Why Being a Sensitive Parent is a Good Thing

emotional intelligence 

By Rebecca Eanes

Why Being a Sensitive Parent is a Good Thing

I’m sensitive. I say that with pride, and also with a little “please don’t criticize me, okay” in my voice. I’m not faulty or “too much.” I’m just wired this way, and that’s okay. It shows up everywhere - in all of my relationships, in my decisions, and in my daily activities, but nowhere has my sensitivity been more “Oh, HELLO” than in motherhood.

I am very affected by smells, and strong or unpleasant odors are a complete assault on my senses.

I notice subtleties.

I become easily overwhelmed by either  too much sensory input or by having too much to do.

I seem to absorb the emotions of those around me, even when “those around me” are on a screen.

I can easily read people. It’s sort of like having my very own “spidey sense,” but not nearly as cool. 

I’m a highly sensitive person (HSP). 

Elaine Aron, PhD, originated the concept of HSPs. It’s a trait characterized by showing heightened awareness to subtle stimuli. HSPs process information more thoroughly and are more reactive to both positive and negative stimuli. This trait is thought to be in 15 to 20 percent of the population.

Like other sensitive people, I cry at commercials and beautiful art, and I can be deeply moved by music and poetry. I react strongly to criticism and can harbour hurt for an extraordinary amount of time. I prefer quiet rooms and being alone to crowded cafes and company. 

But wait, is that because of my introversion or my high sensitivity? They often overlap, and I can’t tell which is which. 

Yes, along with my high sensitivity, I’m also an introvert. In fact, if introversion were on a sliding scale, I’d be toes off the ledge on the extremely introverted side. Add my social anxiety to that cocktail and you can imagine how fun I am at parties.

Just kidding. I don’t go to parties. 

There’s no denying that this trait has affected my motherhood. Being intuitive, conscientious, and empathic helps me connect with my kiddos better. On the flip side, chunky vomit and constant noise I could do without, thank you very much. Many times, I’ve been overstimulated from the barrage of sensory information to the point of being completely frazzled and utterly touched out. 

All in all, though, it’s a trait I wouldn’t trade.

5 reasons being a sensitive parent is a good thing

I feel things deeply. Parenthood gives you all the feels. Unbounding awe, excruciating heartache, and everything in between. And I feel it all very deeply. Yes, this means I feel the hurt, the worry, the frustration more acutely than most, but I also feel the joy, the wonder, and the happiness more as well. Not only do I feel them intensely but I can find beauty in all emotions, even the dark ones, and that makes for a beautiful motherhood experience.

My intuitive voice is strong. There was a time early in my motherhood experience where I let my inner voice be drowned out by the opinions and advice of others. All the while, my intuition was constantly knocking, telling me what was and wasn’t right for us. When I finally learned to tune into it and trust it, things got better. A mother’s intuition is a strong force, and those of us who are highly sensitive are often very attuned to it if we allow ourselves to be. I often know how my kids are feeling before they voice it. I feel when something is off with them, when I need to back off, and when I need to lean in. It’s a powerful thing, and I’m grateful for my acknowledgment of it.

I have lots of compassion and empathy. An fMRI study by Stony Brook University psychologists and colleagues confirmed that HSPs are more empathetic. They said, “We found that areas of the brain involved with awareness and emotion, particularly those areas connected with empathetic feelings, in the highly sensitive people showed substantially greater blood flow to relevant brain areas than was seen in individuals with low sensitivity. Areas of the brain indicating the greatest activity – as shown by blood flow – include sections known as the “mirror neuron system,” an area strongly associated with empathetic response and brain areas associated with awareness, processing sensory information and action planning.”

I’m big on self-care. Because I often feel overwhelmed and drained by my high sensitivity, self-care is important to me. When I prioritize it, I function better, but I’m not just talking about lingering bubble baths and long walks alone. I’ve learned that self-care doesn’t have to look a certain way or last a certain length of time. I can sit a cup on the counter and walk by every couple of hours to pour a little water in. By the end of the day, the cup will be full. The same principle applies to self-care. I can pour in a little at a time and still end up full of joy. It’s all about finding the little things that nurture your soul. For HSPs, this is not a luxury, but a necessity. 

I’m conscientious and observant. HSPs want to do things right and well, and we are more aware of the consequences of our choices than most. We notice when things aren’t going well and make the effort to learn how to do better. We seek answers and are constantly trying to revise and improve until it feels right to us. In addition, as an HSP, I tend to notice subtle details that others miss. That means subtle changes in tone and behavior, which helps me be more in tune with my children’s needs. Furthermore, HSPs easily see the uniqueness - the spark- in each of our children, and we intuitively know how to encourage and nurture that spark. All children want to feel seen, and HSPs are especially good at seeing the beauty and goodness in others. 

Tips for Parenting as a HSP

If you suspect you may be a highly sensitive parent, too, here are a few sanity-saving tips.

1. Know and address your triggers.

Pay attention to what overwhelms your senses so that you can adjust to minimize or possibly even avoid them. For example, if you know clutter is a trigger, you can create a toy rotation system to keep your kiddo’s stuff in check.

2. Create a sanctuary. 

We all need a place to relax and feel safe. Find a room or even just a corner of your home and make it a place to go to recalibrate your nervous system, like a grown-up version of the time-in space your child uses. Fill it with things that are pleasing to your senses, such as a soft pillow or a lightly fragranced candle.

3. Learn to honor your sensitive self with a slower and simpler life. 

It’s okay to decline the invitation if you know it’s going to drain you. You’re not obliged to volunteer for every concession stand duty. When we are stretched too thin, it takes a toll on our already sensitive nervous systems. Make sure there are blank spaces in your calendar for cozying up and recharging.

4. Build in calming connection time with your kids. 

There is a time for Nerf wars and loud, messy play, but by creating a calming ritual such as reading aloud to your kids or coloring together, you spend quality connection time that isn’t hard on your senses.

5. Teach your child self-regulation skills with tools like the Time-In Toolkit.

This will cut down on the tantrums that feel like nails on a chalkboard to your nerves and decrease defiance, leading to a calmer and more harmonious home.

If you too are a highly sensitive parent, I know the challenges you face. But take heart. You possess qualities that make you an excellent mom or dad - emotional awareness, strong intuition, dedication to fairness, creativity, empathy, and passion. Your kiddo is pretty lucky to have you.

•  •  •

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