Flourishing with Sensory Processing Sensitivity
Professor David Popenoe, of Rutgers University[i], argues that one of the biggest observations of the last few decades is the deterioration in the bond between parents and children. He strongly emphasizes that the absence, emotional distance or preoccupation of parents strikes at the very heart of those values which we hope children are learning–trustworthiness, respect for others, responsibility, fairness, caring, and citizenship. Each of these is learned primarily through interactions between parents and children, interactions in which it is mandatory for parents to be physically, emotionally, intellectually, and spiritually present and involved in the lives of their children.
Being present implies being willing to listen deeply to our children. For a highly sensitive family, this listening takes on a different quality. According to Terri Munro (2013)[ii], children with sensory integration problems often feel that no one understands the way their bodies work, and they have to follow their own instincts and interests over anyone else’s. The more you can convince your child that you understand and have ways to help, the more you will make yours a voice to be heard. Building trust is not always easy but an important step forward.
As we explore in previous chapters, for my highly sensitive family, the notion of self is not solely located in the mind or the body. We sense the energies that exist around us and create sense of ourselves by echoing these signals. Personally, recognizing my senses and how they interact with time and space has entirely changed how I understand myself. I am embodied within the sensations created in space and by my reactions to them. It is through the contrasting sensations felt during interactions with the elements that I can distinguish between the environment and myself. Now that I recognize this I can make the difference between my energy and that of others and push away the energy that is not mine. This type of sensory literacy is what I must help my children develop so that they understand these processes in themselves.
Highly sensitive children need adults to help them create a value system that respects their sensory needs and become aware of what their body and senses are telling them. When their trait is not recognized, highly sensitive children can easily drown in depression. If their sensory over-stimulation or under-stimulation are maintained on a long-term basis, they can alter their nervous system in very detrimental ways. One hypothesis I came across is that ADHD is the result of chemical changes to the brain caused by long-term exposure to stress during childhood. The idea is that long-term exposure to highly elevated doses of cortisol, the stress hormone; make the brain rewire itself in ways that lessen attention in order to emotionally “see” less. The notions of narrow and broader attentions that we saw in earlier chapters apply to our sensory and emotional focus capacities. We emotionally “see” with the body, our senses and our broad attention not just our eyes.
Not considering sensory well-being for highly sensitive children can also lead to invisible traumas that will affect them in adulthood. A majority of us use many types of distractions to avoid dealing with the traumas we have experiences, are experiencing and witness in others. Some are addicted to information, dreams, certain emotions, sports, food, shopping, relationships, substances and/or the media. Our society is filled with temptations to keep us amused, entertained, hyper focused or feeling satisfied by an experience we have purchased. This renders the common western life highly toxic and without some drastic changes in what we value, healing ourselves and our children will remain a very difficult, if not impossible task. But if we do not learn to recognize the signs of sensory or other cause of distress, children do not learn to listen to their body/mind/soul and end up as adults constantly abusing themselves by going over the limit of what they can actually handle.
I had to learn to listen to my children, learning to recognize and respect signs of distress. Not doing so would eliminate an important layer of perception that my children need to learn to listen to. I have learned to “read” my children; I can tell when one is anxious, even if he only shows physical subtle clue that can very easily be missed. Whether they seem sick or not, I trust what my children are telling me and recognize that a caring and empathic approach will bring us into a much healthier way of relating and acting than ignoring the sensory problem. As they get older, they tell me what is bothering them and I can see their self-regulation growing.
When we learn to listen to ourselves, our senses, our bodies and our emotions, we can recognize triggers much more readily and experiment with different modalities of healing. Eventually, we can become experts in our own health. That being said, moving towards a path of healing does not mean never accessing health professionals. It is very important to develop a relationship with a pediatrician or doctor. You need a doctor as they can help tremendously with access to blood and other test, etc. But it is important to critically think through the treatments they offer you and to be part of the making decisions process.
