I love my child, but I can’t stand it when they whine or tug at my clothes over and over!
I want to be the best parent I can be, but I feel like I’m failing the expectations placed on me by myself, my partner, my family, social media, or society.
When I don’t get enough alone time, I get irritable. I just want a break, but I feel guilty that I sometimes don’t want to be around my child.
These are just a few of the thoughts that my clients have shared with me about parenthood as a Highly Sensitive Person (HSP). HSPs make up about 20% of the population, according to researcher Elaine Aron, Ph.D. Being Highly Sensitive – also known as “sensory processing sensitivity” in research literature – is not a diagnosis but rather a trait which comes with its own unique gifts and challenges. HSPs enjoy heightened awareness, empathy, and depth of processing, among other benefits. They also may experience some challenges with sensory overstimulation or feeling overwhelmed with their own emotions or those of others.
For many sensitive parents, myself included, one of the most challenging aspects of becoming a parent is managing sensory overload and overstimulation. When our own children are the source of our overstimulation – whether through crying, physical touch, or the various smells and sensations of parenting – we can feel deeply guilty that we become irritable or crave time away from them. Frequently, the experiences of pregnancy and birth are intensified by an HSP’s deep emotional and physical awareness.
Some HSP parents experience Perinatal Mood and Anxiety Disorders (PMADs) in conjunction with their sensitivity. For example, a Highly Sensitive parent of a baby with medical issues may experience heightened anxiety as a result of deeply empathizing with their child’s pain. In another case, an HSP parent of two young children may experience panic attacks related to the noise and competing demands of an infant and toddler. That was my experience, and understanding that overstimulation was the root of my physical and mental panic symptoms was critical in finding ways to calm my nervous system and ultimately eliminate my panic attacks.
It’s important for providers to note that – at least anecdotally – up to 50% of therapy-seekers may resonate with being Highly Sensitive, so it’s highly likely that you have at least a few HSPs on your caseload. For professionals supporting the perinatal community, educating yourself on the HSP trait is a helpful first step in understanding how this may show up for your clients.
Starting a conversation about sensitivity and overstimulation can be supportive for many perinatal HSPs. Once a baseline understanding of the HSP trait is established, you can begin to explore how a patient’s sensitivity might show up in unique ways, and from there, you can identify specific supports or coping skills. For example, an HSP patient of yours may need additional support to create a comfortable and successful birth experience, such as requesting dimmed light or using noise-canceling headphones while in the hospital.
It is also critical to celebrate the strengths of High Sensitivity. For example, an HSP parent’s elevated ability to empathize with their child and be attuned to their needs offers a strong basis for healthy attachment. Additionally, sensitive parents are often deep processors, meaning that they tend to be very intentional around how they want to care for their child physically, developmentally, and emotionally. Naming these gifts can help an HSP parent to see beyond some of the challenges that they may be experiencing and to notice their unique strengths.
Once you identify that the HSP trait may be impacting your (or your client’s) perinatal experience, you can begin to take practical steps to reduce sensory overstimulation and add in support. Many Highly Sensitive parents benefit from some combination of the following:
- Validating that their experience as a Highly Sensitive parent may be challenging, but that this does not mean they are a “bad” parent – in fact, they have much to offer their child in terms of their emotional attunement and awareness!
- Accessing extra support when possible, including psychotherapy, childcare, postpartum doulas, support groups, physical care (massage, physical therapy, etc), help with housework, and social connection. PSI’s online support groups, provider directory, and resource page can be a wonderful place to start for parents seeking additional support. When these supports are not easily available, empathizing with your client, advocating for them, and seeking creative solutions can go a long way.
- Scheduling daily down time where they can attend to their own physical and emotional needs. Often a partner, childcare provider, or other support person can help make this happen, but it can require a bit of prior planning, communication, or budgeting.
- Making small tweaks such as wearing noise-reducing headphones, decluttering toys and baby gear, or choosing low-intensity outings to reduce overstimulation.
- Limiting social media and internet use to reduce exposure to negativity and comparison to other parents.
- Learning and practicing coping skills such as deep breathing, visualization, movement/exercise, listening to music, tapping (EFT), spending time in nature, and mindfulness.
While HSPs may experience parenthood in unique ways, they have so much to offer both their children and themselves. Often, becoming a parent can heighten the experience of being Highly Sensitive, making it more important than ever for providers to be aware of the HSP trait and how it shows up in the perinatal period. Holding space for the mental, physical, and emotional aspects of this time for parents is at the core of what perinatal providers do – and with just a little bit of knowledge, empathy, and support, we can provide life-changing support for HSP parents at a time when they need it most.
Amy Lajiness, LCSW, PMH-C, is a psychotherapist serving Perinatal and Highly Sensitive (HSP) parents in San Diego and virtually in California. In addition to her private practice, Inner Nature Therapy, Amy has created an online resource center for HSP parents at www.highlysensitiveparenthood.com. When not living her passion of supporting HSP parents, you can find Amy reading, playing guitar, and spending time with friends and family in the great outdoors.