Highly Sensitive Children and Sibling Relationships

It is virtually impossible to determine the full effect of sibling relationships on children. You will find much research and data on parent-child relationships, but far less research has been done on sibling relationships and outcomes on children. One study on sibling relations states, “In comparison to the wealth of studies on parent-child relationships, relatively little attention has been devoted to the role of siblings and their impact on one another’s development.”

I believe this difference is, at least partially, due to the fact that the siblings are also children themselves. And children are in the ongoing process of growing, changing, and developing. 

HSP Me and My (Non-HSP) Brother

Growing up, I had several older siblings, but the one right above me in age was the one who likely had the greatest effect on me.

After all, we shared a room and pretty much everything else, even clothing (and often attractions to the cutest schoolgirl).

The thing is, I thought all my older brother’s ideas were the greatest and by the same token I did not have any good ideas of my own … or at least that’s how I felt as a child.

It came to the point that my brother was so irritated at the way I would mimic and copy the things he wanted to do and wanted to be, and even the friendships or relationships he hoped to develop, that he began asking me to clarify my opinion on a situation before he would divulge his opinion.

In short, he was tired of me copying him.

I thought his requirement that I state my opinion before he would divulge his opinion was unnecessary and unfair.

I have more clarity now on the issue. Besides the knowledge I have about …

  • Copying another person being the sincerest form of flattery
  • The fact that we’re all copying someone
  • Very few people are true geniuses that do not mimic someone else whether in art or in writing or in rhetoric

…  the truth was that as a highly sensitive child, I was so deeply empathetic and sensitive to my brother’s feelings and moods and perspectives that I adopted them as my own without realizing it.

Importance of Awareness for Parents of HSCs

This is a very important thing for parents of a highly sensitive child (HSC) to be aware of.

Especially if the parent was not themselves highly sensitive, they might not realize what a strong effect their non-HSP children might be having on their HSP children.

This is not to say that the effect of a non-HSP child on an HSP child is negative.

Hardly. There is much I learned from my sibling relationship with my older brother and I am grateful to him for that, even though much of that learning was rife with tension because of the fact that he did not want me copying him.

I simply urge parents of both non-HSP and HSP children to have awareness.

For instance, one of your children might seem far more decisive than the other, who might seem to have a difficult time making decisions. This is natural.

With your increased awareness about the tendencies of your HSP child, however, you might encourage that child to make independent decisions in a safe environment.

Although they might not realize it, their very thoughts and feelings are often being influenced by the non-HSP child’s attitudes and speech and even their nonverbal cues.

I have both a highly sensitive and a non-highly-sensitive child. Because of my background and upbringing, I have been aware of the need to help my HSP child develop their own interests and perspectives in a safe environment and to explicitly let them know it’s okay for them to have opinions that are different from others.

HSP Children Need Support in Decisions

Sometimes it has been difficult to try to encourage my HSP child to make a decision on something, especially if they know that their decision is different or their perspective is different from that of the other individual.

Sometimes they will refuse to make a choice or state that they want one thing when in reality they want something else … but either consciously or subconsciously they are afraid of going against their sibling’s opinion.

Because the non-HSP child is less sensitive, they are not even attuned to this dynamic.

Again, awareness is important!

It is not that either child is good or bad or what they are doing is right or wrong.

They simply process information differently and thus make decisions differently.

The reason I urge this sensitivity and approach of awareness is that as a child I often felt very conflicted about my own feelings and opinions.

I feel, looking back, that if someone were to have come alongside me and encouraged me that it was okay to make up my mind and that what I thought and felt was valuable, rather than feeling accused and unappreciated for my approach, I might have found it easier to step out in life sooner.

I believe I would have taken a more healthy approach to decisions that I made … rather than (for many years) submitting to the desires of someone else in a variety of unhealthy relationships.

In short, these formative years are foundational in a child learning to grow into a healthy adult with healthy boundaries and positive relationship dynamics.

Summary

Some of the most core foundational experiences a child has are those with their siblings.

As such, it is vital that you, as a parent, are aware of these various factors, such as the sensitivity of a child and their natural processing.

It will make a huge difference for both your HSP and non-HSP child and their sibling relationship if you are aware of these things and help guide and support them in these areas.

