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Empowering your highly sensitive child with an eating disorder

Empowering Your Highly Sensitive Child with an Eating Disorder

It’s very common for people who have an eating disorder to identify as a highly sensitive person (HSP). While it may sound like a made-up term, this is actually a scientifically studied genetic condition. One of the notable traits is that HSPs are often more sensitive to food and eating. They may have significant differences in how they experience food and sensations like nausea and hunger. 

Many times when a parent is perplexed by their child’s eating disorder we discover that the missing piece is high sensitivity. If your child is an HSP, they need a higher level of patience, understanding, and support when eating. Once this understanding is incorporated into treatment, recovery may become easier.

Highly sensitive kids and eating disorders

Kids who are highly sensitive are at high risk of being overstimulated by food and eating. Common symptoms include:

  • Picky eating
  • Food aversion
  • Food refusal
  • Refusing to eat in public places
  • Refusing to eat with the rest of the family
  • Tantrums during meals
  • Throwing food
  • Criticizing/complaining about food and other people at the table
  • Under-eating (appetite and digestion are both affected by overstimulation)
  • Binge eating (either as an attempt to cope and/or when overstimulation has caused under-eating and the body needs a high volume of calories to compensate)
  • Weight loss/gain

What is high sensitivity?

A highly sensitive person (HSP) registers and processes more sensory information from their five senses, their internal organs, and other people’s emotional states. As a result, they often have strong reactions to things that individuals with typical nervous systems barely notice.

It’s important to note that HSPs are not being dramatic or making things up. Their highly sensitive nervous system is a biological and genetic feature. It’s found in approximately 20-30% of humans, as well as over 100 other animals, ranging from fruit flies to primates.

Highly Sensitive Child + Eating Disorders Printable Parent Guide

This is a printable guide for parents with kids who are highly sensitive and have picky eating, disordered eating, or eating disorders.

  • Understand high sensitivity and eating issues
  • Improve mealtimes and reduce stress
  • Increase your child’s coping skills

Being highly sensitive is a biological trait that carries both positive and negative aspects. On the positive side, many inventors, explorers, artists, musicians, and critical thinkers are HSPs. 

Some notable individuals who exemplify HSP traits include Abraham Lincoln, Jane Goodall, Princess Diana, Albert Einstein, Emily Dickinson, and many more. Being highly sensitive is truly a gift that enriches not only the individual but also their family, community, and society as a whole.

However, their highly-sensitive nervous systems put HSPs are at risk of becoming overwhelmed. Eating is particularly stimulating for HSPs, so they often are picky eaters with intense food aversions and can develop disordered eating and/or eating disorders.

We live in a highly stimulating and unnatural environment, so HSPs face a higher risk of experiencing anxiety, depression, eating disorders, and substance use disorders. However, these conditions can often be managed or even eliminated when parents help HSPs learn effective strategies to regulate their emotions.

HSP traits

Here are three key traits associated with being highly sensitive that might lead to an eating disorder:

  1. Extreme noticing: HSPs have a heightened awareness and perception of the sensory information bombarding their nervous system. They notice and react to more subtle details that others may overlook. For example, they may experience intense discomfort from an imperceptible itch in a seam, be highly sensitive to certain sounds, or feel nauseated by specific sensory aspects of food. Eating, which engages all senses, can be particularly overstimulating for HSPs.
  2. Emotional contagion: As social beings, all humans possess mirror neurons that enable them to pick up on the emotions of others. HSPs have a greater number of mirror neurons in their brains, resulting in an increased sensitivity to nonverbal emotional cues. If someone close to them, like a family member, friend, or teacher, is emotionally dysregulated, HSPs often feel the same dysregulation. This heightened emotional contagion can make various social experiences, such as family dinner tables, school cafeterias, and restaurants more challenging for highly sensitive people.
  3. Overstimulation: With their heightened ability to process sensory information, HSPs are more susceptible to being overwhelmed by information from both internal and external sources. This means that things like noise, smells, light, other people’s emotions can quickly become overwhelming for them. Additionally, internal sensations such as upset stomachs, nausea, physical pain, and anxiety symptoms are intensified in HSPs. When overstimulated, highly sensitive individuals may exhibit behaviors that seem like overreactions to others, such as refusing to eat, throwing food, and extremely picky eating.

HSPs and neurodivergence

In our ancestral environment, the heightened sensory abilities of HSPs were essential for detecting threats and protecting the tribe. However, living in our modern, noisy, and overstimulating culture can be overwhelming for highly sensitive individuals.

Due to the unique wiring of their nervous systems, HSPs can fall under the category of “neurodivergent.” Importantly, not all HSPs have formal diagnoses for conditions like autism or ADHD. Nevertheless, it’s common for them to relate to some of the symptoms associated with these conditions.

It’s important to recognize that being highly sensitive is a biological trait. It is not a disorder or illness. However, HSPs benefit from developing skills that help them cope with our overstimulating environment. This is especially true if they’re struggling to eat.


How to help your highly sensitive child with an eating disorder 

If you suspect that your child may be highly sensitive, one of the most effective ways you can support them is by helping them develop emotional regulation skills. Many highly sensitive individuals express a need for downtime to rest and recover from stimulating experiences. They also thrive with clear boundaries to protect them from emotional contagion. Finally, they need the freedom to explore their rich inner world on their own terms. Here are important ways you can help: 

  1. Teach them emotional regulation. All children are born with immature nervous systems, and parents are essential in teaching kids to regulate their emotions. If you have a highly sensitive child, they need a high level of support and skill-building. You can help them learn how to regulate their nervous systems given their unique biology.
  2. Support them with eating. A highly sensitive child who has an eating disorder needs a lot of support. You can help them learn how to eat in a more regulated way. Remember that they taste and experience food differently from others. Validate their unique experience even as you insist upon eating enough food, often throughout the day. Both parts (validating and boundaries) are essential to eating disorder recovery. This is a skill you can learn and practice every day as you support your child in recovery.
  3. Accept (and nurture!) their quirks. Highly sensitive people perceive the world differently. This is a major strength and is why so many notable figures in history have highly sensitive traits. Don’t try to turn your highly sensitive child into a typical child. Instead, nurture their unique strengths and support them in finding their way in the world with (not in spite of) their beautiful differences.
Highly Sensitive Child + Eating Disorders Printable Parent Guide

This is a printable guide for parents with kids who are highly sensitive and have picky eating, disordered eating, or eating disorders.

  • Understand high sensitivity and eating issues
  • Improve mealtimes and reduce stress
  • Increase your child’s coping skills

Ginny Jones is on a mission to empower parents to help their kids recover from eating disorders, body image issues, and other mental health conditions.  She’s the founder of, an online resource supporting parents who have kids with eating disorders, and a Parent Coach who helps parents who have kids with mental health issues.

Ginny has been researching and writing about eating disorders since 2016. She incorporates the principles of neurobiology and attachment parenting with a non-diet, Health At Every Size® approach to health and recovery.

See Our Parent’s Guide To The Causes Of Eating Disorders

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