When I was reading the book Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking, I was especially intrigued by the discussion of Elaine Aron‘s research on the trait of “sensitivity.” I had learned bits and pieces about this trait in grad school, but the trouble with it is that there seem to be about as many names for it as there are researchers who study it (and none of them can quite agree with the others):
Not to mention introversion. Since it is so highly correlated with introversion, some researchers have considered them one and the same. Elaine Aron, for example, thinks the book Quiet is great because it talks about this characteristic in a more positive light. However, she also thinks it is mislabeled as being about introversion when it is actually about the more all-encompassing trait of sensitivity.
Despite this high correlation between sensitivity and introversion, one particular statistic cited in Quiet caught my attention: about 20% of highly sensitive people are extroverts. From the moment I read that I knew I had to pick up Aron’s books and figure out how exactly she defines this trait and whether Addison was one of that 20% (I have since learned that it may be more like 30%). Luckily, there’s also a nifty little online quiz — I love those, don’t you?
If you equate high sensitivity with shyness, timidity, and inhibitedness, there is no rational reason to attach the term to a kid like Addison. But I think my gut was telling me that despite the fact that I have a textbook extrovert, I also need to attend to her sensitivity.
So what exactly is the trait of “sensitivity”? We might be tempted to think of it in terms of our colloquial definitions — touchiness or over-reacting or defensiveness. But the scientific term is actually “sensory-processing sensitivity” and refers to someone who processes sensory input more deeply because of a biological difference in their nervous system. The way Aron most often describes it is that highly sensitive people (or HSPs as Aron lovingly calls them; she is one, after all) become “over-aroused” — sweaty palms, physical tension, mind or heart racing, etc. — more quickly because of sensory overload.
In many ways, that doesn’t sound like Addison at all. I mean, I can drag her around the United States on a 3-week trip and she seems cheerful, resilient, and reluctant to go home to her “boring” life. But there’s also a persistent approach-then-retreat pattern to her social interactions, especially when it comes to physical contact, that made me wonder if perhaps physical contact somehow triggers “over-arousal.” And when I read down Aron’s list, many of them seem to fit, especially “notices the slightest unusual odor.” It’s getting a little awkward to be constantly apologizing when we visit other people’s houses because Addison can’t stop loudly asking, “What DO I SMELL?” with her nose curled up in disgust.
But why would figuring out whether Addison is an HSP even matter? Because there’s good news about parents and highly sensitive children: parenting matters. A lot. There’s also bad news: parenting matters. A lot.
Although I’m far from understanding all the intricacies of genetics research, I’ve been fascinated with a related thread of research on the “orchid hypothesis” — the idea that some children are like dandelions and can thrive in nearly any environment based on their genetic endowment, while others will wilt or die if neglected, but bloom like orchids with careful tending. This theory, when applied to a specific gene (called the serotonin-transporter gene or SERT) that helps regulate serotonin — which is critical to mood regulation — looks something like this. There are three possible gene variations:
- Short/short allele
- Short/long allele
- Long/long allele
Both short variations increase the risk of depression/anxiety, while the long variant appears to be protective. For a long time, then, the short allele was viewed as negative, a vulnerability. But more recently, researchers have found that it is not so simplistic. For example, girls with a short allele of this gene were 20% more likely to be depressed if raised in a stressful environment than those with the long allele. BUT if raised in a stable home, they were 25% less likely to be depressed than their long allele counterparts. Along similar lines, highly sensitive 4-year-olds give more appropriate, pro-social responses to moral questions than do other children, but that difference only continues at age 5 if their parents use gentle, rather than harsh, discipline.
I loved a summary quote in Quiet from child psychologist Jay Belsky, explaining why the parents of highly sensitive children should consider themselves lucky:
“The time and effort they invest will actually make a difference. Instead of seeing these kids as vulnerable to adversity, parents should see them as malleable–for worse, but also for better.”
It was a true light-bulb moment for me in clarifying some confusion I had felt since grad school: how do we reconcile the studies that tell us parenting is critical to children’s development with those that find that it isn’t nearly as important as other factors? Here was at least one possible answer — for certain highly sensitive children, it is crucial, while others may do fine regardless.
Belsky went on to explain the ideal parent for this type of child; one who can “read your cues and respect your individuality; is warm and firm in placing demands on you without being harsh or hostile; promotes curiosity, academic achievement, delayed gratification, and self-control; and is not harsh, neglectful, or inconsistent.” Easy, right?
I have no idea what genetic variants Addison is made of, nor is it clear to me whether she will ever more closely resemble an HSP as she ages (For instance, will she turn out to be conscientious in school? It’s hard to imagine her sitting still long enough at this point, though she did ask me tonight, “Why don’t I get to take spelling tests like the other kids?”). But I’m beginning to more carefully consider what she’s been telling us all along, from about the time she could articulate anything: “I’m a little bit sen-sti-tive.”