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099: How to parent highly sensitive children
15th September 2019 • Your Parenting Mojo - Respectful, research-based parenting ideas to help kids thrive • Jen Lumanlan
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Is your child Highly Sensitive?  Does it sometimes feel as though you don’t understand them, and struggle to support them in the ways it seems they need to be supported?  Or does your child experience and process things more deeply than other children, but this is the first time you’re hearing about High Sensitivity? In this episode Dr. Michael Pluess helps us to understand how we can know whether our child is highly sensitive, and how to parent these children effectively so they can reach their full potential.   References Aron, E. N., Aron, A., & Jagiellowicz, J. (2012). Sensory processing sensitivity: A review in the light of the evolution of biological responsivity. Personality and Social Psychology Review, 16, 262–282.
Aron, E. N., Aron, A., & Davies, K. M. (2005). Adult shyness: the interaction of temperamental sensitivity and an adverse childhood environment. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 31, 181-197.
Aron, E.N. (2002). The highly sensitive child: Helping our children thrive when the world overwhelms them. New York, NY: Harmony.
Aron, E. N., & Aron, A. (1997). Sensory-processing sensitivity and its relation to introversion and emotionality. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 73, 345-368.
Bakermans-Kranenburg, M. J., & van IJzendoorn, M. H. (2011). Differential susceptibility to rearing environment depending on dopamine-related genes: New evidence and a meta-analysis. Development and Psychopathology, 23, 39–52.
Bakermans-Kranenburg, M. J., Van IJzendoorn, M. H., Pijlman, F. T., Mesman, J., & Juffer, F. (2008). Experimental evidence for differential susceptibility: dopamine D4 receptor polymorphism (DRD4 VNTR) moderates intervention effects on toddlers' externalizing behavior in a randomized controlled trial. Developmental Psychology, 44, 293-300.
Belsky, J., & Puess, M. (2013). Beyond risk, resilience, and dysregulation: Phenotypic plasticity and human development. Development and Psychopathology 25, 1243-1261.
Belsky, J., Bakermans-Kranenburg, M. J., & Van IJzendoorn, M. H. (2007). For better and for worse: Differential Susceptibility to environmental influences. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 16, 300-304.
Bouvette-Turcot, A-A., Pluess, M., Bernier, A., Pennestri, M-H., Levitan, R., Skolowski, M.B., Kennedy, J.L., Minde, K., Steiner, M., Pokhvisneva, I., Meaney, M.J., & Gaudreau, H. (2015). Effects of genotype and sleep on temperament. Pediatrics 136(4), e914-e921.
Pluess, M. (2015). Vantage sensitivity: Environmental sensitivity to positive experiences as a function of genetic differences. Journal of Personality 85(1), 38-50.
Pluess, M. (2015). Individual differences in environmental sensitivity. Child Development Perspectives 9(3), 138-143.
Pluess, M., & Boniwell, I. (2015). Sensory processing sensitivity predicts treatment response to a school-based depression prevention program Evidence of Vantage Sensitivity. Personality and Individual Differences 82, 40-45.
Pluess, M., & Belsky, J. (2013). Vantage sensitivity: Individual differences in response to positive experiences. Psychological Bulletin 139(4), 901-916.
Pluess, M., & Belsky, J. (2011). Differential susceptibility to maternal sensitivity. Maternal Sensitivity: A critical review for practitioners, 95-107. Retrieved from http://philosonic.com/michaelpluess_construction/Files/PluessBelsky_2010_Differential%20Susceptibility%20to%20Maternal%20Sensitivity.pdf
Pluess, M. & Belsky, J. (2010). Differential susceptibility to parenting and quality child care. Developmental Psychology 46(2), 379-390.  

Transcripts

DR. MICHAEL PLUESS:

Sensitive children have a lot to contribute and have great potential. And they just have a set of different challenges than less sensitive children, and less sensitive children have as well a lot to contribute to society. So it's really our understanding is not that one is better than the other but these are just different aspects, different personalities, different profiles that all have their own sets of strengths and weaknesses. And the beauty of it is to have those differences in the same population, because then we will all benefit from all the strengths that everyone has.

JEN LUMANLAN:

Hi, I'm Jen, and I host the Your Parenting Mojo podcast. We all want our children to lead fulfilling lives, but it can be so hard to keep up with the latest scientific research on child development, and figure out whether and how to incorporate it into our own approach to parenting. Here at Your Parenting Mojo, I do the work for you by critically examining strategies and tools related to parenting and child development that are grounded in scientific research and principles of respectful parenting. If you'd like to be notified when new episodes are released and get a free guide to Seven Parenting Myths That We Can Safely Leave Behind - Seven Fewer Things to Worry About, subscribe to the show at YourParentingMojo.com You can also continue the conversation about the show with other listeners in the Your Parenting Mojo Facebook group. I do hope you'll join us.

JEN LUMANLAN 1:39

Basel, Switzerland. And since:

DR. MICHAEL PLUESS:

Thank you, I'm glad to be here.

JEN LUMANLAN:

So I wonder if we can start by getting on the same page with some basic terminology. Maybe for some parents who haven't heard about sensitivity or aren't quite clear what it is, can you tell us what is sensitivity?

DR. MICHAEL PLUESS:

Well, the way I see sensitivity, I actually refer to it as environmental sensitivity. It's the very fundamental tool and basic traits to be able to perceive what happens around us and process it. And it's a trait that all of us have to some degree because it helps us to adapt to the specific conditions of the environment that we find ourselves in.

