Are you a sensitive person? I don’t mean sensitive as in your feelings get hurt when someone criticizes you; I mean sensitive as in you easily get overwhelmed and overstimulated by the environment that surrounds you: you jump when the phone rings (check), the sound of your kids fighting makes you want to rage (check), you have a hard time focusing when too many things happen at once (check), or touching certain textures make you cringe (check). If this is you — and it’s very clearly me — you might just be what psychologist Dr. Elaine Aron has coined a “Highly Sensitive Person” (HSP).
Being a highly sensitive person can make being a parent that much harder. Kids are loud and messy and needy and always and forever stimulating us – basically a nightmare for those of us who are hyper-sensitive.
I, for one, have struggled with this since the moment I became a mom. (And it certainly doesn’t help that one of my twins thinks it’s funny to screech at the top of her lungs just because “it makes mommy crazy.”) As a highly sensitive person, I find it exceptionally challenging to remain calm, present and patient with my children when the house is in disarray, the television is blaring and/or the kids are arguing. When I’m surrounded by disorder, disruption and chaos – which is really just the general way of life with children – I want to lock myself in the quiet bathroom and hide.
According to Dr. Elaine Aron’s book The Highly Sensitive Parent (highly recommend), being a highly sensitive person can really accentuate the challenges of parenting. In this article, we’re going to dig into what it means to be a highly sensitive parent — the benefits and the challenges — as well as offer helpful tips on how highly sensitive parents can best manage parenting while also taking good care of themselves. But first up, let’s talk about what it means to be a highly sensitive person.
What is a Highly Sensitive Person (HSP)?
Dr. Aron has been researching “high sensitivity” since 1991, and during that time has discovered that HSPs — otherwise known as those with sensory-processing sensitivity — account for about 20 percent of the population.
There are 4 scientifically-proven traits that HSPs have that make up the acronym D.O.E.S. These include:
1) Depth of Processing — HSPs tend to process information more deeply than others;
2) Overstimulation/Arousal — Processing and being overloaded by too much stimuli leads to overstimulation and burnout;
3) Emotional Reactivity — HSPs have a stronger reaction to both positive and negative experiences;
4) Sensitivity to Subtleties — HSPs’ nervous systems are wired to process everything, so they are easily affected by their environment and pick up on subtle cues that others miss.
HSPs are very empathetic and sensitive to all kinds of stimulation – from scents, to sights, to sounds, to crowds and so on. Not only do they become overwhelmed by what’s physically going on around them, but they also pick up on all the subtle, non-verbal cues of others. In fact, many HSPs often feel deeply and absorb others’ emotions and moods. Let me tell you from experience, this is exhausting.
From an evolutionary standpoint, the genetic trait of high sensitivity once served an important and lifesaving purpose: for instance, being hypervigilant and constantly aware of your surroundings meant you had a far greater chance of knowing whether a predator was nearby, thus allowing you the opportunity to run, hide and/or defend yourself; in addition, since highly sensitive people are so attuned to the needs and emotions of others, those with this trait were likely well-received, accepted – and thus, protected – by their “pack,” which also afforded them a greater shot at survival.
However, in our modern world where we are inundated with stimuli all the time (cell phones, screens of all kinds, noisy traffic, bright lights, etc.), this once lifesaving trait has become burdensome, exhausting and utterly overwhelming. This is all the more true for parents.
But hey, being a highly sensitive parent isn’t all bad. Let’s go over some of the benefits and challenges that you may encounter as an HSP.
Benefits of Being a Highly Sensitive Parent
Being highly sensitive can actually make parenting more fulfilling.
Highly sensitive parents are extremely conscientious. This means that we tend to be organized, efficient, and put our heart and soul into parenting well, and doing things the “right” way. Sure, this comes with the risk of being after perfection (and getting overwhelmed while doing so), but as long as we feel balanced, we get things done, and we do them well!
Highly sensitive parents are often extremely attuned to their children’s needs, which helps our children feel loved and secure. Highly sensitive parents are often able to know what their child needs before they even express it. We notice our childrens’ subtle, nonverbal cues and, as a result, are able to respond swiftly and appropriately, which ultimately leads to increased levels of trust, bonding and healthy attachment between parent and child.
Highly sensitive parents notice what makes each child special and unique. According to Dr. Aron, HSPs have an easier time noticing the unique differences between each of their children, and thus are more apt to treat them like the individuals they are. Doing so helps children feel more confident, respected and worthy.
Highly sensitive parents feel it all. The good, the bad, and everything in between — HS parents feel everything. That means that when our children succeed, we feel the intense joy and pride coursing through our own veins; when we are having fun with our family, we feel that fully too. We feel the joy, happiness, love… everything that comes along with being a parent. Thus, according to Dr. Aron, highly sensitive parents tend to feel that parenthood is “potentially more rewarding, keeping us at it through thick and thin.”
Challenges of Being a Highly Sensitive Parent
There’s rarely any downtime.
Parenting is a 24/7 job. Even if you’re a working parent, or a parent who has help, you’re still a parent. This means that you are ON at all times… even when you’re asleep, you have to be ready to go; and even when we aren’t with our children, odds are good you’re probably thinking about them. From swim lessons to school to dinner, the mental load is REAL, and it’s draining.
Not to mention how stimulating children are by nature. They are little energizer bunnies who require lots of playtime and attention. This can be tough for any parent, but for a highly sensitive parent, it’s even more challenging. According to Dr. Aron, our beloved children can “wear us out, making us irritable or even out-of-control angry in the short run as well as depressed about a future of chronic overarousal.”
