Originally shared on The Highly Sensitive Refuge on October 27, 2021
When you’re parenting a highly sensitive child, the most important thing is to accept them for who they are, not who you expect them to be.
My highly sensitive child (HSC) is now a 21-year-old. She was a challenging baby, a sassy toddler, and a wise kindergartener. In third grade, we started noticing some unusual behaviors in her: aggression toward me, verbal outbursts, school avoidance, stomachaches, and headaches. We brought her to the pediatrician, where she received her first of five mental illness diagnoses: generalized anxiety disorder, characterized by persistent anxiety and worrying, as well as worse-case scenario thinking (and overthinking). This appointment was the start of our mental illness journey.
We spent seven years in the mental health system believing our child was struggling with multiple mental illnesses. I didn’t fully accept this; I was searching for alternative reasons for our child’s struggles.
When my daughter spent six months at an Inpatient Residential Treatment Facility, I started to focus on myself. One day, I was in a metaphysical store looking for crystals that might support my transformation and healing. I was talking with the owner and explaining the struggles my daughter was experiencing. The woman said, “I think your daughter is an empath.” I had never heard that term. She went on to explain what it meant to be a highly sensitive person (HSP) and empath — which, for all intents and purposes, are one and the same. When she said that an empath “feels the emotions of others as if they were their own” I had an aha moment. She was defining us! These words brought clarity to our past, present, and future.
As a child, I was called timid, shy, reserved, and sensitive. But I had never heard the term highly sensitive person or empath until 2014, as I stood in that metaphysical store. That moment changed the direction of everything for myself and my child.
Learning How to Parent a Highly Sensitive Child
When my daughter returned from her stay at the facility, we went in a different direction with her care, beginning a holistic journey towards supporting her as a highly sensitive child and empath — a sensitive empath, if you will. She didn’t have a disorder or mental illness. Instead, her nervous system was overwhelmed, and she felt the emotions of all of those around her. Being misunderstood or misdiagnosed can cause long-term issues, like trust, low self-esteem, shame, and anger. We have a trait, not a disorder.
This new direction opened us up to teachers, healers, and different modalities. Now, we’re both living life as healthy HSPs. My daughter still has challenging days, but she has developed other coping skills to support herself. She has a healer instead of a therapist. If she’s feeling overwhelmed or overstimulated, she uses flower essences and meditation instead of medications. It is a beautiful space to be in — a place of self-acceptance vs. denial of your true self.
Motherhood is always challenging. But as an HSP parenting an HSC, we feel everything on another level: emotions, smells, and sensations are all amplified. We experience parenting through a different lens, a lens of feeling deeply, being in tune with others on another level, and having a sense of compassion that is overwhelming and wonderful. With this awareness, I want to share some of my tips for parenting a highly sensitive child.
7 Tips for Parenting a Highly Sensitive Child
1. When they get overwhelmed, have ways to calm yourself down, as well as your highly sensitive child.
As an HSP parent, you may feel overwhelmed by the stress and sensory overload present when raising children, and from noise, clutter, multitasking, tantrums, and arguments. Unfortunately, stress can often amplify emotions and lower your ability to reason appropriately.
When my HSC daughter would get upset, I would respond with equal force. But it didn’t solve anything and only made things worse. One day, after a particularly loud argument, I decided to try a different approach. I started to whisper or speak quietly instead of yelling. This took her by surprise, and it got her attention. She began to use her quiet voice in response to me. I have used this in other scenarios, too; instead of yelling over the noise, I’d bend down to her eye level, speak calmly in my soft voice, and ask questions to communicate emotions. This accomplished so much more than yelling ever did.
2. Ask for help — there is no shame in it and will help you feel less overwhelmed.
I expected to enjoy parenting. It’s been a source of great joy in my life, but it has also drained me. As a mom, it’s easy to get stuck in the daily hustle and lose sight of yourself.
When I decided to become a stay-at-home mom, I expected the days to be enjoyable — instead, I found it isolating and overwhelming. So, after talking with my spouse, we decided I would work part-time, which helped balance my life as a mom with work. It’s crucial to advocate for yourself so you don’t feel depleted. Even if you take one or two days each month, you have a break to reset, take care of yourself, and avoid burnout and anxiety or depression.