JEN LUMANLAN:

And I think I want to tease apart two parts of what you said right there. It's around sensing things. And it's also around processing things. Because I think when we're thinking about sensitivity, it can be a little tempting to think about, oh, it's about senses; it's about things. I'm touching things. I'm seeing things. I'm hearing. But there's actually that processing element is pretty critical as well, right?

DR. MICHAEL PLUESS:

Yeah, it's an important part of the concept of sensory processing sensitivity, which is the scientific term that Elaine Aron and others use to describe that sensitivity. Often when people refer to sensitivity in that sense, they actually mean the combination of sensory sense activity and the depth of processing.

JEN LUMANLAN:

And what does that kind of depth of processing mean? What does it mean to be a person who processes things more deeply?

DR. MICHAEL PLUESS:

So depth of processing refers to the fact that some people seem to think for longer, or more deeply, are more focused about things that they experience. Whereas others may sort of don't go as far, as deeper. They don't stick to something for the same time as someone that might be a bit more sensitive, and it's processing things more deeply. We think that one of the reasons that more sensitive people are more effective at what they experience is because they process their experiences more deeply, so they think about it for longer, which also can lead to problems.

JEN LUMANLAN:

And I assume we're gonna hear more about those in a few minutes. But firstly, let's just think about how common is this? I mean, is this something that is affecting a small percentage of the population? Or is it much bigger than that?

DR. MICHAEL PLUESS:

It's a common trait. This means just like any other personality or temperament trait, every single person is on the continuum of sensitivity somewhere, with sensitivity ranging from low to high. Everyone is on that continuum. It is a trait that is of fundamental importance for our functioning in whatever context we find ourselves in. So we all need to have it but some people, they have that a bit more to a higher degree than others.

JEN LUMANLAN:

And I think I've read around is it 20% of the population, it tends to be kind of on the higher end of that spectrum. Is that roughly in line with what you've read as well?

DR. MICHAEL PLUESS:

It's probably slightly higher. In the research that we conducted, we applied relatively sophisticated statistical procedures that look at within a large sample who've completed the questionnaires that we're using that look at whether we can group people into different categories. And we generally find that around 30% seem to fall into a category of highly sensitive people.

JEN LUMANLAN:

And so if I'm a parent, and I'm thinking, okay, how am I going to know if this describes my child or not? What kind of characteristics do these children often exhibit?

DR. MICHAEL PLUESS:

So these children often take a bit longer to get used to new situations. But it's not just that they're scared of something new, but they're more cautious. They're very observing. So with a new situation, they would be very interested and investigates, but in a very cautious way, and it might take them a bit longer before they approach a new situation. They seem to like order. They tend to be a bit more shy with strangers. But they also seem to be very compliant, and they follow instructions given to them. They have higher levels of empathy, so they really understand others. They seem to be more concerned about the well-being of others than some other children. But they also get more easily upset by things so they're getting more easily scared by seeing violence in whether that is seeing other children fighting or seeing violent films. That would upset them. But they are also particularly responsive to positive experiences like nice music. They are more strongly favored by music, for example, by nice taste, things like that.

JEN LUMANLAN:

Okay, so you've just sort of given a big list of characteristics. And I think that this is why I didn't realize myself that this was a thing, because it appears to be this, you know, I have this characteristic, I have this characteristic. There's no connection between them. But it wasn't till my husband actually shoved one of those buzzfeed quizzes at me, you know, are you a highly sensitive person? And I was like, what is this, that I realized this was actually all connected. So how do we know this is all connected, and that it's all part of the same thing?

DR. MICHAEL PLUESS:

So much of that goes back to research conducted by Lena, who's a psychotherapist, and who really developed the concept of sensory processing sensitivity or the highly sensitive person in the 90s. And her research is based on some interviews that you conducted with people that considered themselves as being highly sensitive. And when she interviewed them, those different themes came up repeatedly. And based on that she developed a measure that we're using, and that's probably the BuzzFeed question that you're referring to was based on that as well. So most measures now are based on these and she came to conclusion that there are four different aspects of a sensitive person or sensitivities. So one is the sensory sensitivity that people might be more responsive to bright lights, loud noises, temperature, things like that, so anything that affects our senses. Another component would be, as we already discussed, the depth of processing. Now those people may take a bit longer to make a decision because they think more about it and for longer. Another aspect is emotional and physiological reactivity. And there's a fourth one which is overstimulation. And this refers to the fact that people that are more sensitive are more easily overwhelmed with all the things that happen around them. So if they're in a new situation, for example, they go to a party where they don't know a lot of people, and where there is music, they will just easily feel overwhelmed with all the new impressions. And it will take them a while to get used to that, or they may need a break to recover and then come back in that situation.

JEN LUMANLAN:

Yeah, that definitely rings a bell with me. So as you're sort of listing those things out, and I'm hearing them, I am thinking about how these kinds of things could be perceived by the adults in children's lives. And it seems as though a lot of them can potentially lead to behaviors that adults find difficult. So I'm curious about how adults sort of respond to this and potentially exacerbate this. You know, if I'm at a party, and my daughter's clinging to me, maybe and she doesn't want to go see anyone and I'm finding this really irritating because I want to go talk to somebody, you know, I might perceive this as difficult behavior as behavior that I don't want to see. So can you tell us a little bit about just how sort of temperament and inbuilt traits like that interact with sensitivity and how parents perceive this?

