I teach conscious parenting classes to hundreds of adults around the world, many of whom are part of sensitive families, and I even wrote a book that helps us discipline sensitive kids in ways that do no harm. I live and breathe this stuff.
From my research and experience, I know highly sensitive people tend to feel emotional stimuli deeply, having a rich inner life. The highs feel higher, which is great, but the lows sometimes feel overwhelming.
However, being a highly sensitive parent offers us some unique advantages. It can have positive outcomes for our kids, such as increased empathy. Here, I’m sharing how highly sensitive parents can use our strengths to improve our children’s lives (and the world around us).
What is a highly sensitive parent?
A highly sensitive person is someone who experiences increased emotional sensitivity as well as sensory processing sensitivity. This means we may be hyper-aware of sensory input, as well. (While HSP typically stands for “highly sensitive person,” I’m using it here to mean “highly sensitive parent.”)
Loud noises can feel louder. Bright lights can seem brighter. Too much touch can send us reeling. In other words, good luck being a parent.
An HSP does not necessarily have sensory processing disorder, but instead, we have sensory processing sensitivity, which is simply a personality trait common to all highly sensitive persons. Nothing about the highly sensitive person is broken.
Being an HSP is tougher in some ways, of course. We know we’re more sensitive to triggers, be they emotional or sensory stimuli. For example, if we’ve been out running errands with the kids all day, we might need to dial down the noise when we get home, at least until our nervous system recalibrates a bit.
However, through my work and experience, I’ve found many bright spots to being a highly sensitive parent.
How highly sensitive parents are changing the world
1. HSPs bring peace to their relationships
The close relationships that many highly sensitive parents forge with our children are remarkably solid. HSPs are often deeply loyal, and as such, will have strong feelings of allegiance to our loved ones and work to preserve our relationships.
We may be more inclined to follow conscious parenting and peaceful discipline principles that prioritize the good of the relationship with our children, rather than aiming to control them.
Children who feel valued grow up to choose relationships in which they feel valued as well. This creates a cycle of healing.
2. HSPs stand up for what they believe in
Because highly sensitive parents are easily overwhelmed by negative emotions and actions, we have less tolerance for emotionally aggressive behavior, especially if it’s directed at our child. This can awaken our mama bear tendencies (or our role-equivalent if we’re not mama.)
We’ll spring into action to protect our kids if we believe they’re threatened in any way. For example, being more sensitive to emotional tone, we may pick up the subtleties of interactions our children relay to us. We’re less likely to brush them off or assume everything’s fine when it may not be.
It goes beyond this, though. Because we care so much, the HSP will also be among the first to push back on any injustices we see. Although we may be easily overstimulated by negative outcomes, we’re also the first ones to stand up for what’s right.
This might manifest in our being among the first to send aid to a part of the world struck by tragedy and modeling for our kids how to make a difference for others.
In doing so, highly sensitive parents become the change-makers of the world. We’ll stand up for what’s right even in the face of adversity. What a gift to model this for our children, especially for those kids who are also highly sensitive.
3. HSPs create a cycle of healing in their family
The brain regions of sensitive people are hyper-aware of body language, emotional sensitivity, emotional cues and subtle stimuli, such as facial expressions and non-verbal communication.
Being extra-aware of other people’s emotions results in increased responsiveness. It also affects our ability to be present, because the highly sensitive brain doesn’t have a way to dismiss what’s going on around it. It’s going to notice things that others might miss.
As a result, the child of a highly sensitive parent may be more likely to feel seen by their caregiver. Kids who feel seen and valued aren’t growing up to pass along their pain to others; they’re passing along the healing they’ve received.
Self-care for the highly sensitive parent
Knowing that the HSP has greater sensory processing sensitivity and can be deeply affected by our surroundings, we need to be proactive about self-care.
Ideally, we do this before we start feeling overwhelmed. Here’s some advice for prioritizing self-care:
- Reframe so-called negative emotions as messengers; all feelings are safe. They’re just information.
- Minimize bright lights and loud noises for those whose sensory processing sensitivity is coupled with generalized high sensitivity. (Those battery-operated toys? Yeah, no thank you.)
- Asking for help. When we need a break, there’s never any shame in reaching out for support.
Because HSPs tend to be sensitive to both external and internal stimuli, we’re also sensitive to our own emotions. It’s helpful for us check in on what we’re feeling and needing and what we’re bringing to the table in our parenting.
If, for example, we’ve had a lot of environmental stimuli before the kids are home from school—bringing with them, of course, more sensory stimuli—we can be intentional about carving out a few minutes of quiet time before their arrival. Our nervous system needs it.
A note on being a highly sensitive parent
We can model for our children how to manage both positive and negative influences of life with effective coping skills, knowing that our deeper processing also empowers us to bring deeper healing to the world.
Acevedo BP, Aron EN, Aron A, Sangster MD, Collins N, Brown LL. The highly sensitive brain: an fMRI study of sensory processing sensitivity and response to others’ emotions. Brain Behav. 2014;4(4):580-594. doi:10.1002/brb3.242.
Brandon A. Kohrt, Katherine Ottman, Catherine Panter-Brick, Melvin Konner, Vikram Patel. Why we heal: The evolution of psychological healing and implications for global mental health. Clinical Psychology Review, Volume 82, 2020, 101920, ISSN 0272-735. doi.org/10.1016/j.cpr.2020.101920.
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