In 2019, I attended a workshop with Dr. Elaine Aron, author of The Highly Sensitive Person and The Highly Sensitive Parent. At it, she shared the following: If you must choose between spending money on childcare or on college, spend it on childcare, as this will make it easier for you to be a better parent.
It’s important to know yourself well enough to see what you need to feel happy and balanced. Getting help for yourself is a sign of strength, not weakness. It’s all about understanding and acknowledging what you need, like someone to pick up your child if you need some alone time or or delegating some tasks to other people.
“Self-care” is not just a buzzword; it is crucial for HSPs. We need time alone to refuel, to center and ground ourselves. Unfortunately, caring for ourselves is often neglected because we are so focused on caring for others. It’s important to remind yourself that you need to attend to your own care. Here are some of my favorite self-care practices:
- Epsom salt bath
- Taking a nap
- Grounding myself, such as focusing on my breathing, carrying a grounding object (like a crystal or stone), being present in nature, sitting in sunlight, standing like a tree with my feet planted firmly on the ground while stretching my arms upwards
4. Join a community of like-minded people.
Being part of a community is essential for well-being. Find or create an understanding group of moms for support. This should be a safe space to vent and share experiences. Being an HSP can make you feel like an outsider in groups of other moms. Some do not understand your extra sensitivity or the level of intensity and emotions highly sensitive children experience. But some support is better than no support.
I found the most support when I was gathered in community with other women, which is why I created Empath Mama. Another trusted community is the Highly Sensitive Refuge Facebook group, which has been a lifesaver.
Allow your child a safe space to feel their emotions and validate what they are experiencing. As a sensitive person, we can easily take on our children’s emotions, and they can feel like our own. Our parental instincts also lead us to try to make everything better.
However, be aware of how this could lead to a codependent relationship: I’m not okay unless you’re okay. (Note: HSPs tend to be prone to codependency.) I often jumped in to “fix” a situation so that my daughter didn’t have to feel sad or disappointed. But now, I believe this didn’t allow her to trust herself and led her to become an adult that didn’t know how to regulate her own emotions.
6. Listen to your intuition — always.
For highly sensitive people, our intuition is a vital part of us. So listen to your inner wisdom and that of your child. We all have that inner wisdom, that sense of knowing, the gut feelings that guide us through our challenges and experiences. We just need to be silent and listen.
For so long, I listened to the guidance of others, doctors, friends, and family. They meant well, but they didn’t fully understand the needs of my child. My daughter knew what she needed, but I often overshadowed her intuition with what I thought was right. Listen to your child, as they know what they need, and they will teach you how to raise them. For example, when my daughter was 14 years old, she felt that she would thrive more in an online school environment. We hesitated to support her decision, but we let her make her own educated choice and it ended up being a great fit for her.
7. Practice acceptance — of who you are, as well as who your child is.
Accepting yourself for who you truly are, not the person others say you should be, is essential. When you are coming from a place of self-acceptance, you’re setting an excellent example for your child. Most importantly, accept them for who they are, not who you expect them to be or hoped they would become.
There was a period when I mourned the loss of the child that I thought my daughter would become. My pushing her to be someone else may have caused some of her anxiety. I wanted my daughter to be more active and sociable, but she preferred staying at home and reading. I was always aware of the negative way I was perceived by others when I was a child, so I wanted my daughter to be different from me.
However, I learned this was a mistake. When we don’t feel accepted for who we are, we feel disconnected from others and from ourselves. This disconnection can cause long-term emotional and mental issues. I now accept her fully, as I accept myself, and as all of us who are HSPs should do.
“Sensitive children are also more affected by the moods of their parents — for example, anxiety. You can imagine the vicious cycle that can create.” –Dr. Elaine Aron
Being an HSP, empath, and mom is challenging, but it also brings beautiful gifts. We have the ability to feel full of joy and love on another level. I understand what you’re going through, and I want to support you.
I have created a free Facebook group of like-feeling moms called Empath Mama, and I would love to have you join others like you for loving support and guidance.