DR. MICHAEL PLUESS:

So my early research focused on infant temperament particularly difficult temperament, which is a term used by some researchers, which is quite seminal research and temperament, that's happened in the 60s and 70s. So a long time ago, they refer to difficult temperament as children that take longer to adjust to changes, that cry easily, or easily scared and upset. That is the description of these children from the perspective of parents.

JEN LUMANLAN:

Yeah.

DR. MICHAEL PLUESS:

And then Jerome Kagan did research on temperament as well. And he referred to such children as highly reactive or an inhibited temperament, which I think is a better description of the fact that some children are more reactive than others, that means they just respond more strongly to whatever they experience. So when we did research on difficult temperament, we found that children that have this temperament trait, often more affected by the negative experiences, but also more affected by positive experiences. So difficult temperament seems to reflect to some degree aspects of more general sensitivity, as we described earlier. So even though it may be perceived by the parent as more difficult because they want to go somewhere or into a new situation for the child, it's overwhelming, or it's difficult for the child, the child will react in ways that maybe are perceived by the parent as being a bit challenging. In fact, it is just the underlying sensitivity of the children. I think, if the parents themselves are sensitive, maybe it's a bit easier for them to understand that. But if they themselves are less sensitive, and they have a fairly sensitive child, they might struggle to understand what's happening.

JEN LUMANLAN:

Yeah. And we'll get deeply into what parents can do to support highly sensitive children in a few minutes. And before we get there, I just want to lay a little more groundwork on the theory, because there are a number of, sort of theoretical approaches to this. And you've discussed one of them already. Dr. Elaine Aron's sensory processing sensitivity. I wonder if you can give us just a brief overview of a couple of the other main theories. And you know, why are there theories about this? Why don't we just know what's going on here?

DR. MICHAEL PLUESS:

Yes, actually, quite a few theories. There are three main theories. They all basically started in the late mid 90s. So the sensory processing sensitivity is based on a personality perspective, or temperament perspective. As I mentioned, Elaine Aron developed that theory or that model, and she looked mostly at adults, so she didn't really develop a theory of how that would've played out in childhood. Though she did write about children, her research is really focused on adults. And then two other theories. So the one is differential susceptibility. This is a theory developed by Jay Belsky, a developmental psychologist and I did my PhD under his supervision, so I was very involved in that theory as well. And the third one is called biological sensitivity to context, which is also one that has been developed by developmental psychologists as well as pediatricians. And those two latter theories are really more developmental theories influenced by evolutionary theory, so they have a slightly different focus in that they are interested in how a child would adapt to the environment over a long period of time, as a way of adapting in ideal ways to the conditions of the environment they find themselves in. So differential susceptibility suggests that some children for genetic reasons would generally be more sensitive than others. That means they are more shaped in their development by whatever conditions they experience across development. Whereas the less sensitive children, they will be more robust to any influences including parenting that they receive. The biological sensitivity to context theory, which has been put forward by Tom Boyce and Bruce Ellis suggests that actually there is a conditional adaptation of the childhood environment. That means in a more challenging environment, children would develop a heightened sensitivity because it would be important for their survival. And also in particularly supportive environments, they would also develop a heightened sensitivity. But in moderate environments that are neither particularly positive nor particularly negative, those children would have a lower sensitivity. So in their model, sensitivity is something that develops over time in response to particular environmental conditions. So all these models have a slightly different background behind them, a slightly different focus, but they all suggest that people differ in their sensitivity, and those that are more sensitive, they're not just sensitive to negative experience, but they also more sensitive to positive experiences.

JEN LUMANLAN:

Yeah. And sort of thinking about where this comes from, why do these differences occur? I know that in the last decade or so researchers have been able to analyze the genetic underpinnings of sensitivity. And I wonder if you can try and help us understand it in terms that a layperson can understand, what researchers have found about the links between specific genes and characteristics related to sensitivity?

DR. MICHAEL PLUESS:

Yes, there's quite a bit of research in the area of genetics. There's quite a bit of movement in that field, so new methodologies emerging all the time. So it's very challenging to keep on top of what is happening. But about, I would say 15 years ago, people were able to study, to be able to measure genes relatively easily. And people have started to look at how genetic factors interact with the environment in so called gene environment interaction studies. Basically, they were testing whether genetic differences will determine whether people respond in different ways to the same experiences they make. And there are several studies there that identified genetic factors. So these are single genetic variants that seem to be associated with an increased sensitivity to both negative and positive experiences, such as a range of genetic variants emerged that seem to have that pattern. But that didn't tell us to what degree sensitivity is genetically determined. For that we need to have large samples of either twins, or even larger samples of non-related individuals where we do get access to molecular genetic data. So a few years ago, we managed to include our measure of sensitivity, that's a short questionnaire completed by adolescents. And we got that into a large twin study in England. And that allowed us to estimate the heritability. So to estimate to what degree sensitivity or differences in sensitivity between people would be explained by genetic factors and to what degree by environmental factors. And all the theories that are mentioned, propose that sensitivity has a substantial genetic component. But whereas differential susceptibility theory with the chest genetic factors play a very important role. The other two theories are not making specific predictions about the genetic, the role of genetics. So what we found, and this is research that we're in the process of publishing at the moment, is at about 47, so roughly 50% of differences in sensitivity between people seems to be due to genetic factors. So about half of the differences that we can observe in sensitivity is determined by genetic factors. That means the other half is shaped by environmental factors, the experiences that people make across life.

