Participant Handouts

The Highly Sensitive Child in Swim Lessons USSSA Conference 2011


Presented by Janine Ramsey (Highly Sensitive Person (HSP))


  • The highly sensitive child (HSC) is one of the 15-20% of humanity born with the personality trait of high sensitivity


  • The trait is not a pathological disorder, rather a normal although minority innate personality trait


  • Not to be confused with Autism, Aspergers, or ADHD


  • The personality trait of high sensitivity is not the same as shyness or introversion – 30% are extroverts


  • Trait found in 15-20% of all animal populations also


  • Present in equal numbers of male and female


  • Visible from birth


  • Highly sensitive people are found to have a biological difference in their nervous system (a trait) – more receptive and finely tuned


  • MRI scans show higher activity levels in right frontal cortex of brain – the area responsible for higher order visual processing


  • The HSP‟s brain wave patterns are more frequently in a theta state whereby they are more open to intuitive feelings and to picking up light, sound and other subtle vibrations more deeply


  • Whole system designed to detect and understand information more precisely


Asking someone to stop being so sensitive is like asking someone to stop being so tall.


Research and related theories include


  • Elaine Aron – Highly Sensitive Person (HSP) and Highly Sensitive Child (HSC)


  • Ivan Pavlov – transmarginal inhibition


  • Eysenck – introversion and arousal


  • Gray – inhibition system


  • Jung – innate sensitiveness 1913, 398


(Jung) This excessive sensitiveness very often brings an enrichment of the personality. . . . Only, when difficult and unusual situations arise, the advantage frequently turns into a very great disadvantage, since calm consideration is then disturbed by untimely affects. Nothing could be more mistaken, though, than to regard this excessive sensitiveness as in itself a pathological character component. If that were really so, we should have to rate about one quarter of humanity as pathological.


Children with the trait are more sensitive physiologically and psychologically. They are more deeply affected by noises, bright lights, strong smells, tastes and textures, pain, seams and labels in clothing, temperature, other people‟s moods, conflict, criticism, new situations, highly arousing situations. They startle more easily, pause before acting or participating, may ask many questions and often use big words for their age.


They feel all emotions more intensely and are more easily overwhelmed, upset by distressing movies, bad dreams and tensions in the air than those without the trait. They have a strong „pause-to-check‟ system (behavioural inhibition system) as opposed to ADHD children who are highly impulsive and have a high „go-for-it‟ system (behavioural activation system).  They need more down time than those without the trait and may be hard to settle to sleep if over stimulated.


Unhelpful labels often used in our culture to describe the HSC include


  • Wous
  • Cry baby
  • Over reactor
  • Too dramatic
  • Too talkative
  • Nerd
  • „Girl‟
  • Weak
  • Pussy
  • Drama Queen
  • Hypochondriac
  • Princess
  • High Maintenance
  • Too picky
  • Too sensitive
  • Too shy
  • Different
  • Strange
  • Sook,
  • Sooky la la
  • Highly strung


In our culture which values outgoingness, boldness, confidence and, resilience, competitiveness and rapid results, the highly sensitive person can be considered defective and in need of being „fixed‟. Toughened up. Research has found that children in the USA and Canada with the trait were the least popular amongst their peers and were frequently taunted.

In contrast, it found that In China, Thailand and India, the trait is in fact highly valued and children with the trait are the most popular. In Mandarin „shy‟ translates to mean „well behaved‟, and sensitive translates to mean „has understanding‟.


Because of our society‟s bias and human nature in general, most people notice the down side of the trait. But like all traits, there are advantages and disadvantages


Advantages include


  • Caring
  • Thoughtful
  • Conscientious
  • Kind
  • Helpful
  • Considerate
  • Empathetic
  • Intuitive
  • Creative
  • Observant
  • Detail orientated
  • Heightened awareness of others
  • Responsive to the needs and feelings of others
  • Expressive
  • Animated
  • Great communicators


Adjust the filter through which you see these children so that you focus more on the strengths and advantages of the trait, rather than the disadvantages. Replace the unhelpful labels you may have formed in your mind, with more helpful ones such as (many from the advantages list above)


Helpful labels


  • Intuitive
  • Expressive
  • Creative
  • Intelligent
  • Caring
  • Considerate
  • Well behaved
  • Conscientious
  • Has understanding


  • Kind
  • Animated
  • Helpful
  • Compassionate
  • Sensitive (not prefixed by “Too”)
  • Thoughtful
  • Reflective
  • Observant
  • Loyal
  • Patient
  • Thorough
  • Deep feeling


