We investigated highly sensitive children’s behaviour during the COVID-19 lockdown in Italy. Sensitive children showed fewer behavioural problems when experiencing a positive and supportive family environment at home during the lockdown.
In Western cultures, lay perceptions and norms around wellbeing tend to emphasise being socially outgoing and high-arousal positive emotions, but not all people experience wellbeing in this way. In our study, we set out to explore what highly sensitive people do to maintain their wellbeing.
We found that unpredictability of the environment was predictive of greater increases in child externalizing problems. Furthermore, children with greater sensory processing sensitivity were more affected by an unstable context, showing greater increases and decreases in externalizing problems when raised under highly unpredictable versus stable context, respectively.
Theory suggests that differences in sensitivity are due to characteristics of the brain. We conducted a study to test whether certain brain regions predict sensitivity in a sample of boys. We found that boys with a larger amygdala were more sensitive to the quality of their childhood environment.
In our recent study, we examined whether children’s “dove” temperament, characterized by a low threshold of environmental stimulation and greater behavioural flexibility, may reflect environmental sensitivity.
In a study following children from 3 to 12 years, we found that the combination of high sensitivity and permissive parenting increases the risk for the development of internalizing symptoms. Sensitive children who experience higher levels of early permissive parenting are more likely to develop ruminative coping strategies and consequently depressive symptoms.
Highly sensitive adolescents tend to report higher levels of COVID-19-related distress. However, our findings suggest that resilience, defined as the ability to bounce back from adversity, may play an important role in adolescents’ mental health during a pandemic.
In a recent study, my colleagues and I examined resting-state brain connectivity in relation to sensory processing sensitivity (SPS). We found that the more sensitive individuals showed stronger resting-state brain connectivity indicative of greater memory and higher-order deliberative processing.
Our study examined children’s well-being in the presence of childhood adversities and support provided by their families. The role of children’s sensitivity to environmental influences was investigated as a potential moderator of both the positive and negative effect of the environment on children’s development.
Different cultural views on sensitive behaviour can complicate the measurement of innate levels of sensitivity.
To explore this issue further, we tested the Highly Sensitive Person scale in the most culturally diverse setting to date: the rainbow nation of South Africa.