JEN LUMANLAN:

Wow, that's fascinating. I guess I would have assumed the genetic factors would have been higher, that this was something that I was born with, and I wouldn't have realized that it was so much shaped by my experiences.

DR. MICHAEL PLUESS:

Yeah, we felt similarly, I expected that the heritability would be fairly high. And as I said, we had research on individual gene variants. And therefore, we expected that, based on the theory, as well as the friendship stability, which was the main framework I was working with at that time, we expected that it would be substantial. Now, a heritability of 50% is a substantial heritability. But it is very similar to other personality traits, and to other common personality traits. But it did highlight several things to us. First, it suggested that yes, genetics do play a role. And we should now conduct molecular genetic studies in order to identify the specific genes, the specific gene systems and biological systems involved in sensitivity. But also there is 50% of the differences are determined by environmental factors, and what are these environmental factors. So that's something that we want to focus on as well. It could be that some of that is due to experiences during the prenatal period, so not necessarily the environment that the child grows up in after the birth, but it could be the prenatal period. We do have some research that we conducted, where we were able to show that that is the case. So it might not just be the postnatal experience, it could be the prenatal environment as well.

JEN LUMANLAN:

Okay.

DR. MICHAEL PLUESS:

And one more thing to say about the Chadic factor. So we also, we already have molecular genetic data on sensitivity and what we can say already, and that is consistent with much, with the majority of research focusing on common personality traits, no, not rare disorders, but a common trait that is found in every individual, is that sensitivity is not the result of a few genetic factors with large effect, but it's made up of hundreds or thousands, most probably many thousands of individual gene variants that all have a small contribution. So we won't find a sensitivity gene. But there are lots of different gene variants that make a tiny contribution to an individual's level of sensitivity.

JEN LUMANLAN:

Oh, interesting. So does that mean that there's never going to be sort of a test that looks for the specific, you know, sensitivity gene, and because they get - because there can't be?

DR. MICHAEL PLUESS:

No, there won't be a test. It's very unlikely that there will be a test for sensitivity gene, but what might be possible in the future is to what we do already now is creating polygenic scores. So we sum up the contribution of all those individual gene variants, and that sometimes allows us to explain a substantial proportion of the sensitivity. So we may be, we're not there yet, but we may be able to explain, depending on the samples, that we get up to 20 or 30% of the variance. So with those polygenic scores, it might be possible in the future to indicate to what degree someone might be sensitive. But I think it will be very challenging, and to do that, for genetics, and what is more promising is to actually use questionnaires or to observe the behaviour of a child. And I think that will give us a better understanding of the sensitivity rather than relying on the genes. It is still important to look at the genetic factors because we, it helps us to understand the potential biology behind it, and to also understand how their genetic predisposition for sensitivity develops over time into observed sensitivity, taking into account the interplay between genetic factors, and there are environmental experiences.

JEN LUMANLAN:

Okay. And so let's start sort of bringing this back up a level now and getting into the more practicalities of what does it mean to raise a sensitive child. And I think you've kind of alluded to your answer to my next question a little bit, but I just want to make sure that we fully understand it. And I think it has been kind of common for research on sensitivity to focus on the negative aspects of the child's environment, and say that a sensitive child will experience worse outcomes when they're faced with worse experiences; whereas a 'resilient' child will have similar outcomes, no matter what experiences they face. Do you agree with that view?

DR. MICHAEL PLUESS:

Oh, my experience is that for individuals that are sensitive themselves, or that know of individual people, the negative experience of it is more salient, is more obvious to them. And they often take the positive sides of sensitivity as granted, and don't reflect on it as much because it's not associated with any difficulties. So they're not as aware of it. I think, yes, in the past, particularly in research, in psychology in psychiatry, the focus was on identifying what puts someone at heightened risk to develop some psychological problems. The focus was in vulnerability, and the models that people use were the vulnerability stress model, or they are for stress model which tried to identify vulnerability factors that increases the risk for someone to develop problems once they experience something negative. So the focus in research has been on that for good reasons, because researchers want to help people that are addressed develop disorders so that they wouldn't develop those disorders. But as a consequence of that, we know a lot more about the negative sides and the positive sides.

JEN LUMANLAN:

And you use this term Vantage sensitivity, can you tell us about what that is?

DR. MICHAEL PLUESS:

So when we conducted research on differential susceptibility, and we're working with that model, we realize that we do have terminology and theories for the negative side of sensitivity as I just mentioned. So the term resilience describes those that are not affected by negative experiences and the vulnerability is describing any individual traits or factors that increases the risk to develop problems. But differential susceptibility suggests that the highly susceptible individuals, those with a high sensitivity, also respond disproportionately more, so much more, show a much stronger positive response to a positive experience than a less sensitive child. And we realized, when we were sharing our research at conferences across the world, there is not really terminology to describe those differences. We don't really have terminology. We don't have words. We don't have theories to describe individuals that people differ in how strongly they respond to positive experiences. And we think it's the lack of that terminology and lack of frameworks to describe such differences. That is one of the reasons that people don't go and investigate this phenomenon, even though it has been found by several people. So we went ahead and decided it would be important to capture the positive aspects of sensitivity. And that's how we decided to refer to Vantage sensitivity as this positive side of sensitivity. So we've published that as a additional construct. So this is another module that's related to sensitivity but captures particularly the positive response or the positive end of sensitivity.

JEN LUMANLAN:

And it also seems to have an impact in terms of how children respond to things like treatment. Can you tell us about your study that looked at the effectiveness of treatment for depression on young girls? Because I found that when absolutely fascinating.