A shift towards deep sensory listening has changed how I understand my children’s reality and has helped me perceive their environment from a sensory perspective. Dr. Ted Zeff tells us not to be afraid of changing our child’s environment, noting that looking for happiness and trying to obtain a feeling of self-worth only from outside stimuli can create anxiety and tension for the reflective, sensitive person… If you know that a certain environment creates anxiety, either try to change the unhealthy, over-stimulating situation or remove yourself from the source of tension (Zeff, 2013)[iii]. In our case, I needed to understand and acknowledge the social toxins that affected my children.
People As Toxins: Creating Healthy Family Ties
Journalist David Brook identified three layers to be essential to understand how to achieve healthy relationships:
- Power of the unconscious: We are unaware of most things we use to make decision.
- Power of emotions: We can be emotionally contagious.
- Power of connection: We are deeply connected to others and we build relationship by mimicking each other.
This implies that empathy is a central form of communication that invisibly but deeply influences our relationships. We rarely, however, think about this form of communication and we are usually not aware of how we use it. We can unconsciously communicate how we feel and are often unaware of the profound impact our emotions have on others. An important element is that children build their sense of emotional health from our emotional behavior. These emotions can either be formulated from a place of awareness or from our unconscious. Emotions can be communicated in a healthy way only when we are aware of what we are feeling and transmitting.
The psychology of my highly sensitive children required me, as a parent, to try to repair our modes of communication to reduce the anxieties and stress they were experiencing. This began with communication at home. I had to think about both verbal and embodied communication modalities that we used.
To a highly sensitive child, a remark meant as a friendly reminder or corrective can be a terrible blow. Communication is key to healthy relationship building. Healthy forms of verbal communication help building healthier behaviours and limit stress. It helps prevent conflicts to arise and in the process reduces unspoken negative emotions such as anger, frustration, etc. I have learned that I must be genuine and supportive of my children by using positive language.
In the article “ Are You A Passive, An Aggressive, Or An Assertive Communicator?”, behavioral counselor Cindy Saleeby Goulding explains how three types of verbal communication lead to more or less healthy exchanges. Passive and aggressive communication styles are both unhealthy. In the first case because we are not respecting our own needs and in the second, the needs of others. Passivity can lead to negative emotions such as resentment while aggression is a type of bullying, trying to establish dominance. Goulding considers that assertive communication, on the other hand, is healthy because it’s a form of communicating that respects each person’s needs, which leads to trust and comfort (Goulding, 2013)[iv]. This type of communication implies starting sentences with the “I” statement and explaining instead of blaming.
In the article “Watch Your Tone of Voice”, Terri Munro also makes a strong case for us to rethink how we talk to our highly sensitive children. According to the article, children with auditory sensory sensitivities need us to use a tone of voice appropriate to their style of listening in order to tune in to what we are saying. They have a hard time distinguishing our words from the sounds around them. The “wrong” tone of voice may add to the load of stress that comes with too much information flooding the auditory sense. Tuning into the sounds that your child finds intriguing and the ones he finds stressful can help you communicate without confrontation.
Whispering, for example, is a surprisingly good way to get your child’s attention. He’ll have to stop and really listen to understand what you have to say. Other attention-grabbers include goofy motions, funny voices, and silly statements. Television and video games offer endless variety to your child; to compete, you may want to do the same.
While a child who does not seem to respond to our voice can be very frustrating, Terri Munro warns against using angry tones:
“A child who has been ignoring you because the sound around her is overwhelming may be thrown completely into overload by the strong emotion in your voice. She may have no idea why you’re so upset, since she hasn’t been ignoring you on purpose, and feel attacked by your angry voice. You’ll likely spend more time calming the both of you down than you would have if you’d kept your temper.
A child who hasn’t responded because of under-sensitivity to auditory information may be equally baffled by the sudden burst of anger being directed her way and will likely give you a good argument in return. To her mind, your reaction is surprising and all out of proportion; to your mind, her reaction may seem to be a whole lot of attitude. Nothing good can come of this particular interaction.”
