HSP parenting challenges aren’t due to weakness, but due to having more to process while doing the same tasks others can float through.
Chocolate milk splattered all over the kitchen, reaching nooks and crannies that defied physics. How did something so small create such a catastrophic mess? That question sums up having young kids most days.
I could feel the self-control drain out of me as pure rage took its place. Somehow, I still had the wherewithal to think, “This mess should not be causing me to spin out like this. Why am I freaking out?”
All parents have moments like this, right? I’m just convinced I am more susceptible to them, and therefore, find myself in them more frequently.
Why? Because I’m a highly sensitive person (HSP). I notice more, process more, and, as a result, get overwhelmed more quickly and easily than less-sensitive people. Apply this equation to parenting, and the math isn’t good.
I sum up parenting while highly sensitive with one word: Intense. Parenting feels relentless — it never stops or slows or subsides. HSPs tend to throw all of themselves into parenting, leaving nothing behind for their own well-being.
What Makes Parenting While Highly Sensitive So Hard?
Learning about my sensitivity has helped me realize my parenting challenges aren’t due to weakness, but to having more to process while doing the same tasks others can float through. So I’ve conceded any hopes of being anything other than I am: a highly sensitive parent just trying to survive.
A lead researcher on high sensitivity, Dr. Elaine Aron — who coined the term “highly sensitive person” — uses the acronym DOES to outline the trait in her book, The Highly Sensitive Person. It’s easy to see how parenting magnifies each characteristic… with exhausting consequences.
- Depth of Processing. From pregnancy through cohabitating with your grown child, the decisions are endless and HSPs can’t help but analyze all available information and see the seemingly limitless possible outcomes of any given choice. Not only that, our busy brains need more downtime to recover from constantly processing in overdrive — and finding enough downtime as a parent is near impossible.
- Overstimulation. Parenting brings anyone to the outermost limits of their stimulation tolerance, and we HSPs start with a shorter range, due to how much we process and take in. This means that even the most basic parenting tasks can overwhelm us.
- Emotional Reactivity and Empathy. Not only do we react stronger to our kids’ emotions, we also experience deeper empathy with every scraped knee, embarrassing moment, and challenging situation.
- Sensitivity to subtle stimuli. Take your pick! The sight of clutter in the living room, the sounds of annoying toys, music, and video games, and the smells, all the smells! Even if the sensory input is objectively subtle, HSPs’ sensitivity to them makes them anything but.
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So What’s a Highly Sensitive Parent to Do?
HSPs move through the world differently — and parenting is no exception. In her book, The Highly Sensitive Parent, Dr. Aron says that admitting, accepting, and embracing the state of things as a highly sensitive parent is key to coping and, dare I say it, thriving, in parenting.
The good news is, Dr. Aron also found in her research that HSPs are often doing a much better job parenting than they perceive. While our sensitivity can cause us to feel more overwhelmed by parenting, and like we fall short of less-sensitive parents, it also equips us with highly-attuned parenting instincts.
Still, it’s always important to distinguish between simply finding parenting hard, and whether depression or anxiety are part of the equation. Parenting while highly sensitive is sure to exasperate life circumstances that can contribute to both.
So the million-dollar question is: How do you thrive as a highly sensitive parent?
And my answer is: Oh, good gracious, I have no idea.
I’m just striving for survival at this point. Surviving parenting as an HSP is equal parts accepting what is and doing our best to take care of ourselves (given the circumstances).
While I’ll never be an expert by any means, I have picked up a few tips that are helping me survive — and even enjoy parenting amidst the chaos, mess, and stress.
7 Survival Hacks for Highly Sensitive Parents
1. Let your sensitivity redefine what “thriving” in parenthood means.
Parenting must be seen through the lens of your sensitivity. Dr. Aron cautions that parenting is so all-consuming that HSPs may be able to prioritize little else, at least for a time. It can be frustrating when comparing ourselves to peers or colleagues who seem to be thriving professionally, socially, and being a super-parent all at once.
We, as highly sensitive people, must redefine what “thriving” means for us. Perhaps it’s not mastering every aspect of life simultaneously, but experiencing a singular aspect of life immensely, such as soaking up every last drop parenting has to offer.
2. Customize your unique parenting philosophy.
Highly sensitive people tend to be information-seekers. It’s part of our deep processing to want all the facts before making our careful decisions, everything from what parenting style to practice or just what to pick up for dinner.
As a chronic consumer of parenting advice, I realized quickly that no one style, trend, or philosophy spoke fully to my experience as a parent. I eventually gave up trying to master a single parenting philosophy and gave into the common HSP experience of forging my own path.
