Highly sensitive children
Part 1: Understanding the highly sensitive child
By Dr Raoul Goldberg
BSc (Med), MB ChB (Wits), CEDH (Hom)
Many of us live with or know children who are highly sensitive. It is estimated that some 20 – 25% of girls and boys display signs of high sensitivity. Most of them go to normal schools and live relatively functional lives. However these children feel the world and hence themselves more intensely, many are exceptional and gifted through their sensitivity, and many suffer greatly because of it.
Some children manifest their sensitivity in a more intense and obvious way, causing concern to their caregivers and teachers, and require remedial attention. There are children whose behaviour and development are very different from those of the typical child, and others who are diagnosed as autistic. What all these children have in common is their extreme sensitivity; they are all highly sensitive children spanning a spectrum from fully functional to relatively non-functional. This article and the two that follow attempt to offer some understanding of this very broad spectrum of highly sensitive children in order that we may be better equipped to help and support them in their journey through life.
Extreme sensitivity has to do with something in the child’s inner nature. Researchers postulate genetic causes, but at most the genes may code for temperament, not for personality. Others point to environmental factors. These I believe are trigger factors that unmask or enhance the underlying sensitive disposition. Fundamentally, however, the child brings into life a specific sensitive soul constitution which is the core factor in his or her sensitivity. A clear picture of the soul nature of the developing child must therefore be the starting point for an understanding of such children.
In previous articles in this Journal I have described the child as a physical-soul-spiritual being. The physical nature is inherited from the parents, the soul-spiritual nature belongs to the child herself; she is born into the world with her own unique soul and spirit nature. The soul or psyche is that independent organised system of forces which provides the child with an inner life filled with sensitivity, feeling, thinking and will impulses.
It is made up out of several aspects: a sensing or sentient soul which perceives sensory impressions such as sound or light and uses the sense organ instruments, the hearing or visual apparatus, and their connection to the brain to become conscious of the impression. It is the sensing soul that allows the child to experience her outer and inner world. The child senses the soft warm teddy bear.
Then there is the feeling soul through which the child experiences a wide range of feelings, those that lift her up such as joy and love, and that which bring her down such as despair and disappointment. This feeling soul gives the child a personal and human nature for experiencing life in her own very unique way. She experiences pleasure in touching and cuddling the teddy bear.
The thinking soul uses thinking to understand the world, to give it meaning, to name objects, to capture experiences in memory and allows the child to communicate with others through speaking thoughts. She has formed a mental picture of the teddy bear and remembers it from previous experiences.
Finally, there is the willing or volitional soul which through instincts, drives, desires, etc. allows us to act and react in accordance with our inner life in order that we may live and move in the world as fully functioning human beings. The child clasps the teddy bear to her chest out of a desire for the pleasure of cuddling it.
The soul of the child connects tenuously with the physical body at an early stage of embryonic development and engages progressively with the physical substance as development proceeds. The development of the soul through the first 14 years of childhood has been described in several articles.1-3 For our purposes here it will be necessary to chacterise the development of the sentient soul in the first 3 years of life.
Development of sensitivity
The neurosensory organs develop predominantly in the first years, as can be seen in the preferential functional completion of brain, neural apparatus and sense organs compared with the relative immaturity at this stage of digestive organs, reproductive organs or limbs. This is a functional requirement for the development of the sentient soul which is in active development in the early years of life. The child needs fully functioning eyes and ears so that he can see and hear. We are taught that there are only 5 senses: hearing, seeing, touching, tasting and smelling.
Anyone who is sensitive to their own inner awareness will know that this is a limited understanding of human sensitivity. Through the work of Dr A Jean Ayres4 who studied children with sensory and motor problems, the practice of occupational therapy recognises four other senses: the interoceptive sense, viz. the sensory system of the internal organs; the tactile sense, which processes information about touch, primarily via the skin; the vestibular sense, which gives information about movement, gravity and balance; and the proprioceptive sense, which gives awareness of body position and body parts.