According to Terri Mauro, the most effective ways to get a sensory sensitive child to listen is to change the environment to make it easier for a child to listen. Either by limiting the amount of auditory overkill or creating an auditory environment that helps your child focus.
If you are highly critical of your children, they will internalize these criticisms as their own and will walk in adulthood with very strong negative self-talk. If you are thinking negatively of them, they will sense it as well. Nonverbal healthy communication strategies that reduce assumptions, expectations, misunderstandings, and promote agreements are also important. A lot of heated discussions and hurt feelings can be avoided in any relationship if we set up agreements ahead of time, instead of expecting someone to do something or act a certain way. This is crucial to sensitive children. Explain the expectations in order to set boundaries and to minimize assumptions as to what a child knows and understand. I have also learned that I have to repeat expectations and limits every time we enter an activity before my child understand the expectations.
Non-verbal communication was more difficult for me to address, as it required me becoming very aware of what I project. And we project what we unconsciously feel much more than what we think we do. This realization began a long process of personal change to clean out my unconscious emotional ghosts and to learn to be in my true emotions at all times. I am still working on this, but over 8 years into this process I seen how worthwhile the work is. As my mental state changed and my awareness increased, my children’s stressed lessened.
If you have anxieties, they will have anxieties. When I realize how anxious I was, I decided to go on anti-anxiety medication. It helped tremendously as my children were no longer feeling my angst. I used this medicated time, two years, to work on myself, change my lifestyle and ways of thinking gradually. I am not done with my changing but I have found a much better footing to parent from. And I no longer take medication.
For starter, I learned what were my sensory “borders” and began to learn to read sensory communication as such instead of feeling it as a rush of overwhelming sensations. This has helped me in all aspect of my life, making sense of situations and no longer be a reactive mirror of others’ suppressed emotions.
For me to be in the moment with my children, I had to learn to rebuild my relationship to my own sensitivities. I began to see how much I mirror the emotions of others and in turn how much my children mirror mine. This is a huge issue for highly sensitive children and often a vicious spiral. When we were in social settings, I would be apprehensive of their potential explosive or out of sync behaviors and over noticing everybody else’s body language. As my children would sense the tension, their behaviors would begin to shift and I would overlay my own judgmental insecurities over the way others reacted. Making me more anxious and in turn making my children more anxious, etc.
According to Daniel smith, being anxious is very useful in making certain decisions over the course of 100 of years we have evolved. Anxiety is a state of vigilance so that we can be alert to predators. But anxieties are supposed to be a short-lived phenomenon. The problem is that now, children are dealing with a constant state of anxiety that their bodies are not equipped to deal with. We have not lived in urban society for a long time and we now live with unprecedented levels of change and uncertainty, a time when our actions can contribute to the destruction of the planet and at a more personal levels, parents are stretched between work and family lives in ways that create many daily anxieties such as getting to work on time. Anxieties and stress is learned in part by osmosis. Parents can try to hide their own anxieties but children are very sensitive instruments. They will always detect stress if it is there, it is an aspect of learned mental behaviors.
I have learned that by going with my flow, I can read situations much more accurately, I have learned to turn off the external stimuli by simply noticing it, accepting it and letting it be. I also do not engage in social situations that are too stressful for us. I learned to reduce the need to control all aspects of life since reducing mental and emotional ghosts means less need for repression. This has made parenting my highly sensitive children much healthier.
In the 2010 Times article: “For kids, high sensitivity to stress isn’t necessarily bad“, Tiffany O’Callaghan writes that new research published in the journal Child Development, while highly sensitive children who are raised in challenging, high-stress settings are indeed more likely to have health complications and behavioral troubles as they grow up, emotionally sensitive kids who are raised in supportive, nurturing, low-stress environments tend to thrive and excel. The findings suggest that being extraordinarily reactive to stress isn’t necessarily a bad thing for children, and far from being a stand-alone factor in kids’ development, is in fact strongly influenced by home environment.