HSP parents can — and should — trust their intuition, because our sensitivity informs it. This same trait that has helped our species survive can be trusted to inform your decision-making as a parent.
It also helps to seek advice from HSP parenting experts and share your experiences with fellow HSP parents just trying to figure it out day by day.
3. Make “treat yo self” your mantra.
Weekend getaways, a day of spa treatments, or even just a good night’s sleep might not be in the cards for most parents in their foreseeable futures. So why not indulge in treating yourself where you can, when you can?
This hack is backed by research. The modern classic parenting book, Mother Nurture, puts it this way:
“…We recommend that you try to feel good as often as you can, at least several times a day. These experiences are more than enjoyable: they help protect your body against future stresses, improve problem-solving, and stop downward spirals. The occasional getaway for a weekend is great but regular, daily positive experiences will make much more difference for you over the long run.” (Hanson et al., p. 34)
While the phrase “Treat Yo Self” was coined by the luxury-loving Donna Meagle and Tom Haverford characters on the show Parks and Recreation, it need not be a call to lavish extravagances. It’s more about inherent worth — valuing your wants and needs just because you exist. This can be a real challenge for HSPs, especially those engaged in caretaking roles.
It took me way too long to realize how unsustainable it was to live in a constant state of depletion while another being was entirely dependent on my care. Now, I take my wants and needs seriously.
So what’s a teeny, tiny way you can treat yourself today?
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4. Let the sweet moments linger as long as you can.
You are at your wit’s end being up with the baby all night… again. Your kid is refusing to eat the dinner you prepared… again. Your teenager promises they’ll never speak to you… again… and again. These moments can be excruciating and can consume our waking thoughts.
In Mother Nurture, Dr. Rick Hanson explains that we are biologically wired to dwell on the negative, so we have to practice spending as much time dwelling on the sweet moments.
When your baby finally falls back asleep in your arms, drink in their peaceful rest and the feel of their relaxed body against yours. When your kid scarfs down their dinner without batting an eye, bask in the glory of a clean plate and a full belly. When your teen spills every single detail of their night, savor their funny and insightful commentary on their friendships.
Put your deep processing to work for you in noticing every little good thing about these moments. Let the sweetness linger in your mind.
5. Try an “Ask for Help” challenge.
In The Highly Sensitive Parent, Dr. Aron says, “If you need help, you just need it. That doesn’t make you a less capable or worse parent.”
That simple acknowledgment was revelatory for me.
I didn’t want to admit that I desperately needed help. HSPs tend to be people-pleasers, and therefore tend to seek help only as a last resort. Our perfectionism chimes in with its ever-so-unhelpful insistence that no one else can do it like you, so getting help is pointless anyway.
But of course, it’s not a great plan to only seek help once you are at the very, very, very end of your rope. Instead, why not practice asking for help in low-pressure situations, so it can become more natural for you?
Make asking for help your go-to move for a while until it becomes second nature.
Is there one thing you could get help with this week? Next week, could you get help with two things?
6. Always ask yourself, “Is this worth my energy?”
As HSPs, we have to be extremely protective of our energy — the DOES characteristics of the trait require a lot of it. We simply cannot afford to spend our energy on just anything. Parenting only makes this more pronounced.
Since we can’t control how our sensitivity uses our energy, conservation and recovery are the name of the game. Recovery time is usually in short supply for parents, so energy conservation becomes paramount.
The reality is, you don’t have the same time for all the things as other parents because you require time to recover from overwhelm in ways less-sensitive parents don’t. So everything, from work opportunities to kids’ activities to household chores, needs to be evaluated for its energy-input-to-outcome ratio. If the math doesn’t come out in your favor, it’s not worth your energy.
Of course, we can’t disavow everything that drains us with minimal benefit, but as sensitive folks, we must do what we can, when we can, to spend our precious energy on what matters most.
7. Always be kind to your sensitive self.
The best way I’ve found to be a better parent is by being kinder to myself. As Dr. Aron succinctly says in The Highly Sensitive Parent, “Self-criticism is exhausting.”
As HSPs, it’s simply not worth our energy to berate ourselves or to have unreasonable expectations. Instead, treating our sensitivity with gentleness helps it be a source, rather than a drain, in our lives.
Plus, being kind to yourself helps you be kinder to your kids while also preserving your energy. There is truly no downside!
Tune in to your intuition for ways you can survive another chaotic day of parenting while highly sensitive. If we can care for our sensitivity just a little more day-by-day, maybe we’ll figure out how to thrive a little, too.
You might like:
- 5 Things I Teach My Kids as a Highly Sensitive Parent
- HSP Brains Process Everything Deeply, Even at Rest, Study Finds
- What to Do When Your Highly Sensitive Soul Is in Overdrive
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