Sensitivity is also sometimes confused with being shy. While the majority of highly sensitive children are introverts, roughly 30 percent are extroverts, despite their tendency to get easily overstimulated in social situations.
“Educators are often surprised to hear about how stressful it is for these students to be in a school-based setting,” said Candy Crawford, a therapist who conducts workshops with schools in the Chicago area to help staff members understand the special needs of highly sensitive people. “I tell them that when these kids are feeling anxious, they should be allowed to stand up, walk around, get a drink of water.”
When Dr. Judith Orloff, a clinical psychiatrist at the University of California, Los Angeles, was growing up, she couldn’t go into shopping malls or crowded places without leaving feeling anxious or depressed. Adults told her to “toughen up.”
It was the wrong advice, she says. “Tell your sensitive children it’s likely they’re picking up another person’s emotions. Teach them to take a few deep breaths, visualize a relaxing scene, calm down,” Dr. Orloff advised.
Sometimes you simply need to remove sensitive children from situations that distress them, she said: “Help them accept their beautiful abilities and not to be overstimulated, rather than suppressing their traits with antidepressants or anti-anxiety drugs.”
Alane Freund, a family therapist in San Rafael, Calif., has pioneered a form of equine assisted therapy to help highly sensitive teenagers better appreciate their own traits. Horses are highly sensitive by nature. “A horse can sense your muscle tension from the far side of the corral,” Ms. Freund said. “They know if your breathing changes, they can smell your perspiration. That extreme sensitivity is how they stay alive in the wild.”
Like horses, highly sensitive children will tend to enter new situations more slowly. “Horses model for the children that caution is healthy,” Ms. Freund said. “You don’t know these people, you’ve got to get the lay of the land first.”
Recently, she received a text message from a highly sensitive 16-year-old client saying, “I suck at making friends.” Ms. Freund wrote back: “You don’t suck at making friends. You make friends in a different way, you are actually better at it because you take time, choose the right person, forge deeper friendships in the end.”