Parenting as a Highly Sensitive Person
Parenting is overwhelming, and if you don’t believe that, you’re either superhuman, or I think you’re lying. Sometimes it all seems like too much, and if you hear “Mom!” (or “Dad!”) one more time, or you step on one more toy, or you get asked for another snack, you’ll lose it. This is normal, and happens to pretty much all of it. But if you’re a Highly Sensitive Person, like me, sometimes it feels like you’re operating on an entirely different level of what’s sensitive and overwhelming.
I have always felt more sensitive, more in tune with other people’s moods and emotions, and gotten overwhelmed more easily than others. I found out a couple years ago in therapy that I actually have a trait called High Sensitivity (and it’s genetic, around 20% of the population has it). Dr. Elaine Aron is the leading researcher on high sensitivity, and reading her book on it as recommended by my therapist really helped me figure out how best to deal with this trait, and that, as I had believed for most of my life, it wasn’t a bad thing to have.
Highly Sensitive People (HSPs) tend to exhibit these characteristics (and sometimes not all of them).
- Sensitivity to lights and sound
- Process feelings and emotions deeply
- Feelings of overwhelm in crowded places
- Feeling drained after spending time with other people
- Affected by the energy and moods of others
- Startles easily
- Difficulty with transitions and change
- Highly affected by violence and gore in TV and movies
I always assumed I was just super introverted, and that’s why my social battery got drained more easily than others, but introversion doesn’t account for noticing the tiny changes in others’ moods, or startling easily, or just feeling overwhelmed by other people. Reading Dr. Aron’s book, and discussing coping skills in therapy, helped me figure out how to work with my high sensitivity instead of working against it.
And then I became a mom.
A lot of the coping skills I had learned for dealing with my high sensitivity suddenly went out the window when I had a baby, who is now a toddler, to take care of. My daughter has always wanted to be close to me, which meant my personal space was no more. That whole startles easily thing? There have been a few times I’ve nearly startled myself out of my bed when she’s woken up crying in the middle of the night. Her cries, especially when she was colicky, were physically painful for me.
As my daughter has grown into a toddler, her loudness has sometimes felt like too much. Toddlers shriek and babble and have very loud tantrums, and between her and our cats, it sometimes it feels like I’m living in a house with a constant symphony of out-of-tune sounds. She loves to climb and crawl and jump, and a lot of the time I become her human jungle gym. I get touched out easily, and most recently when we were home for 10 days because my daughter was exposed to a positive COVID case at her daycare, it seemed like between her and the cats crawling and laying on me, I just needed a little while where absolutely no one and no thing was touching me. This past summer, when she went through a sleep regression and we had to re-sleep-train her, I spent a lot of evenings outside between putting her in the crib and when she would fall asleep, because everything was too loud.
Taking time for myself has become absolutely vital as a mom and highly sensitive person. That means getting able to take a hot bath every evening and read or just sit in silence, or making sure that my daughter’s nap time is spent doing things that I enjoy instead of chores or housework. I’m also thankful that my husband understands that sometimes I just need time to sit by myself, or go upstairs to our room and shut the door, and he helps keep our daughter occupied so she’s not looking for me.
I used to feel bad about getting overwhelmed so easily, or feeling touched out so quickly, but I know that if I don’t take care of myself, I can’t be the best mom I can be. It’s counter-intuitive and it feels selfish, but if I don’t put myself first sometimes, I’m going to end up in an overwhelmed state and start lashing out when I don’t mean to. I’m also beginning to suspect that my daughter might be highly sensitive as well. It’s too early to tell, but if she is, I’ll make sure she knows that the trait isn’t a disadvantage, and how best to cope when everything feels like too much.
If you think (or know) that you are highly sensitive, don’t feel like there’s something wrong with you. This can be your greatest asset as a parent: you’re likely deeply in tune with your child, you recognize the smallest shifts in their moods, and you can use your sensitivity and needing to recalibrate yourself and recharge to teach your child how to regulate their own emotions and feelings. You’re not broken. You’re you, and you’re a great mom.