Are You a Highly Sensitive Parent?

Highly sensitive people are more vulnerable to getting hurt, overstimulated, overwhelmed, and tired. And that also means motherhood can be even more of a challenge.
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By Patricia Harteneck, PhD, a senior psychologist at the Seleni Institute, a nonprofit mental health and wellness center for women and mothers in New York City.


Psychologist Elaine Aron coined the term "highly sensitive person" 18 years ago when she published her bestseller, The Highly Sensitive Person. According to Aron, highly sensitive people make up 20 percent of the population and feel things -- everything -- more intensely than the average person. They are very sensitive to sound, visual stimulation, crowds, and smells. They are also affected by the emotions of the people around them and pick up on nonverbal cues more easily than most of us.

All this makes highly sensitive people more vulnerable to getting hurt, overstimulated, overwhelmed, and tired. And that also means motherhood can be even more of a challenge.

In my practice as a psychotherapist, I work with many highly sensitive women who have a hard time maintaining a healthy balance for themselves while managing motherhood. Together, my patients and I have discovered the following ways to help them cope with the challenges of being a highly sensitive person as well as a parent.

Learn your limits. To maintain your physical and emotional well-being, it is very important to set clear boundaries and defend them when necessary. You may be tempted to push yourself to your limit, but doing so can come with a heavy price, such as migraines or chronic fatigue.

Pay attention to the subtle messages your body sends you when you need to back off. And listen. You are the only one who knows your limits, so it is your job to communicate them to others. Show them this article if you need some concrete backup.

Take care of you. Just as important as not pushing yourself is actively taking care of yourself. Find a place where you can rest, do something you enjoy, and retreat into your own little world. Some ideas: reading, watching TV, taking a warm bath, listening to music, lying down in a dark room, meditating, or praying. You need to take time to decompress and re-energize. Setting aside some time alone should be part of your daily routine. Yes, daily.

Be mindful of your thoughts. Highly sensitive people benefit from a rich inner life, but the downside is that they sometimes worry too much about everything, especially about how others feel. It's hard to do, but if you can avoid getting caught in negative thinking patterns, such as worry, regret, and self-blame, it will lower your stress and help you feel more relaxed.

One way to do that is to be mindful of your thoughts. Notice the ones that take you away from the present moment or dwell on the negative, acknowledge them, and then let them go. Turn your attention back to whatever you are doing instead.

Accept yourself. Highly sensitive people are excellent critics and, frequently, perfectionists. They can have difficulty accepting their own flaws and often blame themselves for events in their past and present. It's very helpful to go beyond the blame by looking at your life and its challenges as an opportunity to take action. Ask yourself what a situation can teach, release any guilt you have, and trust that you know how to move forward.

Take parenting breaks. It's easy to become overwhelmed by the physical and emotional demands of children and the lack of time to relax. Highly sensitive parents need more time off from their parenting duties than other parents do. This requires learning how to ask for help and taking frequent breaks to be alone and with other adults.

Know that it's ok. Many parents feel ambivalent about needing time away from parenting, but you shouldn't. Separations are good when you and your children are both doing something for yourselves when you are apart. You will return to your child refreshed and more ready to enjoy being together. Having these kinds of needs does not make you "less than" a good parent.

All parents can benefit from following this advice. When you can get past comparing yourself to others, you can safely explore ways to fulfill your role as a mother that work for you.

Consider professional help. Making any of these changes is easier said than done. But it is possible. If you find it difficult to prioritize your needs and take care of yourself in a way that will benefit you and your children, consider talking with a therapist. He or she can help you identify and meet your needs as you manage the highly stimulating experience of being a mother.

The good news is, parenting research is pretty definite that sensitive, responsive parenting is one of the most important determinants of children's attachment and well-being. And that is something you excel at, which means you are probably doing a fantastic job at understanding and meeting the needs of your family. The next step is doing the same for yourself.

This article was originally published on the Seleni Institute website and is reprinted here with permission. Seleni is a nonprofit mental health and wellness center providing clinical services, research funding, and online information and support for women and mothers. You can follow Seleni on Twitter @selenidotorg.

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