I had to learn how to handle my own stress in positive ways. According to Marissa Håkansson (2013), an australian health coach, being aware means noticing and being curious about your experiences, without trying to change or resist them. Awareness allows you to pause and get present with your body and self in the moment. Marissa Håkansson’s description of her challenges rings very true to me.
“ I used to resist my emotions and only welcomed the good feelings, while fighting back the ones that seemed too much to handle.
However, I came to realize that it was my thoughts about those emotions (not the actual emotions) that I was fearful of. I didn’t want to experience an intense emotion because the idea of losing control seemed frightening.
For example, I used to worry that if I let myself feel sad, I’d spiral into unrelenting sadness. I tried to overlook my emotions, adopt a positive mindset and move on with my life. But it didn’t seem to work.
I see now that it can be easy for us to get caught in a loop when it comes to our emotions, which causes us to resist them. Over time, though, resisting our feelings causes them to simmer and intensify.”
And it is that intensifying simmering that can damage our children. I learned to welcome my emotions and feel them in my body. Now, I liberate them quickly. This is a crucial part of helping my children. In order to help children learn how to be aware of themselves, we must help them not fall in the trap of overthinking emotions but to sense them as movement and energy in the body.
When we don’t overthink our feelings, stop thinking of an emotion being good or bad, we can simply experience it for what it is. When your intention is to feel rather than resist your emotions, you feel freer within your body and self which leads to being more balanced and grounded. By embodying emotional experiences, we can learn to be present to the moment and experience greater clarity and certainty within who we are. By stopping to resist emotions and experiencing them fully, we are deeply listening to ourselves, and we can cultivate inner strength and become resilient (Håkansson, 2013). In the process, we are insuring that our mental health does not damage the attachment that should exist between parents and their children.
According to Robert Shaw, M.D:
“The more the child feels attached to the mother, the more secure he is in his acceptance of himself and the rest of the world. The more love he gets, the more he is capable of giving. Attachment breeds self-control, self-esteem, empathy, and affection, all of which lead to an increasing ability to develop literacy. We don’t know why, but it seems to be true. Attachment is as central to the developing child as eating and breathing.“[v]
Many of us are afraid of spoiling our children by being too close to them. But in order to understand their needs, we must get close and learn to pay attention with our hearts as well as our minds. When they look into my eyes, my highly sensitive children are measuring how I feel about them. I ground them when it is honest and unconditional love that they perceive; they can gain confidence and move away from me feeling safe. While my unconscious silent negative emotions will create an imbalance and they will become insecure and doubt themselves, become clingy and withdraw or act out.
This attachment needs to be with both parents, not just the mother. If one of the parents is having internal negative feelings of any kind, it will eat at your highly sensitive child. Negative energies are felt in the body and can be debilitating to a sensory sensitive person. In my case, if I let such energy enter my space, I feel like a magnet is demagnetizing me. It drains me, exhausts and depresses me. I am an adult; imagine what this can do to a child. Since empathy is such a powerful element of HSC perceptual system, it is important to balance our own emotional landscape so that what they perceive from us is positive and at very least honest. I have learned that when I am in negative emotions, unless I tell them that I am, my children will mirror the emotions. Simply letting them know how I feel reduces the mirroring and lets them understand the emotions they are sensing are not theirs. This frees them to let go of the sensation/emotion. This showed me the importance of being actively involved in our own person emotional/health work.
This process is not an easy one and in my case, has meant drastic life changes. As my awareness grew, I began to understand the relationships that were in my life differently. This lead to our family falling apart and to a divorce; a positive side effect of this terribly difficult part of our journey was that as soon as the father left, the children began to feel better in themselves as his stress had reached elevated toxic levels that damaged the children when they were near him. A devastating side effect was that the father decided to move to another country, in effect abandoning the children. My youngest child has been deeply traumatized by this abandonment, an issue we are slowly but still very much dealing with 5 years after the separation began. This has drastically changed the path of his life and introduced new problems and changed the way I needed to approach his health in ways I would never have predicted. But 5 years into this process, while the recovery has been extremely difficult, I can begin to see the positive results of this change. The boys are much happier and are learning to be in touch with their emotions and to avoid emotional ghosting. I am always emotionally honest with them, and while they are learning about emotions, they know they are safe to express what they feel. This is not always an easy process, but I know how important it is for them to express their emotional energy.