DR. MICHAEL PLUESS:

Yeah, we actually have several studies now that looked at that and found similar findings. So the first study that we conducted was an intervention aimed at improving the mental health and resilience of schoolchildren. This was a universal school based programming. This was delivered to all children of several schools, actually here in London. And what I also did, I included a measure of sensitivity because he wanted to see whether sensitive children would be more responsive to the positive effects of this intervention. And this is exactly what we found. So we found that the more sensitive girl, so this was a girls only school. And girls are particularly at heightened risk for the development of depressive symptoms in adolescence, and the sample was between 11 and 12 to 13 years old. And we did find that those girls that had higher sensitivity scores, they did reduce the depression symptoms, in response to the intervention. And that effect was stable for at least a year after the intervention ended. And in contrast, those girls that scored low on sensitivity, so they were less sensitive. For them, there was no change at all. In depression, they were not affected by the intervention at home. So this is an example of Vantage sensitivity, because the research suggests that some girls like the sensitive ones in this case, were the most sensitive and benefited substantially more from a positive influence, such as a school based Intervention Programme. And it also suggested that if we don't take account those differences in sensitivity, when evaluating interventions like that, we may come to wrong conclusions, because the intervention did work really well in sensitive girls, but it didn't make much of a difference in less sensitive girls.

JEN LUMANLAN:

Yeah, and that was the part that was fascinating to me, right because I mean, how many studies on the effectiveness of interventions for depression are also looking at the sensitivity of the children that the intervention is designed for? Because if 30% of your population is sensitive, and the 70% that is not sensitive is not seeing any benefit from the intervention, then if you don't tease those two things out, your intervention is gonna look like it doesn't work, right? If we actually, it's very effective for a subpopulation.

DR. MICHAEL PLUESS:

Yeah, depending on the sample that we're working with, it could be that we don't see any effect when in fact, there is one for a subgroup. But also, it could suggest that there is a small effect for the whole group. And actually, for a large group of children, it doesn't seem to make a difference. But one important thing is to say about the differences in sensitivity. So I said earlier about a 30% fall into a highly sensitive group. We found in our research that actually there are three groups. So you do have the highly sensitive ones, sometimes referred to as orchids, because they're really beautiful flowers, but they need very particular environments. Yeah, me too. They're very, they're very difficult to grow. But if you manage to provide the right setting for them, the right conditions, they are very beautiful flowers. So this is a metaphor that has been used, I think, is coming from Sweden originally. And then, in the original metaphor, they refer to all the other children the 70, other percent or 80%, as dandelions because they grow anywhere. They're not as glamorous. So we actually found when we used a latent class analysis, in our data that we find three groups and those two groups: we do find the orchids that 30%; we do find dandelions there about 30% at the lower end; but we do find a middle group of about 40%, at least in our sample that's what we generally seem to find. And the middle group we refer to as tulips because there's somewhere in the middle. So when the intervention may work for 30% at the top, it doesn't mean it doesn't work at all for the rest of the 70%. But it may still work to some degree for the ones that don't have sort of a medium sensitivity. And it may be those children with the lowest sensitivity that might be the least responsive.

JEN LUMANLAN:

Okay. Okay, and so before we sort of get deep into the parenting aspect of this, I just want to try and make one more connection between something that we've explored on the show. So I did an episode a while back on Dr. Stuart Shanker's concept of self-reg. And his basic premise is that children are often bothered by things in their environment, like uncomfortable chairs at school and labels and their clothing and things like that. And if we took care of those stressors, then the child's behavior, which seems to be the thing that adults care about the most, would improve. But I literally spent two weeks digging into the peer reviewed research on this, what there is there isn't very much and I failed to find any indication that doing these kinds of things would help children. And all of the researchers that I contacted said that these kinds of things just don't rise to the level of what they consider to be stressors. And I know it's hard to comment on somebody else's work. But I'm so curious to draw out what are the connections here between your work and are there any connections? Dr. Shankar never mentions processing senses sensitivity? He's only talking about sensory sensitivity. And so I'm wondering, could that account for the discrepancy? Or is there something else going on here? What connections you're aware of? What are you comfortable saying on this topic?

DR. MICHAEL PLUESS:

Well, I think the first thing I need to say is that the research on sensitivity is still in a relatively early stage, and particular research on sensitivity in children, and even more so research on sensitivity in children in school. I'm not aware of any research that actually looked at sensitivity in children sensitivity, the way we define it in school. We're actually in the process of running a study in Switzerland, where we look at sensitivity in primary school children. And as far as I know, that's the first study that looks specifically at sensitivity in the school context. I think, what you described about uncomfortable chairs and things like that, yes, that this makes sense. From a perspective of sensitivity. That's what we would expect that sensitive children would be more bothered by things like that. So it is important for them to provide an environment where they're not distracted by things like that. But whether it is or to what degree that would have an impact on them in contrast to other aspects of the school that is an empirical question that as far as I know, has not been addressed yet. We will address that to some degree now in our study.

JEN LUMANLAN:

Excellent. I look forward to that.

DR. MICHAEL PLUESS:

One other thing to say is that uncomfortable chairs, or some of the other things you mentioned, will be a problem for sensitive children, but not for less sensitive children. So if you change those conditions, the children that will benefit from that will be those that are bothered most. And so in general, it may not have a very strong impact on the whole class, unless there are certain aspects of the classroom that are a problem for all the children, which which could be the case.

