Originally published in Comfort Zone Newsletter: February 2005.
Sensitive children have an entire book about them. What about sensitive parents? What are they like, what are their problems, what do they need? Let’s begin with all the advantages of being a highly sensitive parent.
Highly Sensitive Parents Are Wonderful
When I first tried to find something written on sensitivity, one of the few uses of the term was as a descriptor of people who were good with children. I’ve no doubt that’s accurate, and that highly sensitive parents have potentially the best temperament for raising children. Speaking just in terms of evolution, since our temperament is designed for a strategy of “do it once and do it right,” we are probably prone to pay careful attention to each of our young. HSPs are also naturals with infants because we tend to be good with those who can’t speak–plants, animals, bodies, babies. They sense we are in tune with them, which makes them secure and happy. Once they do speak, and we speak back, we tend to think about our choice of words and use gentle speech, teaching that automatically to our children.
Further, HSPs are generally conscientious. We want to do things right and are more aware than others of the consequences of an error. It’s not just that we worry more, but we also take the trouble to learn about how to doing something right, to revise our methods when we notice things are not going well, and seek help and listen to that help if we think we need it.
Even better, HSPs are usually creative and visionary. We can see the uniqueness in a child, develop a vision of a child’s possibilities, and know what the child needs to develop fully. Yet HSPs can also envision the serious consequences of imposing our own agenda on a child. Thus even though we may suggest or offer creative opportunities to a child, we are generally respectful of a child’s right to choose.
What about HS parents and adolescents? That’s a good combination, for sure. It’s at this age that parent-child communication often breaks down. At one moment they want to be a child and be taken care of, they want to confide in you, and the next they want to be treated as an adult and tell you nothing. The unconscious messages hidden within messages can become extremely complicated and critical. I think HSPs are more likely to be able to manage in this subtle relationship to stay flexible and read a youth’s mood accurately. Besides being more aware of subtle mixed messages, we understand the needs of a person in the midst of great change and overstimulation–a person like an adolescent. We recognize the need for stable calm rather than lectures or blow ups. We would need such an approach ourselves.
When it’s time to let go, I think HSPs are potentially able to do this better, too. One of the biggest mistakes parents can make is to retard a child’s independence. Parents are especially likely to do this if they need their child to be their companion, or if they find parenting is all that gives meaning to their life. Fortunately, HSPs tend to have a rich inner life and have or are determined to have some meaningful work, at least after their children are launched. This means that even though it is usually harder for us to see a child leave home, we are more likely to sense when it is time and less likely to cling inappropriately.
Of course, if we are raising a highly sensitive child, we are even better parents, at least in some ways. We are more in tune with the needs of these children and willing to take approaches other parents would not–for example, gentler punishment and having more discussions, giving more explanations.
Finally, because we feel things more deeply, we are going to enjoy the good moments more–feeling extra portions of emotions such as love, pride, contentment, playfulness, and curiosity. For us, parenting is potentially more rewarding, keeping us at it through thick and thin. And we’ll need all of that, because there are also some major problems with being a highly sensitive parent.
The Biggest Problem For HS Parents–Overstimulation
Obviously the biggest problem is that children are highly stimulating and a twenty-four-seven job. They can wear us out, making us irritable or even out-of-control angry in the short run as well as depressed about a future of chronic overarousal. This is especially true if we have a child who is not highly sensitive, or one who is, but has in addition the intense, dramatic, or inflexible types of temperament, or a large dose of the trait of sensation seeking, so that they are in to everything and easily bored.
The secret for HS parents is to “do less and accomplish more.” When we are rested we ae so effective as parents that we can afford to take the time off we need to be that good. But how do we get the time? The answer is obvious, but it has to be faced and acted upon. HS parents need help. Hopefully they have a partner, and the two of them are not working full time jobs. Even with a partner, the one with more time with the children needs frequent breaks to be alone and to be with adults. For HSPs, the need for time off from parenting is much greater than it is for other parents. You can’t compare yourself to non-HSPs on this issue, just as you can’t on most issues. This point cannot be emphasized enough. If you are not enjoying parenting most of the time, if you dread getting up and facing another day with your child, GET HELP.
If grandparents are offering to help and you feel they can do a good job of parenting, take them up on it. Many grandparents fear intruding and are glad to be more involved. But even if they complain some of the time, they will be grateful for the deeper relationship they will have when their grandchild is an adult. If they do not spend this time, the bond will be superficial for certain.
Even if you are an introvert, at times you will have to reach out for help beyond your home and family. Find a support group or a supportive parents’ center. Chat with other parents at school so that you get to know the ones with whom you would want to take turns caring for each other’s kids. Help your child develop friends and interests so that he or she will be out of the house more! If the child is highly sensitive, you can’t do this too much. But these children need down time as much as you do, so it is less of a problem.
If your child has an energetic, noisy style, you absolutely must have help as well as advice for how to understand and cope with such a child. You may need a counselor for yourself as well as for your family. Professionals really can help. Don’t be shy about speaking with teachers as well. They see so many types of children that they will often have excellent suggestions for dealing with yours.
When you seek help, you do not have to explain about your sensitivity unless you want to. All parents need help at times. Parenting well is just very difficult and almost all parents are new to it, and certainly new to raising their particular child.
The Problem Of Feeling So Much
The next greatest problem, I think, is that sensitive parents feel so much. We have stronger emotional reactions. The worst is probably when our child suffers. And children will suffer, no matter how hard we try to prevent it. Indeed, as one wise parenting mentor taught me, when it comes to the pains inflicted by ordinary social life, it’s better that they suffer failure, rejection, disappointment, shame, and all the rest while at home, so you can teach them how to deal with it. One solution for your own feelings then is to actually be a little glad your child is going through this difficult time, so you can be there to help.
