College. Freshman year. My worst nightmare was happening. I had to give a presentation to the class. Out loud. While everyone was looking at me. I’d been dreading it for weeks. The moment had come.
To add to my embarrassment, I break out in hives on my face and neck when I’m stressed. So, not only was I standing in front of my peers with my knees shaking, but I looked like I just had scalding water thrown in my face.
I envied the kids who strolled up to the podium looking so calm, cool, and collected. How nice it must be to have such confidence, I thought.
Confidence was something I severely lacked as a kid. I’m still not bursting with it, if I’m honest. I was that child trying desperately to not be noticed because “noticed” usually meant “picked on.” I always assumed my lack of confidence was due to my circumstances and experiences. Now I realize other factors were at play. Fast forward thirty years, and I’m witnessing my son dealing with some of the same struggles I dealt with as a child, and in my attempts to help him gain confidence, I came upon some interesting information.
My child’s lack of confidence, and my own, could very well be due, at least in part, to our trait of high sensitivity. The more I read about this trait, the more my life began to make sense.
Traits of High Sensitivity
About 15 to 20 percent of the population are born “highly sensitive.” This means that we have more central nervous system sensitivity to physical, emotional, or social stimuli. Our brains process things very deeply, making us more physically and emotionally sensitive.
Here are some common traits of highly sensitive people (HSPs):
- High empathy and compassion
- Abhors violence and cruelty
- Slow to warm up or join in
- Startles easily
- Bothered by loud noises or bright lights
- Notices small details out of place
- Dislikes socks, seams, or scratchy materials
- Struggles with boundaries
- Difficulty with decisions or transitions
- Easily overwhelmed
- Highly intuitive
- Creative and imaginative
- Loves nature and animals
- Social anxiety
- Lacks confidence
It’s the last bullet point that we are addressing here. Highly sensitive people often lack confidence. This is, in large part, due to our wiring. We are naturally more reflective and cautious. And because we make up a smallish percent of the population, we are usually different from our peers. Rejection and criticism hurt more deeply, and therefore we attempt to avoid it more fervently than most.
We get embarrassed easily and have strong emotional reactions. We are easily overstimulated, so things that are fun for our peers, like parties, aren’t really fun for us, leaving us on the fringe. And, for boys especially, being highly sensitive makes them a target for bullying.
If you or your child fall into this category, don’t be dismayed. Being highly sensitive does have its advantages. We usually form deep bonds with others. We make great friends. Highly sensitive people have rich internal lives and really see the beauty in art, music, and nature. We are wonderfully creative and filled with compassion.
Sensitive people make the world a softer, better place.
Helping Your Sensitive Child Gain Confidence
Being highly sensitive doesn’t necessarily equate to low self-esteem, but it does make us more susceptible. If you are raising a highly sensitive child, he or she may need help with gaining confidence. Here are 5 ways you can help.
1. Talk to them about their sensitivity.
They probably already realize they’re different from many of their friends, so discussing their sensitivity and all the ways it actually helps them will go a long way in helping them grow. If they know that they are not alone - that 1 in 5 people share this trait - they can feel more confident in their own skin. Also, by focusing on the positive aspects of this trait - their intuition, compassion, and awareness - you’ll help them see the positive side as well.
2. Hone in on their strengths.
As parents and caregivers, we tend to focus on what needs fixing and strengthening - in other words, on weaknesses. While we mean well, this can overshadow everything our children are doing “right.” Shift your perspective to focus on their strengths. Notice what your child does well, where their interests and passions lie, and what brings them joy. For example, if your child is an avid gamer, rather than focusing on how they need to stop playing and go outside, talk about the skills they are using and developing as they play. If your child loves puzzles, compliment their excellent problem-solving skills.
3. Create an accomplishments box.
This little craft activity is a great way to help your child focus on their own strengths and accomplishments which is sure to boost confidence and self-esteem! Have them pick out or create a box, such as a large shoe box, and decorate it. Place things like beloved art that they’re proud of, report cards, certificates and awards, etc. in this keepsake box.
4. Practice gentle discipline.
In her book, The Highly Sensitive Child, Elaine Aron, Ph.D. says, “HSCs need to be corrected and disciplined, but unless you know how to do it properly, your child is likely to take your correction as global messages about his worth.”
Sensitive children tend to be very self-critical, so parental criticism is especially difficult for them. Aron says, “HSCs process their mistakes so thoroughly, they punish themselves,” and that was certainly true of myself as a child and of my sensitive son. Sensitive children do not need harsh punishments or lengthy consequences. Use a Time-In rather than Time-Out, connect before you correct, and always make sure to restore connection after you discipline your child.
5. Take the focus off of them.
This may seem counterintuitive, but according to Eileen Kennedy-Moore, author of Kid Confidence, “Parents often respond to their self-doubting children by trying to reassure them that they’re wonderful. Instead, we can help them soften harsh self-judgment by connecting with something bigger than themselves. Turning off self-focus enough gives kids some breathing room to grow. It doesn’t involve putting oneself down, which is a form of self-focus. Rather, it’s a kind of forgetting of the self by recognizing that we are just a tiny piece of the larger universe, and definitely not the center of it!” Kennedy-Moore asserts that this can be done through practicing mindfulness and entering a state of “flow” whereby you are completely immersed in a project or learning experience.
Sensitive children are gifts. With the right environment and encouragement, these children can display their gifts to the world with confidence and thrive.