The Highly Sensitive Child and Depth of Processing

In her groundbreaking book, The Highly Sensitive Person, Elaine Aron writes about the acronym DOES. The first letter, “D”, stands for depth of processing. Perhaps you are a parent of a highly sensitive child and you wonder how this processing works for your child.

A highly sensitive person processes things more deeply than most. If you are a highly sensitive person, this doesn’t come as a surprise to you, but you might wonder exactly how this plays out, especially in the mind of a child.

Let me relate a couple of childhood memories that might define what depth of processing could look like for a highly sensitive child.

Depth of Processing in a Young Child

I couldn’t have been more than four years old when our family was invited to a party next door. Every child’s dream, right? Not this child.  I couldn’t deal with the bright lights and all the talking and chatter and, most of all, the loud music.

Now, I don’t know whether I stayed there for a minute or two before asking my mother to take me home or whether I didn’t even get inside the doorway.

I do remember her bringing me a paper plate with some potato chips on it and a cup half full of orange soda. I remember eating it at our dining room table and listening to the music that I could still hear pretty clearly even from our house.

I recall going through the process in my mind of regretting that I didn’t have the courage to go and wondering what everybody thought of me for not wanting to be there … but at the same time feeling relieved that I could enjoy chips and soda in the relative safety of the house instead of in the midst of so much clamor and noise.

While few four-year-olds would have made that decision to stay home, others might have opted to remain home due to shyness. But few four-year-olds – except a highly sensitive one – would have processed the whole situation while sitting there munching on potato chips.

Only a highly sensitive child would have gone through the mental processes of …

  • what her mother thought about her
  • how the other people at the party must have perceived her
  • whether or not it was worth it to oblige what other people were thinking by deciding to attend the party
  • deciding it wasn’t worth the noise and clamor

Ultimately, I was left with mixed feelings about my decision to stay at home.

I considered the opportunity to have more chips or seconds on soda or perhaps a little bit of attention from friends or family at the party.

I also worried about being teased by my older sisters when they got home, or that they would tell me how much fun they had.

For a highly sensitive child, attending a party is not a single decision; it’s a thousand.

Depth of Processing in an Older Child

On another occasion, when I was about nine, I remember watching Fantasia with my teenage siblings and a couple of their friends.

While we were watching, my older sister made a comment about having watched the same video the previous week at their friend’s house.

The friend said something about how it was more exciting or more interesting to watch it that night.

No more words were exchanged but I intrinsically knew exactly what they had been talking about. I knew they had been doing drugs at their friend’s house and that the fact that they were high had changed their perception of the movie and made it more interesting in their minds.

This was before my parents knew my older sisters were doing drugs and before I necessarily “knew” it, yet I somehow already knew it.

I asked one of my older sisters about it later, and she laughed it off while admitting that, yes, I had been right about my assumption.

Looking back, I can’t explain how I knew what I had known.

  • Was it that thing they call intuition?
  • Did it have more to do with the wording or with their gestures?
  • Were there other cues they gave that I intrinsically understood?

I don’t know for sure.

For a highly sensitive child, perception is often on target.

Closing Thoughts

If you have a highly sensitive child, simply being aware of this fact can do wonders for your child.

As a parent of an HSP, here are a few ways you can make it easier for your highly sensitive child.

  1. Accept her decisions, as long as her choices are reasonable and safe.
  2. Don’t question his line of reasoning unless he offers information; it’s hard for an adult to track back their decision-making process. Think about how much more challenging it is for an HSP child.
  3. Be available. Sometimes a highly sensitive child needs someone to walk through that depth of processing with them and to reassure them that things will work out okay.
  4. Avoid teasing them. Remember that a highly sensitive person takes even gentle teasing far more seriously than the average person. Avoid teasing them about the way their mind works or the steps they took to arrive at a decision.

You would never want an HSP to think there is something wrong with them just because they process information differently than others.

As a parent of an HSP, you can be their strongest supporters … and your child depends on you for it.


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Just an HSP introvert navigating an aggressive world | Reflections | Essays | Stories | Field Notes | Support for HSPs, emotional introverts, and empathetic feelers.

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