Strategies that are harmful to the sensitive child‟s wellbeing and impede development to becoming a confident adult with high self-esteem include


  • Derogatory labels (such as those above in the unhelpful list)


  • Derogatory phrases such as “Don‟t be so silly”, “Get over it”, Toughen up”, “Be a big boy” (or girl) – “Be a man”


  • Any descriptions prefixed by “too”


  • Frightening the child to make them comply


  • Shaming, embarrassing, humiliating or punishing for being „too‟ sensitive


  • Rushing, forcing, over arousing


  • Using harsh tones and body language


  • Handling the child roughly


  • Invalidating the child‟s feelings and responses because they seem overly dramatic or inappropriate to you. There are valid and very real for the child (rubber glove and ice water activity)


Strategies that are helpful to the sensitive child‟s wellbeing


  • Those that honour and respect their trait and help the child to understand and respect their uniqueness


  • Not using any harmful strategies such as those described above


  • Learning more about the trait in general and the individual child‟s particular preferences


  • Helping the child to identify their feelings and put words to them – Are you feeling angry? (Cotton wool – tickling nose activity)


  • Naming, acknowledging and validating the feelings young children may experience


  • Feelings thermometer – happy, sad, angry, worried, afraid (1-4) – see more detail at the end of the notes


  • Recognition, responsiveness and attunement to the child‟s needs and feelings


  • Patience – give them time, provide early warning of changes since HSCs are usually troubled by changes to routine, “when ….then…”


  • Use only mild corrective language and expression


  • Allow upset child to calm before attempting correction


  • Protect the child from internalising the false belief that there is something wrong with


  • Do not force rough play – especially for boys just because it is culturally accepted/required


  • Be aware of the right amount of stimulation for the child


  • Allow quiet or free/unstructured time – don‟t over schedule the child


  • Teach respect for different temperaments as you would for other differences – don‟t allow others to disrespect the child


  • Emergency resource kit – spare clothes, warmer clothes, blankie, bug spray, plasters, itch cream, hand wipes, snacks, drinks, books, music, teddy, earplugs/head phones, sunhat, sun glasses, spare goggles, cap, swimsuit and towel


  • Give lots of genuine, heartfelt praise with love


  • Don‟t try to change to many things at Pick the most important thing and work on that until it is automatic, then pick the next most important thing


  • Give instructions in small clear chunks in a kind voice – make sure you have their attention first


  • Do what you say you‟ll do


  • Encourage involvement in service activities, not just performance and achievement activities. Caring, kindness, compassion and empathy are


the sensitive child‟s specialty so give them plenty of opportunities to use and develop these skills


  • Invite the child to participate but don‟t force. Try to persuade and provide „exit‟ options for the child if they become overwhelmed (like the

„money back guarantee‟ offered with the purchase of many goods and services these days – make it safe and low risk to have a try)


  • Give permission for the child to watch and join in when ready (ensure safety)


  • Give equal time – each child will have something you can talk to them about to share time equally


  • Use an extra teacher when more support is required to help the child integrate


  • Speak of child in a positive light and with respect when talking with other staff or with the parents about the child


  • Describe individual behaviours and preferences rather than using general terms (labels) when speaking to the parent or staff about the child


  • Share strategies that have been helpful for the child with each other at the swim school


Understanding and Helping the Parents


  • Parent‟s have all kinds of feelings going on – anxiety, fatigue, insecurity, social isolation, stress, worry, shame, guilt, confusion, denial, pressure, grief, embarrassment, time shortage, uncertainty – am I doing it right? Be mindful of these and try to foster a team approach to teaching their


  • Pushy parent – vicious cycle – high achieving parents & cultural expectations – expect and want to develop high achieving children


  • Pushy parent – The child may be the parent‟s „project‟


  • Pushy parent – Parent may be living out their own unfulfilled dreams through their child



Parent Information can help your role in the swim school, and improve life for you, the parent and the child.


  • Gather information about the child‟s preferences in enrolment Information


  • You might write something like…“Every child is unique with their own particular temperament and preferences…what are some of your child‟s? Prepare own questions or use others – see pp 22-38 HSC Elaine Aron, and the HSC Assessment


  • Ask the parent – “What are some of the strategies you have found helpful in raising your child?”