The twelve senses
It was Rudolph Steiner, founder of the Waldorf schools, scientist, philosopher and teacher of many disciplines who described humans as having 12 developed senses and 3 that are not yet developed but that can be developed through spiritual training.5,6 Let us look briefly at the 12 ordinary senses:
Four senses are predominantly connected with the physical body, allowing the sentient soul to perceive the condition of its own physical instrument. They are:
1. Sense of touch: This sense begins to develop in the mother’s womb: the skin conveys to the developing soul the tactile impressions of the physical world, and through this sense the being that lives inside this physical world. The child senses love and affection in the way his mother holds and caresses him. Soft natural cotton fibre on his skin feels different from synthetic fabrics. By touching everything he gets to know the world as well as his own body and will progressively come to know the boundary between his own physicality and that of his physical environment.
2. Sense of life: This is the perception of the wellbeing or dis-ease of the body in the widest sense. It informs the child from the beginning of life if her being is in harmony or not. The sense of wellbeing is enhanced by many factors according to the stage of development of the child; e.g. the infant’s sense of wellbeing will be enhanced by untainted mother’s milk, health-giving food, adequate sleep, warmth, play and regular routines. The child becomes aware of this life sense when things are not as they should be.
3. Sense of movement: Through this sense the child perceives his own movement, for instance when he moves a limb or blinks an eye. This sense develops as the child grows, first moving his limbs, then raising his head, crawling, standing up, walking, running and jumping, An integrated sense of movement will lead to good motor co-ordination. A child who is given freedom to move will have the best opportunity to develop consciousness of freedom in later life.
4. Sense of balance: This sense enables the child to sense her position in space: above-below, left-right, forward-backward: and to adjust her position accordingly. Her healthy motor development will depend on a healthy sense of balance and works hand in hand with the sense of movement. The soul that experiences the body in balance will later be best equipped to experience the soul in balance.
Four pure soul senses are connected with the immediate environment, requiring reasonably close proximity for perception. These are:
5. Sense of warmth: This sense connects the child to his immediate surroundings in a very intimate way. Heat and cold deeply inform the child about the inner nature of substances, e.g. the temperature of the amniotic fluid or mother’s warmth. Wearing clothes that are too light in cold weather will create a sense of discomfort which the child will express through crying or physical symptoms.
6. Sense of sight: This sense has to do with the perception of light, dark and colour, viz. to what extent an object allows light to shine through it. Sight also penetrates deeply into the nature of things, but less so than the warmth. The rose only allows red light to shine through it; the child sees this red rose and learns something about its nature. From the sixth month the child begins to discover the world actively through the visual sense. Naturally the sense of sight is an essential organ in learning about the world, and a little reflection will inform us how critical these visual impressions are for her future life.
7. Sense of taste: Substance must be taken into the mouth for this sense to come into operation. By constantly putting things into his mouth the child forms a deep relationship with substance. He begins to ‘digest’ the world when he tastes objects. The saliva, the first digestive juice, must dissolve substances before the child can taste whether it is bitter, sour, sweet or salty.
8. Sense of smell: While taste is connected to digestion, smell is related to the breathing system. This sense will only perceive gaseous substances that can be breathed in through the odour-perceiving nose which senses quality, scent, freshness and vitality.
Finally, four senses are connected with the child’s spiritual environment and perceive impressions at relative distance from the perceiving instrument. These are:
9. Sense of hearing: This sense gives the child even more intimate knowledge of the outer world than the sense of warmth. Whereas heat is evenly distributed through an object, sound may cause a part of the object to vibrate, informing us about that object’s inner mobility. Through her sense of hearing the child acquires a deep knowing of her environment at every level of development; the sounds in her environment, the ways her parents speak, live music in contrast to canned music, will profoundly influence the healthy development of the child’s life processes.
10. Sense of speech, word or tone: This is the sense that detects meaning within a word, tone or speech. A child learns to speak and understand words before he learns to reason. He has a sense for the meaning behind words, the unique inflexions of the voice, and will instinctively imitate what he senses. Through this sense he perceives more than just sound.
11. Sense of thought: This sense permits us to sense another person’s thoughts behind the spoken or written words as well as in external gestures and movement. Children are very intuitive because they use this sense to pick up what actually lives in the thoughts of others.
12. Sense of ‘I’: This is the sense for the I-being of another person. It is an organ of knowing, spread out over the whole human being. The child instinctively senses the I-being of those present, for instance she feels the weakness or strength of her teacher, which may call forth disrespect or respect.