School as A Stressor
Another aspect of change has been to understand tension outside the home. For each child, the source of tension will be different. That is the case with my two children and I have had to develop different strategies for each.
With my elder child, I often gave him rest days from school when he got overwhelmed and saturated with social stimulus. Now, as a teenager, he asks for them when he needs them, which is much less often. I was very fortunate to have my children in an alternate school rich with teachers who knew how to listen to families and who were very empathic. Slowly I got better at listening and reacting in positive ways when faced with a “NO I won’t”. Learning to get to the why in a gentle, empathic and aware way, trying to turn these moments into learning opportunities went much further then forcing my child to do something he was desperately trying to tell me hurt him.
Cultural and social demands that cannot be met nor assimilated create forms of stress in highly sensitive people that can lead to what I think of as a body or emotional coma. It has happened to my children and me. As a child and an adult, my body can become paralyze by too much stress. The hormonal changes exhaust me to the point of not being able to move. I have seen the same happen to me mentally. I cannot think after a stressful episode.
This can be very stressful in practice without finding solutions that work for you and your child. This use to be a common scenario at my house in the morning: my youngest son would complain of bellyaches, swell, but seem fine otherwise. We would have a very stressful breakfast hour, me getting anxious about all the things I had to do and was not willing to not do on that day. He would break down and cry. I would make him go to school and be depressed the entire day for having hurt him so much. At the end of the day, he would have a rash on his face that would get worst everyday of the week until it began to look like impetigo. At that point I would have to keep him home as he would feel humiliated by this very ugly, large rash on his face and he would start to react (swelling, more belly aches, depression) to all kinds of food he normally was ok to eat. He was ending up spending most days at home with a very anxious mother, thinking about all the things I was suppose to be doing. My doctor could not tell me what was wrong with him and I would assume this rash was related to food sensitivities, until I came to understand that they were sensory stress related. Once I realized that stress affects the chemical body and in turn can increase food sensitivities this scenario began to make sense. Something about school was making him anxious, which in turn would lead to intense distress, etc. This is when I decided to home school him part-time. I decided to not worry about academic performance because I felt that healthy emotional intelligence is a foundation skill that will in the long term lead to success and I knew that stress leads to changes in the brain pathways which prevent academic learning. I had to ignore my family and friends’ fears. Within a week of half-time home schooling, he started to feel much more positive about life. He began to enjoy going to school and asked to go earlier everyday. Part of the key to this more positive behaviour, is that we spend mornings relaxing and exercising which lowers his levels of stress hormones and help him switch from a home to school mind set in more time.
This may seem extreme and not sustainable in the long term. But I have found with both my boys that usually, if I reduce stimuli and let them get use to it on their own terms and schedule, they will re-engage when ready and without the anxieties. They need rest to be able to ground them sensorially. My eldest son now absolutely loves school and no longer misses a day of school. But we now also both know that after a special event he will need extra time to recover and we plan for it. He now understands enough about his sensory life to understand what is going on and we can discuss strategies to deal with the issues he faces. While this worked for him much better, as he got older, teachers had a terrible time with this process. I eventually decided to fully remove him from school. The rashes and depression disappeared entirely and immediately.
The trauma of the divorce and abandonment he experienced made it impossible for him to focus or have any self-esteem. It has taken 3 years, but he is finally ready to try school again. I have found that slowing down and living in the moment has been one of the most helpful things I have done for my children’s health. It has allowed me to trust their words, to get to understand them. Learning to engage through play with them, to “be” with them. Spending time simply watching them, observing what they do, listening to them and most importantly talking with them. We have been creating intimacy by gaining insights about who we all need to be and feeling respected, trusted and understood. This changing has been a two way process. I have learn to “be” and to learn to be in the processing of “becoming” which has changed my priorities, actions and ways of understanding.
