Ep. 84b – Sarah Moore – Are Highly Sensitive Children More Prone To Depression?
Is there a correlation between a highly sensitive temperament and mental health concerns?
Today, our guest Sarah Moore answers a question from a parent who is wondering about the intensity of her son’s emotions. She sees his emotional highs, but notices, even more, his lows and wants to know if she should be concerned.
Sarah is the director of Dandelion Seeds Positive Parenting and the author of her wonderful and newly released book, Peaceful Discipline
Sarah MooreSarah Moore is the director of Dandelion Seeds Positive Parenting, where she offers coaching and counsel around child development, trauma recovery, and interpersonal neurobiology.
She is also the author of her newly released book, Peaceful Discipline, and most importantly a Mom.
Ep. 84b – Sarah Moore – Are Highly Sensitive Children More Prone To Depression?
Rachel Cram – Sarah, welcome back again for your second keynote session. Thank you for being with me again.
Sarah Moore – Sure. Thank you for having me.
RC – Okay. I’m going to jump right into the question because we kind of want to keep these episodes around 15 minutes. And you have so many incredible answers. I don’t want to take up any of your airtime with my chit-chat, so I’m going to jump right into the question for you.
The person wrote, “I found Sarah Moore very interesting and informative and have shared her presentation with all the other adults in my extended family. Thanks for introducing her to us. I think several of us and our kids fall under the highly sensitive temperament category.
Sarah said for highly sensitive kids, “The highs will be higher and the lows will be lower.”
(That’s something, Sarah, you said in your keynote episode.)
I really notice my ten-year-old’s lows. It’s impossible to miss them. His whole demeanor and outlook slumps when things are not going well for him, which is frequent. I would say almost daily he has a difficult spell of time. Something triggers him and he becomes irritable, argumentative and difficult to have around. He has highs too, and maybe I don’t notice them as much, but I’m concerned about the lows.
(Here’s, I think, her big question.)
Is there a connection between high sensitivity and depression? And is there a way to encourage him towards more of the highs? Thank you for considering this question for Sarah.
RC – That’s a big question, Sarah. What are your thoughts?
SM – I am so thankful that this person took the time to ask this question because it is a real concern. So first of all, love, empathy and compassion to those of us who are concerned about our kids, or a partner or a friend, someone we know who is highly sensitive because we want to make sure they’re going to be okay. At the end of the day, that’s what we all want, just to know our kids are going to be okay. And it’s a twofold answer.
The question again is, is there a correlation or a connection between high sensitivity and depression? The answer is yes and no. And I’ll go into both of those. The yes it is, for children who are not raised in a healthy, loving home, for children who are neglected, for children who are not well taken care of in whatever way it may be, there is a connection between high sensitivity and depression.
However, for hopefully everyone listening here, there is also good news. There’s the other side of the coin. When a child is raised in a loving home where the adults are responsive and attentive and caring, there is actually no correlation between high sensitivity and depression. That’s very good news for the kids who are being raised in loving homes. And I will touch very briefly on any anxiety that parents listening might feel about, ‘Is my home loving enough? Am I doing enough for this child?’ And I want to tell you, odds are very good that you are doing enough for the child.
Children do not typically look at individual experiences with us to decide whether or not they are in a safe and loving home. They look at the aggregate of all of our experiences together. So for you parents, that means you get to be human. You get to mess up. You get to have a bad day. You to get to be hangry sometimes or whatever it is you struggle with. You still get to be real. But overall, if you’re average in parenting is pretty good, odds are great that your child is going to be just fine and you will fall in the ‘no correlation between sensitivity and depression’ category.
More good news is that one net benefit of being highly sensitive is that children and adults, are more responsive to positive therapeutic interventions if depression exists. So if you take your average person who’s feeling depressed, a non-highly sensitive person and send them to therapy or give them EMDR sessions or whatever sort of therapy they need, it will probably move the needle. About three out of four people benefit from talk therapy. Younger kids, I would recommend play therapy. And for many of them that will be helpful. However, for highly sensitive people who are depressed, these interventions are more likely to succeed to help pull the person out of depression and get them back to a healthier mental state.