_______

Photo Credits

Main Photo: Little Girl with Hand on Chin — Image by © LWA-Dann Tardif/zefa/Corbis

Second Photo: Two Girls Under Water — Image by © Zena Holloway/zefa/Corbis

The HSP Trigger of Pressure

I get more frustrated then I should as a highly sensitive person when my forward movement is interrupted in some way. For example, when I am walking down a busy sidewalk and someone is walking more slowly than usual … usually because they are texting or doing something on their phone, and then they stop altogether and I have to go around them.

It irks me terribly.

I have wondered why it bothers me so much. As a highly sensitive person, I should be able to understand that the person is doing something that is engaging them completely. It’s not like it interrupts my entire day by having to slow down a few steps or maneuver my way around them.

HSPs and Checkout Counters

Perhaps part of the reason it bothers me so much is that I am a highly sensitive person. I am hyper-aware of the people around me and what is going on. One of the absolute worst things in my semi-regular schedule is standing in line at a checkout counter.

I dislike this scenario so much I usually avoid shopping in grocery stores until I absolutely have to, which means that my cart is generally absolutely full every time I go shopping. This means that it takes me a while, as quickly as I try to move, to get all the groceries onto the conveyor belt and then to bag them afterward. That part is not difficult.

The difficult part is the people waiting behind me.

I hate making people wait. It is a trigger for me and I will suddenly become very short-tempered and anxious because of this. I frequently take my children shopping with me and one of my kids often helps to begin bagging the groceries while I wait to pay. This child is invariably never even halfway done by the time I’m done paying; by then there are usually two or three or more people in line behind me.

I try to keep my anxiety low while I briskly takeover in bagging things, more often than not putting some fragile or bruise-able items underneath some heavy item just to get it done and get out of the shop.

The Trigger of Making People Wait

I still don’t know why this dislike of making people wait is so much a trigger for me. I’ve tried to think back to my own childhood and wondered if there is a reason for it.

I know that I do tend to move relatively slow naturally, though as a mother I have learned to pick up the pace and can move swiftly and efficiently and can multitask with the best of them. Still, it doesn’t come naturally to me.

I have memories of trying to help my mother in some task or another. She has always been a fast-paced and constantly working individual. (It is my father who I’ve recently recognized as the highly sensitive person from whom I likely got my nature.)

I remember more often than once offering to help my mom or even stepping in to help with something like peeling potatoes for dinner or washing the dishes and her always verbally pushing me aside with the words, “I can do it more quickly,” and then her taking over.

Unfortunately and to my chagrin, I have used the same words with my own children although I am aware of how damaging even a benign phrase like that can be. Although I have tried not to, it has come out at least once that I can remember when one of my children offered to do the dishes. I only hope that the humor and the gentleness came across as well, rather than a spirit of haste and rush that invariably says you’re not good enough … or at least that’s how I took it when my mother pushed past me to get something done.

Trying to Figure Out the Source of the Anxiety

But I really don’t know if this unhealthy dynamic between my mother and myself is what has made me so anxious about making other people wait and slowing other people down. Or if it’s just part of my highly sensitive nature and high levels of perception regarding the people around me.

There have been times that those in the line behind me have waited for a few minutes and then moved on;I always feel so terrible as if I have ruined their entire day.

At the same time, many times in my life, I have been stuck behind someone who moves very slowly, possibly because they are writing a check or paying by cash or using coupons. Instead of feeling frustrated and angry, I put myself in their shoes. I often try to do something to displace the tension by smiling at the person or the cashier or trying to say something general to distract the others who are also waiting in line.

It is so strange, I feel, that although I generally respond with understanding and empathy in situations like this, I still have the deep fear of inconveniencing others in the very same situations when the tables are turned.

Do I not have enough faith in other people?

Is it my own experience or my fears that are in play when I am triggered?

I really don’t know. But perhaps the questions and the awareness themselves are steps toward healing and growing out of the triggers and anxiety.

Meanwhile, I avoid grocery shopping with all four of my children, especially on summer afternoons because I have experienced meltdowns and know to stay away from those environments.

  • As a highly sensitive person, what are some environments that you know trigger you or make it difficult for you?
  • What have you done to avoid them or process them?
  • Do you find that you are slowly improving or are some things generally just difficult for you no matter how many times you experience them?

I’d love to hear from you as to how you deal with pressure points and anxieties you face.

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.