Parenting Quality and Sensitive Children
9th May 2020 - By Francesca Lionetti
About the authors
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.
Parenting quality matters for all children, but especially so for children that are more sensitive.
Highly sensitive children are at greater risk to develop behavioural problems than less sensitive children when experiencing harsh or permissive parenting. However, research also shows that sensitive children do exceptionally well when parents provide a warm and caregiving parenting style combined with sensitive disciplinary strategies.
Do sensitive children develop more problems?
A large number of research studies show that highly sensitive children are more likely to suffer from behavioural problems, particularly anxiety and depression, but also excessive crying, medically unexplained physical symptoms, as well as sleeping, eating and drinking problems, when compared to their less sensitive peers .
In addition, children that are more sensitive to their surroundings tend to be more negatively affected by environments that are less than optimal, whether in school or in the family at home. This is mostly due to the tendency of sensitive children to perceive and process information about their experiences more deeply.
According to research chaotic environments, unexpected changes, and being faced with low-responsive parents, to mention a few examples, is particularly difficult for highly sensitive children. They often struggle more than less sensitive children under such conditions. Hence, this seems to suggest that raising a highly sensitive child comes with significant challenges.
However, sensitivity has also benefits. Children that are more sensitive have been found to benefit particularly strongly from positive, supportive, and appropriately structured environments, compared to their less sensitive peers. Because sensitive children are more perceptive to what is going on around them than other children, they tend to absorb the positive aspects of supportive rearing environments and flourish significantly more than less sensitive children.
Importantly, these differences have been confirmed in empirical research. Several studies on the effects of parenting quality in children at different ages and from different countries found that sensitive children benefit significantly more from supportive parenting practices compared to less sensitive children [2, 3].
These studies have shown that highly sensitive children tend to develop better social competences and fewer behavioural problems than their less sensitive peers when experiencing a particularly supportive environment. In other words, even though sensitivity has been sometimes associated with problems, sensitive children tend to develop a great deal of competences and actually fewer problems than others when growing up in a supportive and caring home.
How can parents help their highly sensitive child to flourish?
Several studies investigated the role of parenting quality for the development of highly sensitive children and we can learn from them how to parent a sensitive child.
The first study was conducted in the Netherland  and investigated children’s development in relation to the parenting quality they experienced when children were between 3 to 7 years old. The second study, led by my colleagues and I  examined the effects of three different parenting styles on sensitive children’s development in a group of 3 to 6 years old children in the USA.
Results from both studies support the notion that negative parenting practices, such as harsh and permissive parenting, have a greater negative impact on children that are more sensitive. In other words, for sensitive children such negative parenting practices have been associated with the development of a range of problems, including anxiety, depression and aggressive behaviours. This was less so for children with a low degree of sensitivity.
But when children experienced positive parenting practices, such as a high responsiveness to the child’s emotional needs and warm but consequent parenting style, sensitive children developed more advanced social competence when interacting with peers and fewer behavioural problems than less sensitive children that experienced the same kind of positive parenting.
What does this mean practically?
The summarised studies show that a warm and responsive relationship with parents who are setting and enforcing positive and sensitive rules (sensitive disciplinary strategies) is of particular importance for the positive development of highly sensitive children.
Importantly, research suggest that although raising a sensitive child can be challenging, every effort of parents to provide a positive environment is well invested with sensitive children, given that they are so responsive to positive experiences.
Fortunately, it is possible for parents to improve their parenting skills. Parenting programmes that help parents to learn positive parenting practices might be particularly helpful and of value for parents of highly sensitive children.
- Boterberg, S., & Warreyn, P., Making sense of it all: The impact of sensory processing sensitivity on daily functioning of children. Personality and Individula Differences, 2016: p. 80-86.
- Slagt, M., et al., Sensory Processing Sensitivity as a Marker of Differential Susceptibility to Parenting. Developmental Psychology, 2018. 54(3): p. 543-558.
- Lionetti, F., et al., Observer-Rated Environmental Sensitivity Moderates Children’s Response to Parenting Quality in Early Childhood. Developmental Psychology, 2019.