Highly Sensitive Refuge
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How to Survive Growing Up in a Big Family as a Highly Sensitive Person

It was tough to grow up as a highly sensitive teen in a big family who didn’t “get” my sensitivity. But here’s how I survived.

A few years ago — with the help of this life-changing article about signs you’re a highly sensitive person — I discovered that I was fine. Nothing was “wrong” with me just because I felt things more deeply than others, easily felt (and displayed) emotion, or reacted “too much.”

It was comforting to come to the realization that I hadn’t been a weird teenager who had some kind of disorder. Instead, I was simply a highly sensitive person (HSP) — and nearly 1 in 3 people are, as I found out.

And for me, it had been a challenge to grow up in a big family in a small house — I am the seventh child in my family, the youngest, for better or worse). It seemed I was the only (or most) sensitive person under our roof, that was my “role” in the family.

The most frequent words I heard growing up were: “Don’t take it so personally,” or “You react too much”… But it doesn’t work that way — sensitivity is not something you can turn off or fix. 

So, without realizing it at that time, I began doing things that helped me cope with life as a sensitive teen — and one who was surrounded by many brothers and sisters in a very limited space. I only hope that if you find yourself in a similar situation, teenager or not, what I learned growing up can help your sensitive soul, too.

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9 Survival Tips for Growing Up in a Big Family as a Highly Sensitive Teen

1. Create a space to call your own — even a closet or corner of a room.

Not having enough space is the reality of growing up in a big family. Several children live in the same room, sometimes even with their parents. It’s difficult for everyone, but it’s especially difficult if you react strongly to everything and if constant contact with people is not always comfortable for you. 

For me, the solution was creating my very own HSP sanctuary. Find a space just for you — it can be one tiny area of space, your desk, a certain chair, or just a corner. But it’s (mostly) yours. And everyone should know about it — it’s important to set a boundary around this coveted space. 

Also make sure that your things (and you!) are untouchable there — if you’re in your HSP zone, it means you need some alone time, like an invisible “do not disturb” sign is up. 

Yes, it’ll take time for the rest of the family to figure it out and respect your space, but eventually, they will.

2. Invest in ear plugs or noise-canceling headphones (or both!) — and always have them on hand.

Silence is underestimated — and it does not exist in big families. But, for highly sensitive people, silence is absolutely necessary. 

Ear plugs are a way out of the noise — not only while you are sleeping, but also during the day if you are tired of extraneous noise (like a TV that’s constantly). Or you can simply wear noise-canceling headphones with calming music, which helps relax the HSP brain

3. Keep a journal to help process your many thoughts and emotions.

Keeping a diary has been a habit of mine since early childhood. No one taught me this — it came naturally and has been going on for years now. 

When there are too many things around you that cause an endless stream of emotions and feelings, a lot of things are happening in your head — and you need to give them a way out. So journaling helps a lot. For me, I prefer a paper journal, but your Notes feature on your cell phone also works if that’s easier for you.

4. Set boundaries with your family members by explaining your HSP needs — like alone time.

Yes, having conversations about boundaries is difficult and requires a lot of emotional effort, but you need to defend your space. It’s important to let family members know why you need to get some rest or time alone, why you don’t want to go to a party with your siblings, or why you don’t want to spend time in the company of their noisy friends (people you don’t even know!). 

Yes, people may not understand, but you must try. Plus, it will help make them feel like it’s nothing personal — you simply don’t have the energy to expend. 

5. Set emotional boundaries, too (like when you’d rather not hear about certain topics).

We HSPs are known for our excellent listening skills, and people recognize this. So they may want to talk… and talk… and talk — even if I don’t want to sometimes (okay, maybe oftentimes!). 

But they want to tell me about all their thoughts, problems, and dreams, for I have so much empathy, I am a great person to tell it all to!

Yet, often, it’s too much. Everything someone tells me stays with me for a long time, longer than I would like. I’ll think about it, I’ll empathize, maybe I’ll get upset. It is okay the first time, maybe even the first few times. But when it happens all the time, it’s not okay. We sensitive souls have to take care of ourselves, too. We should be able to say “no” (in a polite way, of course).

Sometimes, I literally tell my brothers, “I don’t want to know” or “Not today, we’ll talk later (or tomorrow).” I don’t want to know everything about his ex’s problems, I don’t want to know about their friends’ conflicts, I don’t want to know everything about his life — it’s all too much for me. 

It doesn’t mean my siblings can’t count on me or that I don’t care about their lives. I do — a lot. It just means that sometimes it’s too much unnecessary information that will stick with me for far too long. It’s just emotional self-defense, so we need to learn to say no — and more often.

Want to reduce stress and thrive as a highly sensitive person? We recommend these online courses from psychotherapist and sensitivity expert Julie Bjelland. Click here to learn more.

6. Spend quality time with a good book.

If you are tired and overstimulated, you can immerse yourself in a book — even in the presence of your family. (Your ear plugs or headphones can come in handy here, too, so that the surroundings do not distract you too much). 

With so many types of books out there, you can find one that speaks to you as an HSP. Plus, some have literary characters you’ll relate to, as well. 

7. Manage conflicts when they come up — don’t let them fester. 

Growing up in such a big family, conflicts are a given. Although we don’t want them, and although we’ll avoid them sometimes, they will always come up somehow. So you have to learn how to accept this — and then manage the conflicts as best you can.

Since we HSPs are such great listeners and have a ton of empathy, these are advantages when conflicts arise. We’re often the ones who come up with solutions, since we listen to everyone’s side and really want to come up with a fair solution.

Yes, it may take some effort to explain our point of view, but avoiding conflict is a time bomb. So it’s best we try to resolve them as they come up.

8. Set up some daytime or evening routines (in order to create some stability in your life).

Having a routine is soothing, especially for sensitive people. In short, no matter how full of stress and anxiety your day was — no matter how drained you are — knowing that there is a part of the day that is absolutely predictable is a comforting feeling. It gives a sense of stability and safety. 

For me, these are usually evening rituals. I’ll drink a cup of hot chocolate while reading a book, then get ready for bed by doing the same things in a certain order, like brushing my teeth and taking a shower. This also helps me sleep better, as the disciplined routine helps me calm down and let go of the past day (at least as much as I can). 

9. Dream.

Do you know what the most pleasant thing is when you live in a big family and do not have enough personal space, physically and emotionally? Daydreaming! You can start by dreaming about moving to your own place. After all, it will happen sooner or later, and daydreaming about it definitely helps!

No matter where you are in your full house of people, you can drift off to daydream land and imagine other things. You can envision an empty house, quiet evenings, silence, and all the cozy rooms you could possibly want! 

You can also come up with the design of the house, things that you’ll want to have in your own place, or what you will do when you (finally!) live alone (finally!).

I believe that visualization really works, especially with our creative HSP brains, so go ahead and try it.

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