The baby books I poured over while pregnant all listed similar reasons why a baby might cry: hunger, fatigue, gas. But another big one is overstimulation. A new baby’s brain can easily overload when confronted with too much sensory information at once, including noises, new faces, or flashing lights. Even activities that seem enjoyable, like excited older siblings playing with a fancy new electronic toy, can reduce your little one to tears when it all becomes too much.
Now imagine a similar scene, except this time it’s you, the parent, who is overstimulated. Maybe you’re not quite in tears, but you’re certainly feeling a crescendo of tension, edginess, and unease that becomes extremely uncomfortable, if not unbearable. It’s all you can do not to shoo the children into separate rooms, chuck that toy (clearly designed by a sadist) out the window, and hide under a blanket. Only you don’t, because you’re a parent.
Family life is full of awesomeness, but it also has its share of challenges: meltdowns, the headache-inducing din of a busy household, and the stress of shuttling everyone around (on time) to all.the.things. It’s normal for parents to feel overwhelmed, sensitive, and even a little fragile from time to time. But what if you feel like this most of the time?
Do you internalize every bit of raw emotion your threenager projects in a tantrum, until your head spins from the chaos and commotion to the point you can’t think straight? Maybe you are the one crumbling in the car when you’re late for preschool dance class and just can’t face the judgmental side-eye. This can be the case for parents who, like me, are HSPs: Highly Sensitive Persons.
According to psychotherapist and researcher Elaine Aron, the author of The Highly Sensitive Person, HSPs have something called Sensory Processing Sensitivity, or SPS. They constitute almost a fifth of the population— 15 to 20 percent. HSPs are highly attuned to themselves, others, and their environments. Although the degree and focus of their sensitivities can vary, HSPs process stimulation and emotion more deeply than the average person. In many aspects of life, this is beneficial: caring for others, reading people and situations, empathy, creativity, and experiencing life intensely. But all this emotion and stimulation can take an acute mental and physical toll, especially if you are surrounded by it daily. (Hello, parents of young children!)
So, what makes me an HSP? I “over”-react to a multitude of things, from loud music and television to the tone of people’s voices. Sudden noises or events startle me to the point of feeling pain in my extremities—even if it’s just my husband playfully jumping around a corner to surprise me.
I’m extremely affected by what others think of me, and often perceive innocuous comments as devastating criticism. Being near others in conflict is intensely rattling because I absorb their anger and tension (I’m also bothered by on-screen violence), and personally engaging in conflict leaves me feeling unwell for days.
Do you find yourself lingering in the quiet of your closet each time you hang up a shirt, or do you secretly wish that invisibility cloaks were not just a product of J.K. Rowling’s imagination? Do you, like me, truly look forward to lying in the silent darkness with your child night after night as they fall asleep? These all could be signs that you’re an HSP, too.
Growing up, I was taught that my high sensitivity was a major personality flaw, something I needed to overcome in order to be “normal.” It wasn’t until I was struggling with postpartum anxiety and falling into the Google vortex one night that I came upon the term: Highly Sensitive Persons. After some research, I saw myself clearly for the first time. Am I deeply moved by art and music? Check. Am I overly conscientious? Yup. Does my nervous system get frazzled to the point that I seek out dark, quiet places? Yes, please! What a huge relief it was to learn that one in five people are HSPs, and that I’m not a big weirdo.
Unlike Sensory Processing Disorder (SPD), being highly sensitive is not a DSM-5-recognized condition. According to SPS/HSP researcher and temperament advisor Jadzia Jagiellowicz, PhD, it is “a normal variation in personality.” She explains that, depending on how we were parented and our experiences growing up (for example, whether we had parents who positively supported us through new situations or, alternately, routinely pushed us too far beyond our comfort zones), HSPs can be more predisposed to negative thinking. Persistent patterns of negative thinking can lead to disorders such as anxiety or depression.
Being an HSP is often confused with being an introvert. Like me, 70 per cent are, but that leaves 30 per cent who are extroverts. These individuals find socializing energizing, yet still require solo downtime to process and reset.
I wish I’d learned about being an HSP earlier in my life, because it would have saved me a lot of self-doubt, especially as a new mom.
I didn’t take my son out grocery shopping by myself until he was six months old. At the apex of sleep-deprivation, the lights, the noise, and the busyness were too distressing. I avoided mommy groups, because sustaining rational conversation and paying attention to my baby overloaded my raw brain. None of my other mom friends had these issues, and the fact that I struggled with seemingly mundane parenting activities made me start questioning my parental competence, and my sanity.
Downtime isn’t a luxury for HSPs—it’s a necessity. It’s a way to recalibrate when our systems get overwhelmed. Pre-baby, for me, this meant checking out: leaving a situation, or immersing my attention in something else, like haunting dark corners of libraries, journalling, playing music, or other calming, solitary pursuits. But parents can’t check out—it’s a 24/7 gig.
We recently moved to a smaller community (with much cheaper housing prices), which enables me to work from home and care for my son full-time. I’m endlessly grateful for this privilege, but on particularly trying days, I sometimes catch myself wistfully recalling my days as a librarian. Yes, it could get busy and loud when a class of children came in, but then they left and all was peaceful once again.
As my son, now three, gets older, it’s hard not to be dragged into his emotions, especially because they are more intense and unpredictable at this age. His demands are repeatedly, urgently, and LOUDLY articulated, his outbursts have become more physical, and, as daily life gets busier, he’s not the only one bursting into tears at seemingly small things.
Because afternoon naps are a thing of the past now (sniff), I try not to over-schedule us, and I ensure there is flex-time within each day. This allows us (OK, me) to pause and regroup with quiet activities like beach-combing or reading together. On busier or more intense days, I survive with deep breaths and eked-out moments of mindfulness. Nightly solo time with a book or crosswords helps me to reset.
Monitoring my physiological stress response helps me identify triggers and be proactive about avoiding—or at least reducing—them. The lights in our home are warm but dim, and I try to keep background noise to a minimum (with the exception of soft music). Starting with a comfortable sanctuary makes the added noise of my son’s frequently enthusiastic play more manageable.
But, life isn’t always something we can manage. Sometimes your little darling escalates into an ear-splitting tantrum in the middle of the supermarket and you (perhaps already frazzled from menu planning and toddler wrangling) start to feel the burning spotlight of public shame on your cheeks and a rising surge of emotion. What now?
Jagiellowicz teaches her patients a regulation technique she calls “talkbacks” to help calm negative emotions. “A child’s public tantrum is not always such a big reflection on you,” she says. She suggests telling yourself things like, “‘This is perfectly normal for children to have these kinds of outbursts, because they haven’t learned to regulate their emotions yet. These kinds of things are going to happen. I’m not a bad mother if I can’t get this dialed down.’”
Time will tell if my son is an HSP, like his mama, although I suspect that he is. Regardless, he’s learning emotional awareness from watching me cope with my own emotions. If I am short with him, he’ll ask, “Mama, are you flust-lated?”
And then together we think of a solution to the problem that has me frustrated. Sometimes I count to ten, but it’s not a threat—it’s a way for me to calm myself down before acting. I hope that his exposure to these regulation techniques will help build his resilience and adaptability. He frequently reminds me to “Breathe, Mama, breathe!”
Parenting is a wild ride, whether you’re an introvert or an extrovert, whether you have toddlers or teenagers, whether you’re raising five kids or just one. (One child is quite enough for me, thank you!) Despite the challenges, I’m grateful to be an HSP parent. It helps me support my son and empathize with how overwhelming it must be for him: a little person navigating a big, new world.