Taking a deep look at our family lives, and cultural contexts, and given their heightened sensory capacities, also examining the physical environments they live in, for potential toxic experiences is crucial to understanding the environment that is influencing highly sensitive children’s behaviour. Particularly important aspects of sensory experience to explore are familial experiences, as they can often hide high level of stress for a highly sensitive child.
A type of experience that is crucial yet somewhat invisible is the nature of our social life since highly sensitive people have a stronger activation of brain regions involved in awareness, empathy, and self-other processing (Acevedo et al, 2014)[i]. Awareness and responsiveness are fundamental features of highly sensitive people. This means that our highly sensitive children will have stronger responses to their experience of the social world than other children.
According to Angie Voss, sensory kids are little emotional sponges and co-regulate via those around them. If you are stressed or upset or angry, the child is sure to feel it, 100 times more than a child without sensory processing challenges.
This empathic awareness and responsiveness is however selective. Aron’s team discovered that highly sensitive individuals process information about close others and positive emotions more thoroughly. The researchers postulate that:
“Perhaps this greater response to close others’ positive emotions explains their unusual susceptibility to positive social environments (Pluess and Belsky 2013)[ii]. Whether learned or innate, individuals with greater SPS appear to be reducing their reactions to negative emotional information that may not be particularly salient, as for strangers versus close others. (…) activation of regions involved in awareness, higher order processing, and action planning suggest that HSPs are attentive and preparing to respond to their partner’s needs when happy or sad.”(Acevedo et al, 2014)[iii]
This implies that relationships to family members are extremely influential on the well being of highly sensitive children. The first a child is exposed to and that are vital to self-formation are the relationships to the immediate family. One of the hidden sources of distress of our highly sensitive children can be ourselves. Indeed, the source of our children’s problems can come from the harshness of our own emotions, due to economic or social stressors, which are affecting a child’s empathy. As Family Therapist Marilyn Wedge, Ph.D writes:
“Turning to medication when a child is having trouble at school or feeling sad has become as American as apple pie.(…)
Lately, however, an alternative point of view has been gaining more acceptance. This is the notion that family stress — marital problems, financial issues, illness or injury of a parent, and so forth — can be toxic to children and is at the root of many childhood emotional and behavioral problems. Family therapists have been working with this idea for half of century. But now, many people who are not family therapists but who are concerned with the well-being of children are taking this view seriously. Huffington Post writer Lisa Belkin, for example, discussed this topic in a recent Parentlode column.
Instead of viewing a child’s problem as strictly a biological disorder — whether genetic, epigenetic or biochemical — family therapists find that they can help children best by looking at the child’s nurturing environment. A family is a complex system and, as in all complex systems, a change in one part of the system affects the other parts. For example, a few weeks ago, 4-year-old boy Paulie was in my office because his preschool teacher thought he had ADHD. Paulie had had a personality change seemingly overnight. From a sweet well-behaved child, he changed into to a little monster who wouldn’t obey his teacher’s simplest request. When I asked Paulie what was troubling him, he said he was worried about his father because his father had lost his job and cried all day.
Some people may be amazed that a 4-year old child could be so tuned in to his father and have behavior problems because of a father losing his job. To a family therapist, however, this kind of situation is business as usual. We see it every day. “(Wedge, 2011)[iv]
According to HSP Health, social stresses are common and varied for highly sensitive people. Some more common ones are moving, adding to the family, marriage, divorce, family members having difficulties, heavy social expectations, etc [v]. This suggests that our own self-reflection and self-awareness is essential to our highly sensitive children’s well being. Here lies another difficulty, it is much harder to look at ourselves and deal with our own stressors and toxic behaviours than to look at those of another. Yet, without this work, we may continue to unintentionally harm our children despite medications, therapies, etc.
But social stress is only one of the many types of stress that can affect a highly sensitive child. Besides social lives, the environment must also be considered, the world having a very important influence on a highly sensitive child. According to HSP health, HSPs suffer from typical everyday stresses and some types of stress unique to them due to their different biological makeup. The most common types of stress include: physical stress, emotional stress, mental stress, social stress, process and time stress, cultural, systemic and value stress, elements we will now examine.
