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How Do Sensitive Children Respond to Harsh and Fluctuating Family Context?

15th February 2022 - By Zhi Li, Ph.D.

About the authors

Dr. Zhi Li is an Assistant Professor at Peking University, China. Her research seeks to understand child and adolescent risk and adaptation to family and environmental adversity, as well as individual differences in environmental sensitivity at multiple levels of analysis.


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.

Study background and aims

Human development is shaped by multiple experiences. Among these experiences, Ellis and colleagues (2009) have identified environmental harshness (e.g., low family economic resources) and unpredictability (e.g., paternal transitions) as two fundamental dimensions of environmental adversity that influence development.

However, according to theories on environmental sensitivity, the impact that these environmental influences have on development can vary due to individual differences in children’s sensitivity to environmental influences.

The trait of sensory processing sensitivity (SPS) has been advanced as a potential indicator for such heightened environmental sensitivity. More specifically, SPS is a temperament trait that entails a variety of characteristics, including greater depth of cognitive processing, heightened sensitivity and awareness of subtle environmental cues, behavioural inhibition to novel stimuli, and elevated emotional and physiological reactivity and empathy.

Whereas empirical research has documented greater SPS to be a plausible indicator for heightened environmental sensitivity, research to date has not yet examined different dimensions of environmental adversity with respect to SPS simultaneously, and the vast majority of existing work used self-report measures to assess SPS.

In our study (1), we sought to (a) examine the role of two potent dimensions of environmental risk—harshness and unpredictability—on young children’s development of socioemotional functioning; and (b) evaluate whether children with different levels of SPS—measured via observation of child behaviour in the laboratory—may respond differently to these environmental risks.

How the study was conducted

235 families with a three-year-old child visited our lab annually for two years. During the first annual visit, we measured family context and observed the child’s sensitivity.

Environmental unpredictability was indicated by mother-reported family instability (e.g., parent relationship dissolution), chaotic household condition, and more instable neighbourhood context (e.g., neighbours moving in and out).

Environmental harshness was indicated by lower family socioeconomic resources, and greater maternal harsh discipline and lower parental sensitivity when interacting with the child.

Trained coders observed child sensitivity across multiple tasks, capturing key behavioural characteristics of high SPS.

These characteristics include, for example, greater depth of cognitive processing, higher tendency to “pause and check” before acting, careful and inhibited behaviour, greater positive emotionality expressed in a subdued way, and greater empathic attunement towards others.

Finally, at both measurement points, mothers rated young children’s externalizing and internalizing behaviours.

Key findings

As expected, highly sensitive children showed similar behavioural patterns across the various indicators of SPS, reflecting greater depth of cognitive processing, a tendency to be careful and inhibited, and greater positive emotionality, openness to interpersonal relationship, and empathic attunement.

Greater environmental unpredictability was associated with stronger increases in externalizing problems over time. More importantly, and consistent with theories of environmental sensitivity, children with greater SPS responded to environmental unpredictability, but not harshness, in a “for-better-and-for-worse” manner.

On the “for worse” side, high-SPS children (top 25%) exhibited greater increases in externalizing problems over time if they were raised in highly unstable family and community context (see Figure 1).

On the “for better” side, however, high-SPS children also showed lower increases or greater decreases in their externalizing problems over time if their developmental context proved more stable.

In contrast, children with low SPS did not seem to be affected by their developmental context.

General conclusion and implications

This study highlights the role of unstable and fluctuating family contexts, over and above the effect of harsh environment, in shaping child development over time. In addition, the effects of environmental unpredictability seemed to be particularly strong among children with heightened environmental sensitivity.

If these findings are replicated, they may offer guidance for clinical practice. Although children with high SPS are at greater risk for the development of problems in highly unstable contexts, they may also benefit the most from intervention programs designed to mitigate the negative effects of unstable family contexts.

Figure 1



  1. Li, Z., Sturge-Apple, M.L., Jones-Gordils, H.R., & Davies, P.T. (Accepted). Sensory processing sensitivity behavior moderates the association between environmental harshness, unpredictability, and child socioemotional functioning. Development and Psychopathology
  2. Ellis, B. J., Figueredo, A. J., Brumbach, B. H., & Schlomer, G. L. (2009). Fundamental dimensions of environmental risk. Human Nature, 20(2), 204-268