Highly sensitive parents feel it all. Yep, you’re right; this was a benefit too. But with deeply feeling ALL the good, also comes deeply feeling all the not so good. Highly sensitive parents quite literally feel everything our children feel — the joy and the strife. While it makes us good empathizers — feeling any of our children’s emotional, mental or physical hurt — can also make us literally sick.
Losing your cool. This happens to me often, and more often than not is followed by a huge sense of guilt. I cry and apologize to the kids and the vicious cycle lives on. Dr. Aron says that “because HS parents are more emotional, they have to watch out for losing their control over their negative emotions, especially when they are tired or overstimulated.” Interestingly, this is very similar to what deeply feeling kids go through (as previously mentioned). DFKs also become overwhelmed, ashamed and flooded by their own big emotions, and they don’t know how to manage them. It seems plausible that many of us highly sensitive parents were once deeply feeling kids who were never supported in the right ways, or taught the tools needed to navigate our own big feelings.
Parent guilt. I know we already mentioned guilt, but it’s a big recurrent feeling for highly sensitive parents. When they lose their cool, when they need to take a mental health break, when they enjoy time away from children, when they mishandle a parenting situation, when they prioritize self-care… highly sensitive parents tend to feel guilt and shame. I can’t tell you how often I end my days laying in bed, tallying up all the parenting mistakes I made and the breaks I needed to take for self-care, and feeling like I’ve failed.
Tips for Managing Life as a Highly Sensitive Parent
Ok, so being a highly sensitive parent presents some challenges, but it isn’t impossible. With the right tools and tricks, you can make the most of your superpowers and be truly present for your children and yourself equally. Here are some tips to manage that #parentinglife as a highly sensitive person.
Time off. As previously mentioned, I used to feel very guilty over asking for help and needing time off from parenting (I know I’m not alone here). But as I learned over the course of parenting my singleton and twins, I am a far better, happier, more patient and present parent when I take the breaks I need – they replenish my energy and fill my cup.
Dr. Aron concurs. “For HSPs, the need for time off from parenting is much greater than it is for other parents. You can’t compare yourself to non-HSPs on this issue, just as you can’t on most issues. This point cannot be emphasized enough. If you are not enjoying parenting most of the time, if you dread getting up and facing another day with your child, GET HELP.”
Set boundaries. Know your limits. If you know you cannot take all of your kids to the grocery store because they act like wild animals and throw items in the cart when you aren’t looking, then come up with another plan. Perhaps you have your groceries delivered via Instacart (or some other delivery service), have your partner, friend, parent, neighbor, etc. stay with your children while you shop, OR you bring your children but make your expectations clear about their “grocery store” behavior before leaving home (and lay out clearcut consequences for not heeding the expectations). Whatever you choose, do what works for YOU, let go of any shame or guilt you may feel around that, and quit comparing yourself to other parents.
According to the Seleni Institute, a group that works to support the emotional health of families, “To maintain your physical and emotional well-being, it is very important to set clear boundaries and defend them when necessary. You may be tempted to push yourself to your limit, but doing so can come with a heavy price, such as migraines or chronic fatigue. Pay attention to the subtle messages your body sends you when you need to back off.”
Accept yourself for who you are. Being highly sensitive is simply the way your brain is wired. It is an innate trait you were born with. It doesn’t say anything about you other than the fact that you feel all the things, all the time, deeply. Throughout your life, others may have told you to “toughen up” or “grow a thicker skin” (ugh… me too). But hopefully now you understand that, while sometimes being an HSP feels overwhelming and unnerving (it’s hard to feel so much all the time), it is also a gift that enriches your world tenfold — especially when it comes to parenting children and especially when you have the tools to navigate your emotions.
Self-Care. Do what you need to do to take care of yourself. Remember, you cannot care well (or at all) for your children if you’re drowning. Put your own oxygen mask on first before assisting others.
Find others like you. A quick Google or Facebook group search will likely yield several results for HSP resources and support groups. You will stop feeling alone when you meet others who share your highly sensitive traits and who understand you and what you go through on a day-to-day basis. Trust us, there are so many more HSPs out there than you can imagine.
Seek professional help if needed. Therapy is good for everyone. Dr. Elaine Aron keeps a running list of mental health professions in each state that are HSP-knowledgeable, and there are even many HSP-oriented counselors that offer virtual therapy from the comfort of your own home. Occupational and Sensory Processing Therapy can be great tools as well.
If you consider yourself to be a highly sensitive parent, hopefully reading this article gives you more insight into your very special and unique characteristics.
While I understand that many of the traits of high sensitivity — such as feeling overwhelmed easily by your childrens’ singing, dancing and light-up toys, piles of ‘stuff’ all over the house, seemingly constant bickering, random ear-piercing screeches (lucky me… ), plethora of emotional and physical needs, etc. — can cause serious fatigue and overstimulation, these are also the very traits that make you perfectly suited for the parenting job.
You, dear highly sensitive parents, are exceptionally attuned to your childrens’ needs and desires, their struggles and pain, their joys and excitements, and absolutely everything else.
And at the end of the day, that’s what your kiddos are going to remember; it’s what my kids certainly appreciate in me. And the rest? Well, it just makes you an incredibly interesting, multifaceted, profoundly aware, passionately feeling parent and human. That’s pretty darn incredible.