highly sensitive child is lucky enough to have a highly sensitive parent (they usually do have one) they’re likely to feel very misunderstood out there. They struggle to focus not because they’re unable to but because they need a different learning environment. They struggle to control their tempers because they’re totally overwhelmed (I still lose it completely from time to time!).
So here are some tools that I have found useful along the way – teach them to your highly sensitive child (in fact, teach them to all your children) – they will help them to cope in times of overwhelm, help them to feel more in control, help them to focus, and help them to feel understood.
The Victory Position: Put your arms up in a V, lift your head and eyes up as if you’ve just won the 100m sprint. Studies have shown that holding this position for just 2 minutes can drop your cortisol levels by 25% (see Amy Cuddy’s talk on how your body language shapes who you are: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RWZluriQUzE). Cortisol is a stress hormone that affect both how you see yourself and how others see you and can hamper learning and increase aggressive reactivity. If your child feels uncomfortable doing this in public, teach them to find a bathroom or private space they can hide in for 2 minutes until they feel in control again.
Look up: Your eyes are connected to your brain and different eye positions are linked to different areas in your brain. Looking down is associated with the emotional centres of the brain and can make you feel worse. Looking up stops the brain connecting with its emotional centres and prevents you from descending into an emotional spiral. This is such a simple tool that can be used anywhere at any time. If you notice your child is becoming overly emotional just click your fingers above their heads and tell them to look up at your hand.
Use Parasympathetic Breathing: The way that you breathe will activate either the Sympathetic (Fight or Flight) or the Parasympathetic (Rest and Digest) nervous system. Shallow breathing in the upper chest is associated with stress. Teach your kids that when they feel themselves getting stressed or overwhelmed and on the brink of losing it that they need to double the length of their outbreath. An out breath that is double the length of an in breath forces you to take a very short deep in-breath and then have a slow release. This will kick in the parasympathetic nervous system (acetylcholine) and will calm the sympathetic (adrenaline) and help them to feel calm and will reduce reactivity. A simple way to put this for the little ones is to say that they need to count to ten and breathe. So they breathe in as they count to three, then take a short pause on the number four and then breathe out as they count five, six, seven, eight, nine, ten.
Go into the Learning State: This is a mild form of hypnosis (no, you cannot be controlled by anyone else in this state – hypnosis is really a deep form of relaxation) and like the parasympathetic breathing, it tricks the body into believing that you are really relaxed and everything is ok. To do it, raise your eyes up and focus on a spot on the wall above eye level. Once the eyes get tired, expand your vision to the periphery (everything you can see to the left and right while still looking at your spot). Then bring the eyes back down to level, but keep awareness of the periphery. When we are very stressed (being chased by a lion) we have foveal vision – focusing intently on one spot (the lion). But when we are on the patio of our beach house, we expand our vision to take in the entire scenery. So when we activate our peripheral vision it tells our minds that we are on the beach not being chased by a lion and our physiology responds accordingly! This is particularly powerful when used in conjunction with the parasympathetic breathing.
Cutting off the sensory overload: Sometimes we really do need to be removed from the excessive stimulus. Teach your kids to recognize their own warning signs and to learn to step away. Go outside, go into a darkened room, use earplugs / headphones with relaxing music. There are some amazing musical tracks that are specifically designed to relax the brain and it may be worth investing in these if they appeal to your child. If you know you are going to be at a highly stimulating event, make sure that your child has quiet time beforehand, quiet time afterwards, and an escape plan during the event (headphones, going to sit in the car, a quiet room they can shut themselves in).
These tools have been invaluable to me in navigating my world and being able to cope in a society that is not designed for, nor even aware of highly sensitive people. I hope that you will implement them with your own sensitive children and that they bring them a similar sense of relief and control.