  • Topics can include Temperaments, Highly Sensitive Child, ADD, Autism, etc


  • Consider best communication channels – Handouts, items in newsletter, parent information evenings on a range of topics



Additional Resources


  • Elaine Aron, Ph.D. hsperson,com
    • The Highly Sensitive Person
    • The Highly Sensitive Child
    • Psychotherapy and the Highly Sensitive Person
  • HSP network
  • Ted Zeff – The Strong Sensitive Boy
  • Comcare (psyc injury)



In Summary


  • High sensitivity is a personality trait NOT a disorder


  • 15 – 20% of many species, equally male and female


  • It is a valid and necessary species survival mechanism – „pause to check‟


  • The highly sensitive child (HSC) is NOT defective and does NOT need to be „fixed


  • Like all traits the trait of high sensitivity has advantages and disadvantages


  • Learn to understand and live in harmony with the HSCs special trait


  • Our society needs the sensitive person now more than ever so nurture the sensitive child‟s special gift for the betterment of humanity


It is primarily the actions of parents, caregivers and teachers in the early years of a child‟s life that determine whether the trait of high sensitivity is an advantage or a source of anxiety for the child throughout their life.


Treat them kindly, gently and with respect in all that you do. Help them to understand their unique trait and how to see it as an advantage.


Consider – What have they come to teach you – patience, tolerance for difference, to slow down and take time to smell the roses?




For more information contact the presenter, Janine Ramsey (HSP) E:

Ph: +61 422 261 741


Keynote presentations and workshops include


  • Different, but not less – an introduction to the trait of high sensitivity


  • Succeeding at work with a sensitive personality


  • Reducing workplace psychological injury claims, stress related absenteeism and presenteeism*, by effectively leading and managing people effectively with a sensitive personality


  • Parenting and teaching a child with a sensitive personality


  • Thriving at school with a sensitive personality


  • Understanding ADHD – Personal perspectives


* Presenteeism is the word used to define people who are stressed to the point of being unproductive, yet still present at work


The Feelings Thermometer


The idea of a feelings thermometer can be a useful way to help children to identify their feelings and the intensity of those. Here is a suggestion of how this might look. Of course this can be adjusted to suit the age and understanding level of the child such as by having fewer or more levels of intensity on each thermometer, and by changing the words to be more meaningful and understood by the child.


It can be really helpful to make a cardboard thermometer listing the feelings in order, from bottom (Low intensity – high intensity) with velcro on it, and have the words or faces showing the feelings, laminated with velcro and ask the child to place the appropriate word/face on the thermometer in the appropriate place on the thermometer. For example


Anger thermometer


1 = irritated

2 = angry

3 = very angry

4 = rage, emotional meltdown Happiness/ excitement thermometer

1 = content

2 = happy

3 = very happy

4 = exploding with happiness Anxiety thermometer

1 = slightly worried 2 = worried

3 = very worried – stress sickness – sore tummy, headache 4 = paralysed with worry – depression



Sadness thermometer


1 = low mood and energy 2 = sad with tears

3 = sad, inconsolable

4 = depressed and withdrawn


Adjust the words, number of levels of intensity or use faces to help the child describe their feelings. Comfort the child first if distressed before attempting to have them describe their feeling and tell you what is bothering them.


Is Your Child Highly Sensitive?


Developed by Elaine N. Aron, Clinical Psychologist, Ph.D. 1996



Instructions: Check true if it is moderately or very true for your child, otherwise check false.


My child


T  F    startles easily


T  F    complains about scratchy clothing, seams in socks, labels against skin


T  F    doesn‟t usually enjoy big surprises


T  F    learns better from gentle correction than strong punishment


T  F    seems to read my mind


T  F    uses big words for his/her age


T  F    notices the slightest unusual odour


T  F    has a clever sense of humour


T  F    seems very intuitive


T  F    is hard to get to sleep after an exciting day


T  F    doesn‟t do well with changes


T  F    wants to change clothes if wet or sandy


T  F    asks lots of questions


T  F    is a perfectionist


T  F    notices the distress of others


T  F    prefers quiet play


T  F    asks deep, though-provoking questions


T  F    is very sensitive to pain


T  F    is bothered by noisy places


T F    notices subtleties (something that‟s been moved, a change in a person‟s appearance)


T  F    considers if it is safe before climbing high


T  F    performs best when strangers aren‟t present




If you answered true to 13 or more of the questions, you‟re child is probably highly sensitive.


But frankly, no psychological test is so accurate that you should base your life on it. If only one or two questions are true of your child but they are extremely true, then you might also be justified in calling your child highly sensitive.


Read the book „The Highly Sensitive Child‟ by Elaine Aron, Ph. D. Visit Elaine Aron‟s website –

T  F    feels things deeply Score