The Challenge of Being an Highly Sensitive Person (HSP) & Parent
Updated: Aug 7
Below please find the first chapter of my book "Adjust Down: A System for Reducing Overstimulation for HSP Parents". It talks about some of the inherent challenges of being an HSP and a parent.
If you are a highly sensitive person, you are familiar with stimulation overload. When I am overloaded my brain starts to feel fuzzy, I'm not able to think clearly, and I get an incredible urge to remove myself from the situation. This might happen after a full day at work, an errand run, or being in a room with a large group of people all talking at once.
Dr. Elaine N. Aaron, author of "The Highly Sensitive Person" states that being highly sensitive is a trait 15-20% of the population is born with. Wonder if you are an HSP? Take this quiz!
Other research recognizes High Sensitivity Processing as an identifiable genetic trait (Borries & Ostendorf)Highly sensitive people are taking in more information each second than most of the people around them, and they are processing that information more deeply than others around them. For people who are highly sensitive, this is both a wonderful gift and a heavy weight to bear. We are drinking information in like water from a firehose that we can't turn off. (If you'd like more information on being a Highly Sensitive Person, I'd recommend you check out https://hsperson.com/)
As I sit here on my porch writing this chapter I am aware of the wind in the trees, the feeling of it blowing across my face and arms and bare feet, a helicopter pulsing in the distance, a lawn mower, a dog to the south barking, my washing machine running. I cannot turn it off, this super alertness to my environment. And my brain is churning, "I wonder what musical note the tone of the wind in the trees corresponds to, I don't have a piano, but I could probably figure it out using the internet. Is the helicopter military, do they run exercises on the weekends? If it is private, well, what are the chances, percentage wise that it is privately owned? I wonder what breed of dog that is, is there a bear in the yard? I guesstimate I have 23 minutes left on that wash load. Should I set a timer so that when it is finished, I can change it over before the load spoils? All of this, and I'm trying to write! After wrestling with the sensory input and trying to deal with the constant stream of information and processing, my brain starts to feel fried, and my body feels like it becomes one giant nerve. Want to go to a party? Um, no. The talking, the touching, the smells, after a full day of thinking and receiving information, a party sounds about like a torture chamber. I learned to go home, eat a quiet meal, and spend time outside or reading a good book. Alone or with my husband; sometimes with a small group of friends. This allowed me to balance my times of higher information intake with quieter, lower stimulation environments.
And then, when I was 30 years old, my partner and I welcomed home a baby. And my home environment was no longer a "quiet refuge". The physical needs of a newborn are intense. Between crying, pooping, peeing, diaper changes and eating, we were on a 1.5 hour cycle that just continued 24 hours a day- and after the rigors of labor and delivery, I was reeling.
Holy crap! I thought on about week two, this can't be what parenting is like. Someone would have told me. I'm doing it wrong somehow. I became a nerve end on a nerve end on a nerve end.
I tried everything, from baby wearing to sleep training to stroller walking. I ran through all of my normal strategies to help myself: a book and tea, a walk outdoors, a drive, being near water- but none of it seemed to be working. I had a baby along with me for all of it!
As I tried to settle myself, my colicky baby would cry, I was often sweaty from holding a little one in my arms, and I was being scratched by teeny, adorable, but sharp fingernails. There wasn't more than 30 minutes of quiet at any time. I was surviving, but just barely.
When my daughter was about one and a half (and had a regular nap time) I read a few books on HSP's, which were relieving, and encouraging, but I couldn't find any practical advice that really seemed to help. I didn't have the resources to follow their advice to "hire help", and it seemed incredibly selfish to put my toddler in the pack and play so I could sit down and read my book for 20 minutes of "self care" -- she'd just scream and throw stuff at me anyway. I read one HSP forum where one HSP parent shared that her therapist had told her "someone as sensitive as her should never have had a child" and my stomach bottomed out. Was this true? Was it just "inadvisable" for an HSP to have children? Were there no real strategies besides being affluent enough to have someone else do the majority of care taking for you? I put my head down for the next 5 years and decided if I had to choose someone to be ok, I 'd choose my daughter. I wasn't going to be OK, but she could be.
Fast forward one more child, eight more years, and a degree and career as a therapist where I focused my training and my work on women. Over and over I heard women and HSP women describing the same challenges that I had. Sensory overload, old coping tools not working, frustration, despair and a "grin and bear it" attitude.
There has to be a way to live as a parent and Highly Sensitive Person that isn't just one long grind! Over the next three years I began experimenting with loads of well known therapy techniques to see what might work for me as an HSP parent, and what my clients were reporting was working for them specifically in this area of coping as an HSP parent. Slowly, I started to see a pattern. And that's what I'm going to outline for you in the rest of the book. You can skip around if you like, but I've ordered the chapters to take you through the information and suggested experiments so you can start using the material as quickly and throughly as possible.
If you'd like to purchase the rest of this book, click here.