Environmental or World Experiences: Space as Powerful Sensory Input
Another important part of the process is to begin to observe within which environment a child is comfortable in and which one he/she is not.
Researchers Nilda Cosco and Robin Moore explain that well-being is a balance between health human processes (psychological, physical, spiritual) and healthy environments (landscapes, weather, built environments, and the social circumstances of daily life) (Cosco and Moore, 2009)[vi]. They consider that physical environments and behaviour (physiological response to stimuli) are indissolubly linked and that behaviours can emerge from our interactions with the environment. Their spatial and temporal boundaries are identifiable and their functions are independent of other adjacent ‘eco-behaviours”.
This can explain why highly sensitive children’s behaviours seem unlike other children in certain situations. The sensory input they receive from the environment has a deeper impact on how these children formulate their sense of self, their identity and how they perceive reality.
The differences in the attention a highly sensitive child gives to the processing of sensory information means that experiencing the subtle qualities of the world at large influences his or her well being:
“A number of researchers are finding that children who are highly sensitive and raised in a stressful environment are prone to anxiety and depression, which are the components of neuroticism, and to shyness, which is sometimes the cause of introversion. However, when raised in an enriched, supportive environment, those with this “differential susceptibility” are actually happier, healthier, and more socially skilled than others. In both outcomes, it seems that sensitive children are paying more attention to subtle cues indicating, for better or worse, what others are thinking and feeling.” (Stoney Brook, 2010)[vii]
This reinforces the importance of observing and reflecting on the spatial, temporal, and social environment of a child. Schools, daycare, community centers, stores, malls and other social spaces (particularly new contexts) that children attend can be subtle sensory traps (too much noise, visual stimulation, unusual heat, smells, ambient lighting, large amount of chemical trails from products, etc). For highly sensitive children they can also be spaces where their empathy is overloaded by other peoples’ emotions. As with our own lives, it is important to evaluate the quality of the environments with the specific sensory triggers of a child in mind and to provide solutions for the distressing sensory input, such as headphones, caps, etc. It is also important to evaluate the environment for subtle toxic inputs such as air born pollution, or any sensory-based pollution (noise, visual, heat, clutter etc) or people stress.
These dimensions can have positive or negative impact on the senses, the key is to examine whether a balance exist between these dimensions and whether they are saturating a highly sensitive child’s senses.
As aboriginal health models suggest, a connection to nature is crucial to health. Given that they are inter-connected with the world, it is important to insure highly sensitive children have access to nature. This in order to help them balance the senses and feed them with the natural and uncensored sensory input they crave.
A child who has no access to nature may be overwhelmed due to a lack of natural sensory inputs. It is known that natural and green spaces help children to better focus (Kuo and Taylor, 2009)[viii]. Such research introduces an environmental/spatial dimension to a health models. It is working within a “social ecology of the landscape model” that creates an important dimension to how children make sense of their world: time and space. This model recognizes that children perceive the world via experiences, learned skills and spatial understanding (Moore and Young, 1978 [ix]).
Allowing children to experience the natural and man-made elements in their living environments would generate cognitive, social, and physical skills developments. According to Moore and Wong (1997), play in outdoor environments stimulates all aspects of children’s development more readily than indoor environments. Moore (1986) also claims that children who play in nature have more positive feelings about each other. [x] Nature is also the place where children can develop feelings for the animal and plant kingdoms and develop a holistic sense of empathy for these other species.
From a sensory lens, children calibrate their senses from inputs that emerge out of the environment. When children are outside, they respond to their environment intuitively, they move within nature, climbing trees for example.