JEN LUMANLAN:

Okay. All right. Well, thank you for going with that. Okay, so let's talk about the thing that parents really want to understand, which is the link between maternal sensitivity and the child's response. And so maternal sensitivity, I think, is a little bit different way of using the word sensitivity. So can you help us to define what is maternal sensitivity, and then maybe tell us about the connection between maternal sensitivity and outcomes for sensitive and non-sensitive children?

DR. MICHAEL PLUESS:

So in total sensitivity is a quite an old concept really, somewhat linked to attachment theory and refers to parenting practices of aspects of parenting. The fact that it's referred to maternal sensitivity shows that it's a bit of an outdated concept, because there's not much research or there's not much mention of paternal sensitivity. So maternal sensitivity really refers to the ability of a parent to read the signals a child is sending and responding promptly, appropriately to it, and respecting the child's autonomy. So those are the main factors of sensitivity is basically the ability of a parent to understand the child's needs, and to respond to it in the right way and in the right time. So this has been associated with higher attachment security. It has been associated with all sorts of positive outcome. It's a core of positive parenting - is to provide sensitive parenting.

JEN LUMANLAN:

Okay, and so what's the connection between maternal sensitivity, and sensitive and non-sensitive children?

DR. MICHAEL PLUESS:

So several research studies that actually we're looking at mostly difficult temperament as a indicator of sensitivity, rather than sensitivity the way we measure it. There's now more and more studies that also look particularly at sensitivity using our measure. But the studies that looked at maternal sensitivity and how this would, together with sensitivity, shaped the child's development, they usually refer to measures of difficult temperament assessed in infancy in the first year of the child. And several of those studies show that the children that are more sensitive, the ones that have a more difficult temperament, again, I don't like that terminology but it's what is being used in the field, so the more sensitive children, they tend to have more behavior problems, and lower social skills, if they experience lower maternal sensitivity. So parenting of a lower quality basically. So children with the same temperament trait, if they experiencing very high maternal sensitivity, they have less behavior problems than other children, and they have higher social skills than less sensitive children. So in the same context of high maternal sensitive parenting, sensitive children do better than less sensitive children. But if maternal sensitivity is low, they do worse than less sensitive children.

JEN LUMANLAN:

And I think that's a really critical point that I just want to make sure it comes across clearly that if you have a child who is experiencing what we perceive as behavioral problems, that is possible that this is sort of an underlying sensitivity issue. And that I mean, in a way, it sort of puts a lot of pressure on parents right? In the face of what is perceived as difficult behavior to respond in a way that is very supportive of the child, rather than in a way that, you know, if I'm perceiving difficult behavior, I might lash out or respond in a very not sensitive way. But that your response as a parent in these moments, is actually really important to the way that your child responds over time and the way that they develop as a person.

DR. MICHAEL PLUESS:

Yes, but we also need to understand that behavior problems are not necessarily always associated with sensitivity.

JEN LUMANLAN:

That’s where I was going next.

DR. MICHAEL PLUESS:

So a child can have behavioral problems for a whole range of reasons. And in some cases, it may be due to their sensitivity in a context that is difficult for them, and it might then result in behavior problems.

JEN LUMANLAN:

And so here's the golden ticket question. How do parents know if their child is sort of being difficult for reasons of sensitivity or other reasons, and I'm thinking back to a video feedback study that I think you might have sent to me, which found a causal effect. I mean, this is rare in the nursing literature, a causal effect of improved parenting on externalising behaviour, but only for children with a certain gene. So how as a parent do you know, if you have one of these orchid children who's worth the extra effort ? Or if you know your child is acting out for some other reason?

DR. MICHAEL PLUESS:

Well, we're working on developing measures. So there are questionnaires that parents can complete. They're not widely available yet, but there is, I think there is one in Elaine Aron's book, The Highly Sensitive Child. So those questionnaires I think, are helpful to get a sense of whether a child might be particularly sensitive. I think most parents probably have a sense of the sensitivity of their child, and particularly if they have more than one child, and they can see differences between the children that might help them. So I think it's, yeah, as parents get to know their child better than they might see the links between an experience the child makes and the response and some children just seem to respond a lot stronger than others. So I think it might be more difficult if they have only one child, and they can't really make comparison. But yeah, so questionnaires, we just developed a behavioral observational rating scale, where a child is observed in different contexts and then rated by psychologist, but that's a bit a more complicated approach, which is not easily accessible for most parents. And we're in the process of developing additional measures.

JEN LUMANLAN:

Okay. And so we talked a lot about behavior, because parents are often very concerned with behavior, but there's also a large impact of parenting on internalized processes, right, like cognitive and social emotional outcomes. Can you tell us a bit about those?

DR. MICHAEL PLUESS:

I'm not quite sure what you mean, with the parenting affecting rather than externalizing because in psychology, we differentiate between externalizing and internalizing problems. But are you referring to internalizing aspects that may be things that are hidden from us?

JEN LUMANLAN:

And so we've talked a lot about behavior because I think that that's something that parents are often very concerned about. But I'm also thinking about the fact that impacts of sensitive parenting aren't just linked to these what we call externalizing behaviors. And so can you tell us about what effects sensitive parenting has on children's other outcomes?

DR. MICHAEL PLUESS:

Yes, so we often differentiate with externalizing and internalizing problems that children may have, so externalizing ones would be aggression, conduct problems, things like that. And internalizing problems would be depression, anxiety, things like that. And we did find in our studies that parenting of sensitive children does not only influence their externalizing behaviors, but also the internalizing symptoms, internalizing problems, and it's just a recent study where we looked at observed sensitivity in children, we did find that permissive parenting in sensitive children is associated with higher internalizing problems. So those children seem to become a bit more anxious than other children.

