I Just Found Out I’m a Highly Sensitive Parent—And It Changed My Life
Parenting was a major challenge—until I discovered why I was always on edge, and learned how to dial down the stress.
Like most moms of young kids—especially with three under age five—I was overwhelmed all the time. But when my normally quiet, even-keeled three-year-old daughter transformed into The Screamer, I nose-dived.
If my daughter was overtired, she screamed. Hungry, she screamed. Bored, she screamed. It was 8:30 in the morning? Time to scream. It wasn’t just a princess-y scream, a harmless scream, a minor blip in the day that could be soothed with a cookie. Believe me, we tried. We tried everything. The screaming got worse. I wouldn’t call these episodes tantrums; they weren’t accompanied by thrashing, flailing, or a willful resistance. There was no logic to them, nothing to appease her. It was purely screaming that erupted and went on for a long time, sometimes more than an hour.
As this was happening, I became stretched taut as a wire, ready to explode in anger at anything: a toy truck dropped, a pile of cracker crumbs on the carpet. I was strung out on too much interaction and too much stimuli. I was irritable, dreaded the day ahead, and constantly wanted to be alone. But as soon as I got some alone time, I felt guilty for leaving my kids. I reassessed my parenting skills ad nauseam, obsessively critiquing what I had done all day long.
I loved my kids, but I hated parenting.
But everything changed the day my friend turned to me and said, “It sounds like your daughter might be a highly sensitive person. And you might be one, too.”
The term sounded hokey, and I brushed it off as just another trendy, superficial label. But at the library, I got a copy of Dr. Elaine Aron’s book The Highly Sensitive Person. As I read, my personality revealed itself on the pages in a way I’d never seen before. Easily overstimulated by sound, light, smells? Yep. Fried after a day of nonstop interaction? Uh-huh. Feeling too much all the time? Yes—my own emotions, and those of everyone around me. An insatiable need for down time to recalibrate, and a rich inner life? Yes, yes, yes.
My whole personality had been slammed against the wall by the punch of parenting, which demands we be present with our young children, and everything that comes with them: their noise, their need to interact, to talk and be touched—essentially, their need for us. Aron estimates that 15 to 20 percent of the population can be described as having this personality trait, also known by its scientific term, Sensory-Processing Sensitivity. Though it often looks like introversion, about a third of highly sensitive persons (HSPs) are actually extroverts. Simply put, the HSP is more sensitive than most.
The same friend pointed me toward blogs with tips written by other Highly Sensitive Parents. I scoured their experiences and gathered tools that changed my parenting, my life, and my whole family’s life—for the better. Here’s what I learned:
Time alone is not an indulgence; it’s a necessity.
If there’s one thing repeated again and again for HSPs, it’s that we need time alone to recalibrate. We are so keyed in to how everyone is feeling that we need time to unplug from people. For us, time alone is as important as exercise, eating well, or getting enough sleep. When I accepted this fact, and stopped feeling guilty or selfish, my patience level improved tenfold. Now, I’ve learned to schedule alone time into my day.
As soon as my youngest started sleeping through the night, I started setting my alarm for an excessively early time to get a solid hour or more to myself in the morning. I also enrolled my daughter in afternoon preschool; while she was at school, my youngest son napped, and I got some quiet time every afternoon, which restored my reserves of energy and patience for the late-day marathon.
Reducing stimuli is key.
Around 4:30 pm at my house, everything hits the fan. The noise level ratchets up to 11, and the kids are bouncing off the walls (literally). When two people—or four, which often happens in late afternoon—are talking to me at the same time, I feel like I’m being assaulted.
When my stress level goes through the roof because of this overstimulation, I need to decrease the stimuli. This might mean turning on a cartoon for my kids so I can practice yoga for 22 minutes, or getting outside with the kids (the space and fresh air turns down the stimuli for all of us) or alone when my husband gets home. Even just a few minutes of sitting in a chair and meditating with my eyes closed restores my patience.
The simpler, the better.
I can feel overwhelmed managing the daily schedule for my family and the sheer number of options in front of me. Keeping it simple means getting into a routine and reducing the number of decisions I have to make each day. I remind myself that one errand is all I can handle with kids in tow. We go to popular kid places (the library, the aquarium) during off-hours, so parking and crowds don’t compound the stress of managing small people. I limit the number of after-school activities my son does, so that I’m not running around everywhere, every day. And I know that it’s okay to decline an invitation, especially if I’m feeling strung out on too many obligations.
“Keep it simple” applies to my inner life, too. Constantly analyzing my parenting and the lash of self-criticism wore me out spiritually. Simplifying means I have to ask myself what’s most important in any given moment. I’ve come to believe that the most important thing I can offer my children is an authentic, loving connection. One of the HSP’s greatest strengths as parents is that we’re emotionally in tune with our kids. If I take care of myself, I can be my true self with them, and truly present with them.
My hope is that by modeling self-care, I can help my kids can learn how to care of who they are, too.
As for my screaming daughter? She’s now five, and she knows that when she’s feeling overwhelmed and overstimulated, she can retreat to her room for some alone time, to emerge later as her laughing, inquisitive self again.