So this is a beautiful story of hope and encouragement about the benefits of high sensitivity, because plainly said, they have a better chance of recovering from depression than less highly sensitive people.
RC – Why is that? Why do they have a better opportunity towards recovery?
SM – The science is a little bit loosey goosey on this, but I will share my professional opinion, which is we know that people who have sensory processing sensitivity, ESP otherwise known as highly sensitive people, are more responsive to their environments in general. So if the therapy is suggesting changes in lifestyle, if people follow through and make those changes to lifestyle, their bodies will respond better to it. If therapy helps them process stress or trauma or whatever their bodies are going to internalize it at a deeper level than somebody who isn’t because we do feel things differently than other people. So we can feel the healing even more strongly than somebody who doesn’t have that deeply feeling nature.
RC – It’s so tricky because we’re so dialed into the moods and emotions of our kids and we want to see them for who they are, and validate who they are. But I wonder, and maybe this is part of what this parent is asking, could a highly sensitive temperament make it harder to notice a mental health concern?
SM – Umm. That’s a really good question.
RC – When I look at this parent’s email they’re mentioning that he has highs and lows. And that he seems to have a lot of lows in his day. That’s what she’s really noticing. Where would a parent start to wonder if their child perhaps isn’t only highly sensitive but is depressed?
SM – Such a good question. Typically, what we look for, and I will preface this by saying I am not a doctor, so when in doubt, please do go to a doctor and have it professionally assessed because there will never be any harm in finding out that either, a/ your child needs support or b/ your child’s okay and just struggle sometimes. So by all means, go get it professionally assessed if you have a concern.
But generally speaking, what we want to look for when observing depression versus overall occasional sadness, even if it’s frequent sadness, are things like; am I noticing significant behavioral change? For example, a child who was previously really interested in maybe it’s a sport or a hobby or schoolwork or friendships or whatever, suddenly that child starts pulling back and not wanting to do those things. I’m not talking about sporadically. I’m not talking about the child who last Tuesday didn’t want to go to the playdate. I’m talking about the child who chronically has checked out from the things they used to care about. Those types of things for me would be the red flags where I would say, absolutely, go get a professional intervention and see if there’s something that needs to be done here. But really, behavioral change. Lack of appetite for a nonmedical reason. Lack of interest in relationships that they were previously interested in. A child who withdraws a whole lot more. For example, maybe you’ve got a child who sometimes likes spending time in their room, but all of a sudden they’re just not really coming out very much anymore. These are the types of things that we want to watch for and get checked out if need be.
RC – Okay. And then she asked towards the last line of her email, she says, “Is there a way to encourage him more towards the highs?”
What do you think about that?
SM – I am so glad this person asked that question because I will say, there is a connection between high sensitivity and anxiety. So that’s something that we need to be aware of because in this day and age we have chronically busy schedules filled with things that may or may not bring us joy. So I have two recommendations. Number one is see what you can dial back. There are very few families right now who are lacking things to do. Most of us have something going on every day of the week and then twice on Sundays. Right. So if we can figure out what can I dial back to make some room for rest, make some room for boredom, make some room for downtime? That, I believe, is one of the key ingredients that we need to bring back in to help restore the collective mental health at a societal basis back to where it needs to be. So number one is, slow down.
Number two is, swap out some of the things that aren’t necessarily adding joy to our lives with things that do. It sounds simple, but in reality we are creatures of habit. And maybe, for example, your child has been going to piano lessons or soccer practice, or whatever it is, every Tuesday and Thursday for the past five years. Well, at some point we need to check in and say, “Are these things actually adding joy to our life?”
If they are fantastic, keep going. But if not, that puts us in a wonderful position to say, “All right, we’ve scaled back what isn’t working, but we’ve also assessed the things we’re still doing that we thought were working, but maybe I can take out one of these things that’s no longer adding joy and I can be really intentional about filling that space with something that absolutely lifts that child up with joy and exuberance because we really do have to be intentional about it these days. It doesn’t just happen magically.
RC – Sarah, thank you so much for your time and for answering this parent’s questions. I have learned a lot from this session as well. I’m kind of eager to get home and start putting some of it into practice with my own highly sensitive people. Thank you for this conversation. I will be back with you again next week.
SM – I look forward to it. Thank you.