JEN LUMANLAN:

Oh, interesting. Okay. And so, I mean, so much of this seems to be about a goodness of fit between the parent and the child. And this sort of, you know, the maternal sensitivities is known, but you know, parental sensitivity and the reciprocity and the cooperation between them. And I'm thinking about a parent that might have maybe one sensitive child and also a non sensitive child or a much less sensitive child, and maybe they have a naturally better fit with one rather than the other. Is it super hard for parents to, you know, really effectively and sensitively parent children with temperaments that are very different from their own?

DR. MICHAEL PLUESS:

I think it is, I think it's definitely is a challenge because every child is different and parents will have to adjust their parenting to each of their children. I think what might be helpful with sensitive children is because of their sensitivity, they are very, they have a good understanding of what works for them or what doesn't work for them. So I think a sensitive child, if left, if provided with the support that the child needs, they probably will figure out what works out for them. And the child itself will have preferences for certain environments or certain things done in a certain way. So it's probably a little easier to work with a sensitive child than with a child that just has behavior problems or struggles with self regulation, self control, where it needs a lot of guidance. A sensitive child might be able to provide some of that guidance for himself.

JEN LUMANLAN:

Okay, and so are there sort of getting super practical here. Are there things that parents can do to better support their children? Like if I'm hearing this as a parent, and I'm thinking for the first time, oh, I'm hearing about this. And I think that my child may be sensitive, what are some of the really practical things that I can do to provide support? I mean, is it around making sure we go to parties early, so that there are fewer people there? And you can get warmed up early? Or is it not going to parties when the child says they don't want to go? Or is that you know, is that overdoing it? And we actually need to make sure that our child does get some social experiences, you know, how can parents know what is the best way to support these orchid children?

DR. MICHAEL PLUESS:

So I think these are really good questions and questions where we don't have that much research yet. So there's a lot of information. There's a lot of information on the web. But much of that is not actually based on research. It's based on people's interpretations and theories and anecdata. So there are some recommendations, we really need to do more research in order to understand what works best for sensitive children. So I think there's some recommendations that are very reasonable and makes sense in light of what we know already. Generally, I would say, we do know quite a bit about parenting practices that are more helpful, and those that are less helpful. And most of what we know about parenting that is helpful will be helpful, or will be particularly helpful for sensitive children as well. So that is making sure that you know, you have a positive relationship with the child to create positive experiences, positive moments, positive interactions with the child and not just focus completely on managing their behaviours, but having fun, the child needs to feel accepted and needs to there needs to be a warm emotional climate for the child. So that's good for every single child, particularly important for sensitive children the same about setting clear boundaries and communicating them well. And being consistent. Now we know all these things are important for parenting. They form part of, of most of the parenting intervention of that out there. All of those things will be important for sensitive children. What I think is particularly important for sensitive children, is that we communicate well with them, because they process things deeply. So we can, by talking to them, and really explaining things, maybe taking more time to do that, we can really use the child steps of processing, because they approach things maybe in a slightly different way, because there might be thinking a bit more about it. And also by preventing overstimulation. But I would suggest, yes, we should not reduce stimulation completely. But we should make sure that the child has exposure, that maybe the child would be hesitant to experience. We should make sure that it gets that exposure, but still making sure that we are aware of the problem, the potential problem for the stimulation. But I think we need to do more research on that. And we have in mind to do that, to know what are the specific things that we can do.

JEN LUMANLAN:

You got your work cut out for you, don't you? You have to come back on in a couple of years.

DR. MICHAEL PLUESS:

So Elaine in her book, The Highly Sensitive Child, there's quite a few recommendations in there, and I think that these are good recommendations. It's for example, how do you punish a child? Now a sensitive child is much more responsive to being criticized for not doing something well. So it's important to adjust how we punish a child if they do something wrong. So that yeah, we just have to just up to the individual child.

JEN LUMANLAN:

Okay. And then I think this is also has a lot of relevance for care outside the home as well. And I know you've looked at the impacts of quality childcare on sensitive children's development. And the results of that study, were a little bit opaque to me, and I'm wondering if you can help me to understand them a bit better, because it seemed as though from the numerical data that the parenting quality was a statistically significant predictor of quite a few positive outcomes for the child and and quality childcare was only linked to one sort of random task about naming objects in a series of pictures. But a bit later in the same paper, you actually showed a fairly significant connection between children's behavior problems, and teacher child conflict and child sensitivity and low and high quality child care environments. So can you help me understand what exactly is going on here? Is childcare a critical factor in sensitive children's development?

DR. MICHAEL PLUESS:

Yes, we found in several studies, usually using the same sample at different ages of the child, we did find that childcare quality has an impact on sensitive children, again, measured with the difficult temperament measure that we had in that particular study. Whereas childcare quality did not really predict any of these outcomes for the children with a less difficult temperament, and we did find that regarding behavioral problems regarding social skills, and several of the other outcomes. But what we also did, we looked at the parenting. So again, since the children were more affected by the parenting, but generally, across all the children, we did find that parenting had a much stronger impact on these developmental outcomes than childcare quality. So even in sensitive children, the parenting that they receive was more important than the childcare. But for when we think about childcare, it is particularly important for sensitive children that we ensure that they go to a childcare facility that is of particularly good quality, because they seem to respond much more to that. A less sensitive child is going to be happy in a range of settings. But it's really the key of that goodness of fit to find an environment that is particularly suited to particular preferences, or that the child has that is more important for the sensitive child and for the less sensitive child according to our studies.