But other elements are important. Architecture and the nature of our living spaces have a greater influence on our sensory health than we think. Urban landscape research indicates a relationship between sensory perception of natural environments and human health. One hypothesis is that people perceive green spaces in terms of certain dimensions, where some dimensions are more important and preferred than others with respect to restoring people from stress. (Grahna and Stigdotterb, 2010).[xi] One study aimed to identify and describe the perceived dimensions in nature; identify which dimensions people in general prefer; and identify a combination of the dimensions people reporting stress prefer. The results identified and described eight perceived sensory dimensions: Serene, Space, Nature, Rich in Species, Refuge, Culture, Prospect and Social. . People in general prefer the dimension Serene. The dimensions Refuge and Nature are most strongly correlated with stress, indicating a need to find the most restorative environments. A combination of Refuge, Nature and Rich in Species, and a low or no presence of Social, could be interpreted as the most restorative environment for stressed individuals.
In the world of children, Architectural researcher Hazreena Hussein[xii] studied the use of sensory gardens by children with special educational needs. This study found that users spent a longer time in zones where sensory, rather than aesthetic value, was emphasized. As Hussein retraces, researchers have for over 15 years explored the implications of the built environment and children’s active living.’ (Gibson and Pick[xiii], 2000).
Researchers Gibson and Pick introduced three concepts that can help us understand these implications: affordance, information and pickup information. Affordance is defined as the functionally significant properties of physical opportunities and dangers, in which an organism perceives while acting in a specific setting (Gibson and Pick, 2000; Heft, 2001[xiv]; Kytta, 2003[xv]). The environment features as a property of the relationship between the environment and the users and the possibilities that a place can offer users, whether or not the landscape architects intended those possibilities. Thus the importance to ‘examine the relationship between the functional properties of the environment and how environments are used’ (Clark and Uzzel[xvi], 2002:95) as it can help us to understand the impact of the physical environment on children and to identify environmental attributes that are associated with specific behavioural responses.’ (Gibson and Pick, 2000).
In addition, the environment provides information to children. As Hussein[xvii] explains, the environment provides information as ambient arrays of energy that is structured by surfaces, boundaries, events, objects and layout of the environment (Gibson and Pick, 2000). The information perceived changes depending on the perceiver’s movement (sitting, standing, walking, etc.) and their senses (sight, hearing, taste, touch and smell). These changes are essential for identifying, extracting and describing information about where one is, where one is going and what one is accomplishing. For example, users passing through the sensory garden often stop for a while to engage with the features that are adjacent to the pathway. Their engagement enables them to experience different views of the garden.
Finally, children pick up information either in an exploratory and performatory manner (Gibson and Pick, 2000). As Hussein explains: the former permits children to discover the new properties of the environment and also about their own capabilities, while the latter is the outcome of already learned affordances and this relates to actions directed towards objects or an individual(s) within a setting for an intended purpose, for example, throwing, hitting, etc. “Perception and action are closely intertwined in both exploration and performance, and learning is an important outcome of both types of action” (Gibson and Pick, 2000:21). This explains why researcher Sebba articulated that: “Children judge the natural setting not by its aesthetics but by how they interact with the environment” (Sebba, 1991[xviii]). Our visual culture imposes visual aesthetics as the norm and in this process impoverishes the sensorial experiences of space. As Hussein wrote:
“Landscape architects think that aesthetic value should be the key goal but ‘sensory value’ is the crucial design aspect, given that users are engaged with the features, and are involved with greater use of their senses than just the visual and appreciation of the aesthetics. What the site or features look like visually is much less important than how it feels, sounds, smells and tastes, as users, who get access to the features are very important.”[xix]
While for centuries, we have designed our spaces from a disembodied visual aesthetics; we need to design spaces that children inhabit from an experiential perspective that includes sensory and spatial considerations. A sensory gifted child, and I would argue any child, is not born to care about the visual aesthetics of a garden as he/she uses the features the way he/she wants to use them. When examining the sensory well being of a highly sensitive child, it is important to question the quality of their environment from this experiential spatial perspective. Do the highly child have access to green space within the home and outside the home? How sensory rich is that environment for that child’s sensory needs?