Other kinds of suffering, such as needless physical suffering, is just going to be unspeakably difficult for you. I have little comfort to offer except that you are not alone in the intensity of your feelings.
Another painful emotional problem for all parents, but more so for sensitive ones, is leaving a child that is sobbing for you not to go. When it is appropriate for you to leave your child, you will know it. So you do it, and remember how quickly your child does begin to settle in and have a good time. I recommend calling to check in a half hour after you have left, just to hear that your child is indeed fine. If that’s not the case, you can go back or do whatever else seems right. Separations should be hard for a sensitive person. But not traumatic. Not when they are brief and both parties are going to be doing something good for themselves while apart.
However, I know some sensitive mothers who have had to go back to work three or four months after giving birth and truly suffered over this. Well, there’s really only one solution for this, if you can afford it: Stay home until your child is two or three at least. I know it seems to contradict the idea of your having down time to yourself, but it doesn’t really. You simply must take briefer, more frequent breaks, bringing someone into your home or leaving your child at the home of a familiar relative where your family has visited often. You’ll actually have more down time in the long run. “Well begun is half done”–children who are secure in the first few years will allow you a great deal more freedom when they are older.
Yes, the early years can seem long and difficult, but in fact they are over in a flash. One year from birth your child will be walking around. Imagine! Ten years after birth, she or he will probably want to be away from you as much or more than with you. You’ll be the one wanting more time together, until your child reaches that age when they quite naturally make you wish they’d just grow up and leave!
But this problem of ambivalence is another real problem for sensitive parents–one moment we want time alone, the next minute we are suffering more than our child is about being separated. This can feel very confusing. Your sadness at not being with your child may seem to be just what you deserve, since you were always wanting to be alone when you were together. But these mixed feelings are quite normal for HS parents.
Losing Your Cool
Because HS parents are more emotional, they have to watch out for losing their control over their negative emotions, especially when they are tired or overstimulated. Frankly, the less you are out of control around a child, the better, whether the overwhelming emotion is anger, fear, depression, or whatever, and either having to do with the child or someone else. If it happens often, you have to have more time alone, and if that doesn’t do it, get help. Quickly.
With older children, it also helps to talk about these episodes after they have occurred. You may wish to explain what was troubling you, what people can do when they feel this way, and that you don’t expect it to happen again. Perhaps you’ll want to apologize, and that’s being a good role model, but more important would be checking out how your child felt while you were being so emotional. Try not to become guilty or defensive if he or she was or is still upset. The best thing you can do is listen and appreciate how it felt for your child while being matter-of-fact and reassuring.
Certain negative emotions to which HSPs are prone can be troubling for kids even in a mild form. One is criticalness. HSPs are excellent critics and frequently perfectionists. While we are often tolerant of the flaws of those who are not close to us, we tend to treat our children as ourselves–that is, since we can be ruthless self-critics, we are liable to be that way towards our children. Even if we avoid saying anything, children can often sense our disapproval, so you will have to root this out at its source. Is the behavior you dislike really quite normal for your child’s age? Does it bother others besides yourself? Will he or she probably outgrow it? Sensitive children in particular can be slow to pass through developmental stages and regress to younger modes when under stress, but for them this is utterly normal. Can you accept things like this about them? That is, can you accept your own sensitive nature?
Another tricky emotion is parental guilt, also a product of our frequently excessive self-criticism and perfectionism. HS parents can always think after the fact of a better way to have done something. That’s great–maybe you will do it next time. But too much guilt will distract you from the moment and distort what is actually going on. For example, sometimes children take unconscious advantage of guilt in a parent, making inappropriate demands, and the poor parents can’t see it because they feel too guilty that their children are misbehaving!
Finally, all HSPs get irritable when overstimulated. Indeed, all children do, and all adults as well. It just happens to HSPs and HSCs a little sooner. At those times you are a role model for how to handle irritability: You apologize, and you state what you need in order to return to normal. You are setting a boundary by saying that at this moment your needs take precedence. Your children will soon realize how true that is! (And they can do the same for you: When they are getting close to a meltdown, they can warn you, and if you act immediately, you both will be better off.)
For example, you’re in the super market and your child is asking for this and that. Grocery stores are very overstimulating. It’s the end of the day. You are losing patience. So you stop, get down low and look your child in the eye, and say something like, “Sheila, if we’re both going to get out of here alive, you are going to have to be very good and let me finish shopping without too many interruptions. If it’s important or you think it might help me, fine. And if you want to push the cart for me, that would be a huge help. But don’t bring up anything extra. Okay? When we get home and I’ve put away the groceries and had some rest, I look forward a whole lot to our being together. It will be really good to spend time with you then. But I can’t be with you very much right now. I’m just too overwhelmed.”
Notice that the child hears she is loved, that there is a definite time coming when she will get what she wants, and there are things she can do right now that would help this situation which is not working for her either.
Perhaps the best advice for most HS parents is to relax and enjoy yourself. You are probably doing a fine job. Children go through difficult periods, for sure. That’s why parenting is a task requiring great sensitivity. But that is exactly what you have. A loving, conscientious, aware parent inevitably produces a loving, conscientious, aware adult. But it takes about twenty-five years to see the end product. In the meantime, there’s some civilizing to do. Don’t give up. Your child’s future house mate or spouse will appreciate it! And at that point, so will your child. Just take a break when you need to and can, then come back to the job refreshed and sensitive.
If it still seems very difficult to enjoy parenting right now, remember that in not too long your child will be an adult and the two of you will be good friends. That part lasts a lifetime. That you will enjoy.