Anger and Aggressiveness in Highly Sensitive Kids

Written By

Shannon Wassenaar
April 10, 2024

This article has been reviewed by Nurtured First’s team of child development experts.

Lauren’s highly sensitive 7-year-old daughter Jade often behaved aggressively when she was angry. Jade was getting in trouble at school for being aggressive with the teachers and other kids. At home, Lauren felt like she was tip-toeing around Jade, waiting for the next explosive outburst. 

Lauren never felt confident about the responses she was giving and often resorted to extreme punishments or giving in to her daughter’s demands to avoid another outburst.

If you’re a parent of a highly sensitive child with aggressive behaviours, we want you to know that there are other options – you don’t have to cater to your highly sensitive child’s requests or punish them harshly to teach them a lesson. You can work with your child’s sensitivities instead of tiptoeing around them. When you understand your child’s sensitivities more deeply, you can intervene before an outburst, implement loving boundaries to keep them safe and connect with their deep feelings to ensure they feel understood. 

This blog aims to help caregivers like Lauren understand anger and aggressiveness in highly sensitive kids and explores effective strategies for supporting aggressiveness in a nurturing and effective way.

Why Highly Sensitive Kids Are More Likely to Get Angry and Aggressive

Children who are highly sensitive may exhibit behaviours that appear more aggressive than their peers. Aggressive behaviours can be understood as a highly sensitive child’s defence against the painful feelings that overwhelm their brain, body and nervous system. 

1. They are attuned to sensory stimuli: Highly sensitive children are more attuned to sensory stimuli, such as noise, light, or physical sensations, which means they can become overstimulated much easier and quicker than a child with a mild temperament. When they become overwhelmed by these stimuli, they may react with aggression as a way to cope or protect themselves. 

2. They experience heightened emotions: Highly sensitive children often experience emotions more deeply and intensely than their peers. This heightened emotional sensitivity can lead to quicker escalation of conflicts and more pronounced aggressive behaviours when they feel threatened, frustrated or misunderstood. 

3. They have difficulty regulating emotions: Managing emotions and controlling impulses can be exceptionally challenging for highly sensitive children because they experience heightened emotions that override their coping skills. They often struggle to regulate their emotions and resort to aggression as a means of communicating their needs, expressing the depth of their feelings or releasing the sensations in their body. 

4. They are sensitive to social cues: Highly sensitive children have a heightened sensitivity to social cues, such as someone using a sarcastic tone. This means they are more likely to perceive harmless situations as threatening. In response to perceived threats, they may exhibit defensive or aggressive behaviours as a means of self-protection.

5. They are sensitive to others’ emotions: Highly sensitive children tend to be deeply empathetic, taking on the emotions of others. Strong emotions like a parent’s stress or a friend’s sadness can overwhelm them. It really upsets them when something feels unfair. Their strong emotions drives a quick escalation to anger.

6. They thrive on routine: Highly sensitive children thrive on stability and routine. Changes, transitions or unpredictable events are very distressing. Their distress manifests as frustration and anger at the disruption. For example, a change in their school routine or an abrupt switch in activities could trigger an outburst.

Use our 30+ page printable to help your child with their anger!

Child Sleeping

Answers to Common Questions

What strategies can parents use to help their highly sensitive child avoid aggressive outbursts?

1. Start by anticipating potential triggers. 

Understanding the most common triggers can help parents anticipate and mediate aggressive behaviours. Some common triggers for anger and aggression in highly sensitive children include: 

  • Overstimulating environments like bright lights or scratchy clothes can trigger them because of how attuned they are to sensory stimuli.
  • Feeling threatened, frustrated or misunderstood or experiencing someone else’s strong emotions can trigger them due to their heightened emotions and sensitivity to other’s emotions.
  • Change, transitions and unexpected events can trigger them because they thrive on routine. 