Aspects of our culture also influences sensory health. Living conditions, financial issues, cultural pressures, etc, all play a role in health. As Pip Waller explains:
“For most systems of medicine in the world, the spirit is in charge, healing must happen in the spirit and healing comes from the spirit. You are your body, but you are more than your body: your thoughts and feelings affect your physical reality far more than you may realize. You do not exist in isolation: your relationships, from the beginning of your life to the present, have formed and continue to form you. If your family is sick, you are affected. If your community is sick, you are affected. If your society is sick, you are affected. “(Waller, 2010, p. 318)[xx]
With no uniform definition, culture and tradition are fluid concepts and often change over the lifespan. It is not an easy theme to capture within health determinants, however, it is a necessary determinant for health. Part of the issue is helping our children understand that their anxieties and suffering is located across time but also across a much larger system as Gabord Mate explains:
“If individuals are part of a multigenerational family system, families and individuals are also parts of a much larger whole: the culture and society in which they live. The functioning of human beings can no more be isolated from the larger social context than can that of a bee in a hive. It is not enough, therefore, to stop at the family system as if it determined the health of its members without regard to the social, economic and cultural forces that shape family life.”[xxi]
Since Highly Sensitive children are not responding healthily to typical acculturation and socialization, as parents we must learn to begin to heal the generational pain that culture, traditions and families can generate. This generational pain must be addressed and acknowledged in order to be eventually overcome in order to be able to begin the process of healing essential to our children’s well-being and self-realization.
As we saw in chapter 3, researchers have observed that both the gifted, highly sensitive people, introverts, autistics and ADHD kids share a common attribute, which is to not respond well to socialization or acculturation. (Aron, 2010 [xxii]; Dabrowski, 1967[xxiii]; Hartmann, 2003[xxiv]). Given the normalized suppression of empathy, and that these children operate from a place of empathy based on an acute awareness of themselves, their environments and other beings, it seems logical that to survive, their being must trump cultural and social suppressive ways.
Our sensory gifted children must be given a safe space where they can explore life outside of typical acculturation and socialization which can seriously damage them.
Not fitting within culture can create cultural stress. Cultural stress is created when there is a poor fit between the person and their societal structures. It can also emerge from competitive culture, activities and rituals, expectations of conformity around marriage, parenting, and life purpose.[xxv]
Culture can damage highly sensitive children in other ways. Cultural discourse is integrated or rejected in the being of a highly sensitive person at a much deeper level. To a highly sensitive child cultural lessons are often anxiety producing as the child will consider the narrative within a broader more holistic perspective than just discursive and social. For instance, lets take how schools discuss the environment. The education children receive is to help forge in them values of “green” life. I have witness my child coming home quite distraught at the impact we are having on animals and all living things, which are affected by our actions. Of course most children feel this way, but a highly sensitive child’s empathy make them feel this as a terrible internal pain. Many of these children may be focusing on the impact to the animals and thinking about their pain.
Another type of stress that can come from our culture is what HSP health refers to as process stress. Process stress refers to any situation, which is poorly, managed resulting in lots of crises and unnecessary problems. Often process stress comes from our relationship with institutions but it can occur in any area of our lives. Many people experience process stress in working with our healthcare system.
Depending on the culture around sensory experiences, a child can learn to cope or to suppress these inputs. Cultural learning that does not support sensorial literacy puts them at a disadvantage. It leads their emotions towards negative emotions and stress and their believes also become negative, plague with self doubt and low self-esteem as their way of being and perceiving tends to be defined as a disability or illness. Thus the importance for us as parents to be willing to suspend out own cultural understanding of the senses.
There is another dimension to be incorporated in what is referred to as our environment, as space is no longer just green/architectural, it now has an important mediated dimension, which must be addressed.
