When we hear the term supersensor, we often think of a child with sensory needs. For example, a child is who sensitive to certain textures of clothing (including tags!), loud noises, bright lights, and even picky eaters. While our supersensors may have particular sensory sensitivities, there is so much more to term supersensor. In psychology, this term refers more specifically to emotional sensitivity. While doing my training in Dialectical Behavioural Therapy for Children (DBT-C) with Francheska Perepletchikova, Ph.D., I was introduced to the term supersensor. I have been since sharing the list with parents of children, as well as adolescents, that I work with. The list of has helped them to better understand the reasons behind their children’s behaviour. Instead of referring to their children as lazy, defiant, or dramatic, we have been working on calling them what they truly are – supersensors.
If you recognize your child in this list, chances are they are a supersensor.
- Emotionally sensitive children frequently look for ways to avoid effort. Emotions can be draining and use up a lot of energy! Our supersensors may appear lazy or may look for an easy way out. When we ask them to do something, think back on the day. Did they experience a lot of emotions? This could easily explain why they feel too overwhelmed to do even the simplest of tasks.
- These children are usually hyper-reactive, and may exhibit behaviors such as anxiety attacks, physical and verbal outbursts, suicidality, and self-harm. Often times, supersensors are not able to verbally communicate their emotions. As a result, their emotions come out in the forms of anxiety, opposition, or even threats that they will harm themselves or others.
- These children dislike change. They respond well to structure, sameness, and security. Anything new is met with reluctance. Has it ever happened that your child was thrown off by the slightest change in plans? They may have been mentally and emotionally preparing for one situation, and fear that they are not ready for the proposed change.
- They are easily bored. Supersensors require a lot of stimulation and constantly need to be doing something. These children crave excitement and newness. Research suggests this is because of the structure and chemical makeup of the supersensor’s.
- These children have very low tolerance for delayed gratification. Delayed gratification involves the ability to wait to get what you want. Parents of supersensors will be familiar with the phase “I want it and I want it RIGHT NOW!”. Our supersensors have difficulty controlling their impulses and may even feel pain when having to wait for something they want.
- Emotionally sensitive children frequently have difficulty with concentration and rapidly shift their attention. Sometimes, their difficulties related to focusing are directly related to their overwhelming emotions. Other times, supersensors have serious attention problems and are diagnosed with Attention-Deficit Hyperactive/Impulsive Disorder (ADHD).
- They can have a surplus of physical energy and may be viewed as hyperactive. Our supersensors can be highly excitable. This can look like a child who is moving around non-stop, jumping up and down, as well as speaking loudly and quickly. Sometimes, this is a way of getting the emotional energy out. There are also overexcitable supersensors who have intense emotions and, at the same time, show hyperactive signs of ADHD.
- They display impulsive behaviors. Supersensors may regularly do things without thinking. The intensity of their emotional reactions is so high that they may not be able to fully process their urges before they act on them.
- Emotional sensitivity is highly associated with sensory sensitivity, or a low tolerance to sensory stimulation. As described above, some or all of the senses may be affected including touch, smell, taste, sound, and vision.
- These children frequently have severe interpersonal difficulties. Supersensors may have arguments or trouble getting along others in their environment, such as with siblings and parents as well as with peers and friends.
- They have extreme thinking style, such as black and white thinking and catastrophizing. Under high emotional arousal, one’s attention narrows down, and thoughts become more rigid. Black and white thinking is all about being in extremes. Some examples of extremes are “I hate you” vs. “I love you”, “You are the best” vs. “You are the worst”, “This always happens”, “You never let me”. Catastrophizing is when we think the worst is going to happen.
- These children often have difficulty with personal hygiene, such as brushing teeth and taking a shower. Such activities are usually perceived by supersensors as unpleasant and boring. Remember the constant stimulation? there is nothing stimulating about brushing one’s teeth or showering. Therefore, to get our supersensors to engage in these activities, we have to make them exciting or “worth their while”.
Okay, so my child is a supersensor… now what?
As you can image, this list of signs can make many simple, everyday tasks painful and daunting for parents and supersensors alike. In psychology, we often try to work with parents and children using Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) to get changes to occur in either thoughts or behaviours. Other approaches focus on tough discipline and parenting strategies for changes in the behaviours listed above. However, such changes are more difficult when we are working with a supersensor, who is emotionally sensitive and dysregulated.
Many parents I have worked with using a novel and research-based approach called Dialectical Behavioural Therapy for Children (DBT-C) have recognized that this approach produces significant changes in their emotions, actions, and thoughts that other parenting groups or individual therapy have not been able to achieve. DBT-C consists of specialized parent training focusing on emotional validation and effective discipline for emotionally sensitive children. Once parents have mastered the basics, children can learn skills to better tolerate crises and manage their everyday emotions, reactions, and behaviours. These services are offered by Melissa Stern, Ph.D., Psychologist and Linehan Board of Certification, Certified DBT ClinicianTM and our team at Grey Zone Psychology & Wellness. Read more about DBT-C on our website.
Author: Melissa Stern
Perepletchikova, F. (2018). Dialectical Behavior Therapy for pre-adolescent children. In, M. Swales (Ed.), The Oxford Handbook of Dialectical Behavior Theory (pp. 691-718). UK: Oxford University Press.