2. Recognize the early signs of anger

When we can recognize the early signs, it can help us implement strategies before the aggressive behaviours occur. Some early signs to watch for include:

  • Whining 
  • Crossing arms
  • Clenching fists
  • Furrowed brow
  • Clenching jaw
  • Raising voice 
  • Short, curt responses  
  • Scowling or sighing 
  • Trouble concentrating or focusing 
  • Withdrawing from interaction

3. Shift the environment. 

Whether you’re noticing the early signs of escalating anger or in an environment where you anticipate there might be triggers, focus on shifting the environment. 

Big ways to shift the environment might look like moving the child to another room, stepping outdoors or turning the TV off. Small ways to shift the environment could look like dimming the lights in the room or turning down the volume on the TV.

For example, Lauren can anticipate that her daughter will get angry and aggressive if she’s in a crowded environment for long periods. Before they go to a family birthday party, which will have many triggers for Jade, Lauren can plan a few ways to shift the environment in advance and in the moment.

In advance, Lauren can set a timer on her phone to remind herself to take Jade to a quiet room every half hour to check in with her. If Lauren notices Jade is getting upset or aggressive with the other kids during her visit, she can retreat to this pre-planned quiet spot with Jade for a sensory break. 

Related Post: How to Tackle the Whining Phase

What if I shift the environment and my child still acts aggressively? 

If you’ve shifted the environment, and your child still behaves aggressively, implement firm and loving boundaries around that behaviour. 

Holding a boundary with highly sensitive kids can feel really tricky because, on the one hand, you want your child to know the limits and consequences of their aggressive behaviours. On the other hand, you know that asserting a boundary can feel like a major injustice for a highly sensitive child and result in a huge emotional outburst. However, our highly sensitive kids need our boundaries for their own safety. 

We can assert boundaries in a loving way AND validate all of the big feelings they have. These kids need safe places to release all of the big feelings they have. 

“I love you so much, I won’t let you push your cousins. I’m going to hold your body close to mine right now to keep everyone safe. It’s okay if you need to let out your tears.”

Related Post: 3 Expert Tips to Confidently Set Boundaries

What do I do when I can’t remove my child from the environment? 

When you can’t physically remove your child from the environment (e.g. travelling), it can help to create a calming box in advance to prepare them to cope with potentially overstimulating environments. 

For example, if you’re travelling with a highly sensitive child, it can help to pack the car or your carrying bag with calming items. You might include:

  • Fidgets and squishy toys
  • Headphones or earplugs 
  • Blackout sleeping mask 

For older children, it can help to get them involved in creating cue cards with mantras or images that remind them of calming strategies to take with them in their calming box. 

The more we get to know our child’s sensory needs, the better we can equip them to cope with sensory overload, big emotions and unexpected changes in more effective ways. 

Conclusion: Understanding Leads to Compassion

It’s important that parents, caregivers and teachers understand these kids so they can nurture them compassionately and support their unique needs before, during and after an angry episode. 

Caregivers don’t have to tiptoe around their highly sensitive child’s feelings or punish them to teach a lesson. You can address aggressive behaviour and validate a child’s deepest feelings!

If you have a highly sensitive child who struggles with anger, outbursts, or yelling at you, our Anger Toolkit is the perfect solution to help you and your child! 

The Anger Toolkit printable includes:

  • Engaging activities to help you and your child understand their anger, such as the fillable “It’s Okay to Get Mad” storybook.
  • Fun worksheets, games, and colouring pages to teach your child how to cope with and express their anger.
  • Posters full of soothing mantras and calming tools to hang as reminders around your home or classroom.
  • Plus, so much more!

Explore The Anger Toolkit here!

Get simple parenting tools sent straight to your inbox.

    Article By

    Shannon Wassenaar
    Shannon is a Registered Psychotherapist, Content Specialist, and Highly Sensitive Parent with a passion for understanding, and promoting human relationships. Shannon holds a Bachelors degree in Psychology, and a Masters degree in Psychotherapy. She began her professional career as a trauma therapist, and continues to support families from a trauma-informed perspective. Shannon uses her knowledge and experience to create educational content for parents, and treatment plans to help families flourish. In her spare time she enjoys taking long walks, playing recreational sports, and sipping a hot latte at a local cafe.