Mediated Spatial Experiences
Two kinds of mediated spatial experiences influence how a child behaves. First, the mediation parents provide with the environment. From their birth, parents, particularly mothers, play an important role in soothing a child and mediating their experiences. Parents are sensory buffers who physically protect their children but also offer a model as to how to understand certain stimuli. Sometimes, a simple touch, or word, can help a child reposition him or herself within his or her body. This may explain why children with heightened senses are often reluctant to experience the world without their parents.
Second, we must consider the mediation technology offers to the child. Especially within urban settings, we live in a spatial man-made reality that our bodies and senses were not designed to live in. While each new generation is slowly adapting to these innovations, the current rate of change is accelerating.
Technology has an important place in our notions of identity. According to Roy Ascott[xxvi], through our engagement with Second Life and other virtual worlds and virtual communities, we have a sense not simply of being distributed a-synchronically but of being multiple, with multiple identities, effectively rejecting the existential single-self. Increasingly we recognize that we inhabit phase-space, and live in non-linear time. Indeed, virtual spaces such as Minecraft are social playground where children embody their technological self.
An important aspect of media and technology is there social role. We now exist in a matrix of individual and collective uses of media reinforce certain cultures and social norms but can also influence our perception of experiences and alter our behaviours. Thus, it exists as its own dimension, an extra layer that influences how we exist bodily and in space as seen in the figure below.
Our technologies and forms of communication are changing faster than our sensorial bodies can adapt. Today, these systems of communication are overloaded with technological energies and messages. Our most innate and intimate communication system has been colonized and to a large extend polluted.
Not only do highly sensitive children define themselves through space, spatial signals nourish their senses and are vital to their well being. When space is polluted, the senses take in these toxins and become irritated but when space is clean, the senses harmonize with the environment. These inputs affect the calibration of the senses and the balance of the health determinants, which, in turn, influence how one can perceive, process and respond to spatial communication signals. As we saw, anxiety, for instance, leads to the release of stress hormones that recalibrate the senses to a “fight or flight” state. Sensitivities increase, pain and/or irritability become a dominant sensation and our interactions with the world become negative. But when well being is achieved, happy hormones are flowing and our senses read the environment in a way that promotes and increase harmony with the environment.
According to the news article “What’s wifi doing to us? Experiment finds that shrubs die when placed next to wireless routers”[xxvii], some are beginning to express serious concerns regarding wifi signals and the health of plants and animals. One research study, driven by the municipality of Alphen aan den Rijn, in Holland, tried to explain abnormalities on trees in the city, including bark-like tumor nodules. The TU Delft, TNO, Alphen aan den Rijn and Wageningen University’s study showed that that trees exposed to wireless radio signals suffered from damaged bark and dying leaves. Trees placed closest to the Wi-Fi radio developed a ‘lead-like shine’ on their leaves that was caused by the dying of the upper and lower epidermis. This would eventually result in the death of parts of the leaves, the study found. In the Netherlands, about 70 per cent of all trees in urban areas show the same symptoms, compared with only 10 per cent five years ago, the study found. Trees in densely forested areas are not affected.
But scientists have expressed scepticism about research such as this. Nevertheless for a highly sensitive person these findings may be very important as this suggests that these signals have more of an effect on the environment than we realize. What this means long term is unknown. But given how central digital life is to many children’s lives, these findings can indicate that children are being constantly doused in low-level magnetic radiation.
In the article “This Is What Wifi Signals Would Look Like If We Could See Them”, M. Browning Vogel, Ph.D., an astrobiologist and former employee at NASA Ames explains:
“Wifi is an energy field that is transmitted as waves. The waves have a certain height, distance between them and travel at a certain speed. The distance between wifi waves is shorter than that of radio waves and longer than that of microwaves, giving wifi a unique transmission band that can’t be interrupted by other signals. (…)
Wifi waves travel through space as rapid, data encoded pulses or waves. (…) Wifi routers are basically antenna that can send data over multiple frequencies all at the same time. (…) The data from these multiple frequencies swirls around in space as shown here, but can be translated using a common tag system understood by wireless devices.“ [xxviii]
For highly sensitive children, the undetectable waves may be detectable and influence sensory processes.
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