Sensitive Children and the Quality of the Early Environment
21st July 2021 - By Sara Scrimin
About the authors
Sara Scrimin is an associate professor in Developmental Psychology at the University of Padova, Italy. Her primary research interests focus on the study of individual differences in psychophysiological self-regulation and the effects of stress on development.
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. Data give important hints on the promotion of interventions providing clinical support to highly sensitive children in the context of particularly aversive environments.
Most families encounter a number of stressful experiences over the course of their lives that can affect the development and well-being of their children (1). Several studies have shown that both traumatic events but also everyday stressors faced by most individuals living in Western countries can affect child wellbeing (2).
Family adversities, such as parental separation, economic disadvantage, or stressful life events are not uncommon in the life of children (3). These events often tend to co-occur and their negative effects on children’s development cumulate.
Nonetheless, most children who encounter adversities early in life are able to adapt and function well (4). The degree of adaptation to family adversities is influenced by the presence of supportive experiences as, for example, the presence of at least one caring parent (5).
In this dynamic and complex picture, we can consider environmental sensitivity as an important characteristic of the child that plays a role in adaptation to challenges and opportunities associated with particular environmental conditions.
As described in the theory of Vantage Sensitivity (6), we expect more sensitive children to be more responsive to both positive and negative environmental conditions.
Hence, in the present study (7) we aimed to assess if sensitive children would benefit more from the support received within the family but also whether they would report poorer health, emotional well-being, and academic and social performance in response to aversive childhood experiences compared to their less sensitive counterparts.
How did we conduct the study?
We interviewed 227 children (mean age 7.05 years) and their parents. First we presented parents with a checklist containing a number of stressful events that a family might experience and asked them to report whether each event had occurred in the life of the child.
Next, children were interviewed on emotional and physical well-being, as well as academic and social performance. Last, they reported on perceived emotional support from the family and caring parental behavior. Environmental sensitivity was measured with the Highly Sensitive Child (HSC) scale (8).
What did we find?
Path analysis (a type of statistical analysis for complex questions) showed that, as expected, the number of family adversities was negatively associated with children’s physical and emotional comfort and perceived academic performance, whereas supportive resources provided by the family were positively related to child well-being.
Of importance, children’s environmental sensitivity moderated these associations amplifying the negative effects of a stressful environment on physical and social functioning and increasing the positive effect of a supportive environment on children’s social performance.
In other words, our study showed that children with a higher sensitivity score responded more strongly to both negative and positive experiences. When exposed to stressful events, the physical and social functioning of more sensitive children appeared to be more impaired than that of less sensitive children. On the other side, the social performance of more sensitive children increased more than that of less sensitive children in the presence of a supportive family environment.
What does this mean and what can we do about it?
Given the strong relation between the supportive resources provided by the family and children’s physical and social functioning, prevention programs should focus on supporting families in order to strengthen such an important resource for the child.
Most importantly, health professionals and policymakers must pay particular attention to sensitive children who grow up facing adversities because these children may benefit especially strongly from targeted intervention programs.
Interaction Effect of Environmental Sensitivity and Family Adversities on children’s Perceived Social Performance (panel a) versus Environmental Sensitivity and Supportive Resources Provided on Children’s Perceived Social Performance (panel b).
- Rutter, M. (1987). Psychosocial resilience and protective mechanisms. American Journal of Orthopsychiatry, 57, 316.
- Sapolsky, R. M. (2004). Why zebras don’t get ulcers: The acclaimed guide to stress, stress-related diseases, and coping-now revised and updated. Holt paperbacks.
- Roberts, Y. H., English, D., Thompson, R., & White, C. R. (2018). The impact of childhood stressful life events on health and behavior in at-risk youth. Children and Youth Services Review, 85, 117-126.
- Masten, A. S., Hubbard, J. J., Gest, S. D., Tellegen, A., Garmezy, N., & Ramirez, M. (1999). Competence in the context of adversity: Pathways to resilience and maladaptation from childhood to late adolescence. Development and Psychopathology, 11, 143-169.
- van Harmelen, A. L., Gibson, J. L., St Clair, M. C., Owens, M., Brodbeck, J., Dunn, V., … & Goodyer, I. M. (2016). Friendships and family support reduce subsequent depressive symptoms in at-risk adolescents. PloS one, 11, e0153715.
- Pluess, M., & Belsky, J. (2013). Vantage Sensitivity: Individual Differences in Response to Positive Experiences. Psychological Bulletin, 139(4), 901-916.
- Scrimin, S., Osler, G., Pozzoli, T., & Moscardino, U. (2018). Early adversities, family support, and child well‐being: The moderating role of environmental sensitivity. Child: care, health and development, 44(6), 885-891.
- Pluess, M., Assary, E., Lionetti, F., Lester, K. J., Krapohl, E., Aron, E. N., & Aron, A. (2018). Environmental sensitivity in children: Development of the Highly Sensitive Child Scale and identification of sensitivity groups.Developmental psychology, 54(1), 51.