Immediately after birth the sentient soul of the child becomes highly active, working preferentially with those senses closest to his physical being. Through his sense of touch, he learns to appreciate life and warmth, the tactile stimulation that feels good and nurturing to him, for instance certain ways in which he is held, caressed and touched, as well as the way he caresses his mother’s skin, the tactile sensation of the nipple which carries the warm flowing milk, feeling warm rather than cold, all gives him obvious pleasure and sense of wellbeing.
He develops an awareness and an inner mental picture of where his body and his body parts are. His sense of movement and balance together with his visual sense help him to find his optimum position in space according to his needs, desires, and drives (willing soul). Through trying out new positions and discovering his body, he becomes bilaterally integrated (passes objects from one hand to the other), develops laterality (left- or right-handedness), improves his postural responses and thereby learns to raise his head, crawl, stand and walk.
His other organs of hearing, smell and taste also evolve as he experiences new sensations. As these senses becomes more organised, integrated and functional he can extend his sentient activity towards the surrounding world. He can now give more attention to his other senses, his auditory, visual, speech and thought sense. His will-soul drives him to discover more about the world that he is entering, setting in motion the power that potentiates his learning: the power of imitation.
What makes highly sensitive children different from other typically developing children?
If sensitivity has to do with the sentient soul, then high sensitivity has to do with a highly active sentient soul that is too busy sensing the world around it. Highly sensitive children are therefore deeply tuned in to all incoming sense impressions, for instance they sense sounds, tastes, odours, and tactile impressions more acutely, and because of their direct attachment to the etheric body, they are also acutely sensitive to the vibrating nature of the life forces. This will make such children far more sensitive to their own bodies. Thus these children feel pain more intensely, but are also much more sensitive to all the impressions received from within their own bodies.
• They very often have a poorly integrated sense of touch: they may shy away from being touched, or they may need to be touched constantly
• They are more aware of disharmony in their bodies through their overactive sense of life
• Overactive perception of movement can lead to various degrees of sensory integration dysfunction (see below)
• In a sensitive child overactive sense of balance may disturb healthy motor development
• They are often very aware of fine changes in warmth and do not handle raised temperature very well
• More than others they will be negatively affected by an overload of visual sense impressions, e.g. through excessive TV, and PC-visual stimulation
• They commonly have very fussy tastes, poor appetites and weak digestion
• Some sensitive children are acutely sensitive to specific odours which may evoke a wide range of powerful feelings
• They are often acutely sensitive to specific noises and sounds, e.g. teeth grating or dogs barking
• Such a child may experience acute discomfort from the repetitive anguished tone in her mother’s voice (sense of tone)
• A father’s rough gestures have more of an impact on the sensitive soul of the small child than all his kind words (sense of thought)
• A dominating mother may cause a sensitive child to withdraw into himself (sense of I).
Highly sensitive children can be broadly classified into four categories illustrated by the examples above:
1. The functional sensitive child
2. The dysfunctional sensitive child (this includes sensory integration disorders)
3. The highly functional autistic disorder, also known as Asberger’s syndrome
4. Childhood autism.
It is only for better diagnostic clarification and potential therapeutic value that I resort to classifications, knowing that every highly sensitive child is a completely unique ‘classification’ on her own.
In the next issue of the Journal we will look at some aspects of the care of the first two categories of children, who probably represent a single spectrum with wide variation. The second two classifications described in the literature as autistic spectrum disorder will be examined separately in the issue thereafter.
1. Goldberg R. Enhance the developing child’s potential. South African Journal of Natural Medicine 2001; 3: 47-49.
2. Goldberg R. Protecting the heavenly years of childhood. South African Journal of Natural Medicine 2003; 10: 47-49.
3. Goldberg R. The three births of childhood. South African Journal of Natural Medicine 2003; 11: 44-46.
4. Ayres AJ. Sensory Integration and the Child. Los Angeles: Western Psychological Services, 1979.
5. Steiner R. A Psychology of Body Soul and Spirit. Hudson, NY: Anthroposophic Press, 1999.
6. Steiner R. Study of Man. London: Rudolf Steiner Press, 1966.