JEN LUMANLAN:

Yeah. And extrapolating from there, my listener Allison, who reached out was really curious about helping children - sensitive children - to succeed in school, because she said that her child really struggles with some of the disciplinary methods that are used in school, and she didn't say exactly what those were. But I would guess it's things like the traffic light system where children are rewarded for good behaviour and shamed for bad behaviour. And I personally think that these systems aren't good for any children. But wondering if there are things that teachers can keep in mind to help them better connect with highly sensitive children and sort of bring about their success in the school environment.

DR. MICHAEL PLUESS:

I'm convinced that that is the case. But again, we don't have much research on sensitivity. In school children, we have lots of people having opinions about it. Yeah. But we always need to ask ourselves, is this based on empirical work? So we are running a study where we are trying to find out those things. Well, I would like to say is that what is really important is that teachers are aware of sensitivity, and that children differ in sensitivity. So that is, I guess, the first step for teachers to be aware that just because a child, you know, doesn't raise his hand very often doesn't mean that the child is inhibited, or is he's not engaged, that could be a sensitive child that is just doesn't want to raise the hand but actually follows the teacher very closely. So often, I think children that are sensitive might be misclassified as being shy, or as being not very intelligent. Whereas it might actually be that sensitive children are particularly focused and actually can do very well in school and are very conscientious and often outperform other children.

JEN LUMANLAN:

So it's sort of about awareness and tailoring, not the lesson, but the way that the teacher interacts with the child.

DR. MICHAEL PLUESS:

think it's the awareness of the teacher, the awareness of the parents about the sensitivity of the child, and to try to create an environment that is optimal for that particular child. And sometimes, that is quite challenging. And it's not as easy to do. And I think there are lots of cultural differences depending in what country somebody is going to school and the class size, and sort of how the children behave with each other and what kind of behaviour is allowed. And whether there is conflict in the school, all those things I would expect that would have an impact. And that's what we were looking at in a research study. I think what will be key is rather than just trying to create an environment that we think would be best for those children to actually have a conversation with the children and ask them what they find difficult in school and what they would prefer. And I know in some cases, it might be that they have some more space to themselves, so they have some time that is less structured to themselves, or some more quiet time where they can work for themselves. So things like that might be particularly important for those children. But yeah, we should really ask how conversations with the children and see what they find particularly difficult. And maybe they have ideas how things could be changed.

JEN LUMANLAN:

I bet they do. We're big into talking to the children on the show. And so just as we sort of wrap up here, you know, we're in the business of raising adults here, as Julie Lythcott-Haims says, you know, we're not about just housing children, we're about raising adults who are successful in the world. And I'm wondering about your thoughts on how we can help sensitive children to succeed and culture that really privileges non sensitive characteristics like risk taking, and extraversion and responding quickly to new ideas rather than taking the time to think about them. What are your thoughts on that?

DR. MICHAEL PLUESS:

Yes, I think that's, again, that depends very much on the culture. In America, American culture is particularly focused on the extroverted. In other cultures, it's actually not that's not the case. I think what's probably the most important is to communicate consistently to the child that their sensitivity is not a problem, but it's also a strength, that the child develops a positive view of their own sensitivity, and that they are aware of the things that they can do particularly well, compared to other children. For example, they might have a really high degree of empathy, they really understand other people really well. They may be very creative, more creative than others, and so forth. So to help them understand the strengths that they have, as a result of their sensitivity, and then helping them to deal with the more challenging situation. So when they feel overstimulated, or when they have a conflict with someone else that might affect them more strongly to make sure to discuss it with them. We did find in one of our studies, actually, that's where we looked at genetics, sensitivity, and the experiences during childhood, that's the genetically sensitive children that had a good environment in early childhood, that they were more resilient than others in adulthood. So it is possible for sensitive children to develop into resilient adults. That doesn't mean that they lose their sensitivity, but our interpretation of these findings is that the sensitive children in the right environment were able to acquire coping strategies that help them to retain a high level of resilience in adulthood.

JEN LUMANLAN:

Okay, so there is hope, then, as it were.

DR. MICHAEL PLUESS:

There is a lot of hope. The children have a lot to contribute and have great potential. And they just have a set of different challenges than less sensitive children and less sensitive children have, as well, a lot to contribute to society. So it's really, our understanding is not that one is better than the other. But these are just different aspects, different personalities, different profiles, that all have their own sets of strengths and weaknesses. And the beauty of it is to have those differences in the same population, because then we will all benefit from all the strengths that everyone has.

JEN LUMANLAN:

That's awesome. Thank you so much for finishing on that note and for sharing all of your ideas and your research with us.

DR. MICHAEL PLUESS:

Sure, you're welcome.

JEN LUMANLAN:

And listeners can find all of the references for the episode that we've discussed today at your parenting mojo.com forward slash highly sensitive. Thanks for joining us for this episode of Your Parenting Mojo. Don't forget to subscribe to the show at YourParentingMojo.com to receive new episode notifications, and the free guide to Seven Parenting Myths That We Can Leave Behind and join the Your Parenting Mojo Facebook group for more respectful research based ideas to help kids thrive and make parenting easier for you. I'll see you next time on Your Parenting Mojo.

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