Listening has also meant learning to listen and trust myself. This allowed me to not feel guilty for giving my kids unconditional love. Children need to feel unconditionally loved by their parents in order to feel safe in the world and to have the emotional grounding to become independent.
Deep listening started a process of change in other areas of life and slowly we are finding our highly sensitive voices.
The Superpower of Smell
A few years ago, I was standing in my kitchen and I faintly smelled something. Something bad. I said to Jim, “Do you smell that?” He says no.
Now I’m on a mission. “I swear I smell something bad. Where the heck is that coming from?” I mumbled to myself.
If you are anything like me, you know what came next. I searched every single corner of the kitchen looking for this smell.
I opened the dishwasher and sniffed around. I smelled nearly every item the fridge and the pantry, holding them to my nose. I ran the garbage disposal. I swept the floor to see if any food had fallen there. I cleaned the countertop. I sniffed around the oven and stovetop.
I sniffed over every damn thing in the kitchen. Where was it coming from? I was losing my mind. (Of course, that whole time, Jim smelled nothing, so I surely looked like a crazy person.)
Eventually, I had to give up. Maybe the smell would go away. I lit some candles and tried to think about something else.
The next day, I went to heat up some leftovers in the microwave. I opened the door, and inside, I saw raw chicken that I had put there to thaw. Two days ago. That I had forgotten. So gross!!
As an HSP, I am super sensitive to smells. Anytime something starts to smell in the fridge, I can smell it before anyone else, and I will go on a rampage until I find the source of the stink.
This sensitivity to bad smells in the kitchen (usually from the garbage bin) led me to what might seem a strange habit to some: I put all perishable garbage in the freezer.
So if I’m preparing carrots, the peelings go in a plastic bag in the freezer. Empty yogurt cups, egg shells, containers that used to hold raw meat, banana peels—anything that could smell bad in the garbage goes into the freezer so it won’t start to stink in the waste bin. Then we throw it out on trash day. It’s helped eliminate crazy stink searches.
It’s not just spoiled food that grosses me out. One smell that triggers me is fried eggs. Ever since I was a child, it has made me feel nauseous. Do you have certain odors that you really, really hate.
Oh–one more thing–SMOKE. I am seriously sensitive to cigarette smoke. If I’m staying at hotel and I walk into my new room, I will immediately know if anyone has ever smoked there (and request another room). In cases where switching rooms isn’t possible, the smell will bother me like crazy. Eventually I get more used to the odor, but every once in a while, it hits me again. I really, really hate cigarette smoke. More than just the leftover odor, I hate how even standing amidst smoke for a few seconds makes your hair and all your clothes reek until you wash them.
But what about good smells?
Right now, the orange blossoms are out in full force in my neighborhood. They are absolutely intoxicating. Whenever I walk by this one particular orange tree, I am blown away by how strongly it smells. I stand there, smiling, with my eyes closed, just taking it in. I didn’t grow up in a place with orange trees, so it still feels new to me. I can’t get over it!
Sometimes, after it rains (which is rare in Southern California) there is a faint scent of eucalyptus in the air. Anytime I can pick up that scent, it feels special—calming and peaceful.
Have you found that certain odors evoke memories? If I ever smell Tommy Girl perfume (do they even make it anymore?) it reminds me of college, because that’s what I wore. In fact, a lot of perfumes and colognes remind me of certain times in my life or certain people. And certain food smells remind me of places. (I bet you feel this way, too!)
When I smell lovely things, like orange blossoms, eucalyptus, or garlic simmering in olive oil (another favorite), it is more than just a smell. It makes me feel something. It’s like a moment of sensory bliss, and I just can’t get enough of it.
For those of us who love dogs and cars and have rich imaginations…(and wish we were rich enough to buy cars like this).
Worrying is using your imagination to create something you don’t want.
In this together,