Investigating Sensitivity Through the Lens of Parents
20th November 2023 - By Alessandra Sperati and Dr Francesca Lionetti
About the authors
Alessandra Sperati is a PhD student at the University of Chieti-Pescara, Italy. She works on the development of sensitivity measures for infants and school aged children. Her research interests include parenting and attachment relationships as well as the interplay between sensitivity and environmental influences in the prediction of developmental outcomes.
Dr Francesca Lionetti is a developmental psychologist and a researcher with expertise in parenting, attachment, socio-emotional development and Environmental Sensitivity. She has contributed to the development and validation of sensitivity measures for infancy and childhood and is involved in the longitudinal investigation of how sensitivity develops and interacts with the environment.
We validated the Italian parent-report version of the Highly Sensitive Child scale in three studies. We found that the parent-report version of the HSC scale is a psychometrically robust measure that reliably captures individual differences in children’s response to environmental influences.
What is the background?
Empirical evidence highlights the fact that children differ in their response to the environment, with some showing a heightened environmental sensitivity for better and for worse (1; 2).
Such highly sensitive children are indeed more prone to suffer when exposed to negative rearing experiences but also benefit more from supportive environments compared to less sensitive peers.
In order to assess sensitivity in children, researchers have developed multiple measures that take children’s age into account, ranging from self-reported to observational measures.
Among these, questionnaires are most popular to assess individual differences in sensitivity as they are easy to administer for both researchers and practitioners. For example, when it comes to assessing sensitivity in school-aged children and adolescents, the Highly Sensitive Child scale (HSC) (3) is one of the most widely used self-report measure.
For younger children, such as three year olds, observational measures are available (4; 5) but these are time consuming and often require complex laboratory setups.
How else can we measure sensitivity in young children?
A reliable parent-report version of the self-report HSC scale (3) would seem a promising tool for easily assessing sensitivity in younger children. It has also the potential to be adopted by parents to deepen their understanding of their children’s characteristics, and by practitioners working in the field, to better tailor support and intervention programmes.
A parent-report version of the s HSC scale has been tested for the first time longitudinally in a Dutch sample with promising findings (6). However, no studies have explored whether such a parent-report scale performs well in terms of psychometric characteristics across different ages and countries. Moreover, we do not know yet to what extent the parent-reported sensitivity is independent of other traditionally assessed temperament traits.
In our multi-study work (7), we addressed three questions:
- Does the HSC parent-report have the same factorial structure like the widely used and validated HSC self-report scale (Study 1)?
- What is the association between sensitivity captured with the HSC parent-report and other traditional temperament traits (Study 2)?
- Does the HSC parent-report capture individual differences in children’s responses to the environment? (Study 3)
What we did
In Study 1, we involved 1,857 Italian children with their families, recruited from kindergarten up to primary and secondary school (2.6 – 14 years). Mothers filled out the parent-report Highly Sensitive Child scale (8).
In Study 2, we asked a subsample of 327 mothers of preschoolers from Study 1 to complete a broader set of questionnaires, including a measure of child temperament.
In Study 3, we asked an independent sample of Italian mothers of 112 school children (5 to 8 years old) to fill out questionnaires on their child’s emotion regulation competencies as well as to report on parenting stress, as a marker of the emotional climate in the parent–child relationship experienced at home.
What we found
Our first important finding was that the parent-report version of the HSC scale has good psychometric properties across a wide age range. This finding means that the HSC-parent report is psychometrically robust and reliably captures sensitivity in schoolers and pre-schoolers as assessed by the parents.
More specifically, we found evidence for a general sensitivity factor and three specific factors, as in the HSC-self report scale, namely Aesthetic Sensitivity, Ease of Excitation, and Low Sensory Threshold. In addition, we found that the item “My child doesn’t like watching TV programs with a lot of violence in them” worked well in school-aged children but not in pre-schoolers, suggesting that this item should not be considered in very young children.
Another important finding was the fact that sensitivity measured with the HSC parent-report scale is different from other well-known temperament traits. More specifically, we found evidence suggesting that sensitivity is related to other temperament traits (i.e., negative affect, extroversion, and effortful control) but does not completely overlap with any of these, nor with their combination.
Finally, children perceived as more sensitive by their parents were more influenced in their emotion regulation competencies by parenting stress, compared to low sensitive children. In other words, we found that highly sensitive children showed lower emotion regulation abilities when exposed to a rearing environment characterized by high levels of parenting stress.
At the same time, though to a slightly lower extent, they also benefited more from lower levels of parenting stress, showing higher emotion regulation competencies than less-sensitive children (See Figure 1).
What are the next steps?
To further explore and improve the parent-report version of the HSC, future studies should consider the inclusion of fathers as raters of children’s sensitivity to explore whether findings are similar between parents. In addition, some items may need to be revised, especially for younger children.
Finally, future studies should use observational measures which are more objective for both the quality of the environment and children’s developmental outcomes, as well as investigating differences in sensitivity to positive and supportive environments more directly.
It is possible to measure sensitivity reliably in children using the Highly Sensitive Child scale parent-report version. This allows for the possibility to identify children who are more at risk of dysfunctional outcomes but also more likely to flourish in supportive conditions.
Figure 1. The moderating role of ES measured via the HSC parent-report in the association between parenting stress and children’s emotion regulation competencies.
Note. Each line represents the relation between parenting stress and emotion regulation conditioned to the 30th and the 70th percentile of HSC parent-report scores (respectively 4.17 and 5.33) and bands represent the uncertainty of estimates (95% Confidence Interval) (N = 112)
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