For Highly Sensitive People–particularly introverts–the concept of parenting may elicit feelings of anxiety and overwhelm in addition to the standard emotion of joy. There is an extra layer of challenge due to the ease with which HSPs become overstimulated and overwhelmed—a situation that occurs naturally because kids have energy and curiosity.
For introverted HSP parents, having peaceful moments in which to reenergize is as crucial as water and air. I know the ridiculously large amounts of quiet alone time I require, and I wonder how introverted, easily-overstimulated parents can handle it.
If they ignore their need for solitude and inner reflection, their mental well-being can suffer. They may even lash out in frustration due to sensory overwhelm, creating an emotionally charged household. Children will absorb that stress and tension that surrounds them. That’s not good.
And of course, there’s the guilt. The solitude parents require for their own needs? That could be quality time spent with the little ones.
But introverted, HSP moms and dads can thrive at the parenting game—IF they have a game plan. How? By planning ahead to ensure they have the time they require to recharge. By practicing self-care, these parents can be more present and energized during family time.
A reader named Mike R., who has 5 young children, volunteered the tactics he and his family use to help him when he’s feeling overstimulated and needing peace. He realized that past outbursts of anger were due to neglecting his introverted, highly sensitive needs. Now, his wife and kids know they need to help Dad stay level.
Here are some tips (mostly Mike’s) on staying calm as an introverted HSP when you’ve got kids:
- Take a mini-retreat. Just you. Whether it’s once a week, once a month, or once a year, take a half-day (or longer, if you can) to do anything you want, alone. Read for hours at a bookstore or coffee shop. Get a massage. Take a long walk. Work on your novel. Whatever you want. Mike says: “Every 3 months, I go on a half-day retreat, just me by myself doing quiet things. Last time, I spent an hour at church then the rest of the afternoon at the library with my headphones (SimplyNoise.com pink noise!) and my laptop and the novel I’m working on.”
- Give yourself permission to have alone time. Your kids rely on you for stability and balance, and you can’t provide that if you’re overwhelmed or irritable. Don’t feel guilty for making sure you’re the best you for your kids.
- Schedule recharge time every day. Don’t neglect it. How about this: after everyone is asleep, engage in a quiet project or activity (not social media!) for thirty minutes to an hour—like writing, reading a book, drawing, or listening to music.
- Or try a “room hour”. At a certain time of the day—say, after lunch—the kids go to their room(s) for one hour. Tell the kids that this is a special time where everyone gets to recharge alone and do whatever they want. As the parent, this hour can restore calm and patience that may have worn thin earlier in the day.
- Use headphones to listen to pink noise or peaceful sounds if the ambient noise in your house is getting to you. (But, obviously, don’t ignore your kids). Mike says: “If it’s a Saturday and we’re all doing chores and it is especially loud, I’ll put on my headphones and listen to a mountain stream or pink noise while I do mine.”
- When planning outings and family vacations or trips, ensure that you haven’t scheduled too many “social” days in the week before and after the trip.
- Marriage and partnership is about compromise, of course. If your partner is an extrovert, you will have to engage in draining social activities, because that is what energizes your partner. Compensate by alternating who gets to choose activities. If there is a day full of socializing, compensate with a day of doing nothing. Mike says: “Since my wife is an ambivert and can’t stand sitting around all day doing nothing–which is my ideal weekend every weekend–we use ‘free trait’ theory as outlined in Susan Cain’s book Quiet. If we have a day of chores, or a day of a lot of socializing, we compensate with a day of nothing. It’s a compromise: if we always just sat around doing nothing, I’d be in Nirvana, and she’d be miserable.”
- Enforce a rule that only one person can speak at a time at the dinner table. Pitched as a family game, it can keep the kids happy while calming chaotic mealtimes. Mike says: “I cannot follow multiple conversations at once, though my HSP brain makes me want to. So if multiple people are talking, I just eat, or stare lazily out the window, until it stops. Then I’ll ask each person who was speaking to repeat themselves, in turn. If I want to say something, I raise my hand. The kids actually call on me: ‘Yes, Daddy, what would you like to say?’ And they do the same thing.”
- Don’t ignore the voice in your head that says you need a break. Leave the room if you need to. Even if it’s just for five minutes.
- Take your temperament temperature. Mike says, “As outlined in Dr. Marti Olsen Laney’s book, The Introvert Advantage, I take my ‘temperament temperature’ daily, sometimes multiple times per day. I have it as a daily recurring task on my task list. If I see the signs that I’ve been an ‘outie’ too long, I make immediate adjustments. I might say to my wife, ‘I’m going to be up several hours late reading tonight, I really need the quiet time.’”
- Share your interests with your kids so you can spend time together in ways you enjoy. Try reading books, gardening, or watching movies together. Similarly, pay attention to and accept introverted traits in your children. Do you like to take short breaks from parties? Or get grumpy when there’s too much going on around you? Your child may feel the same way! Your understanding can make a world of difference to helping your little human thrive and accept who they are in a world that values an extroverted nature.
Mike says: “Perhaps the best part of realizing all of this about myself is that it has helped me to see it in my children. Two of my children are introverts/HSP. As I’ve learned how to thrive, I’m helping them to thrive.
“The introverted son would often have huge anger blow-ups, we thought, for no reason. Now, when we see them coming, I can ask him, ‘Do you want to go to your room and take a break?’ He’ll say yes, disappear for 15-30 minutes, and come back a new kid.
“We recently had a party at my house and all of the people in our private space was hard on my introvert/HSP daughter. So she and I went upstairs, leaving all the company downstairs, and we ate in my office and we talked and watched cartoons together. It gave us both a break from the crowds and we were both better off for it.”
What tactics do you use to deal with overwhelm? Please share in the comments below.
Thanks to Mike R. for these awesome tips!
Further reading: Recharge, reset: How introverted moms cope with family chaos
Check out Dr. Elaine Aron’s book, The Highly Sensitive Child.
This is fascinating, and I am deeply impressed by the respectful, gentle approaches to personal diversity. Thank you Kelly and Mike.
I really appreciate this article. I am both an introvert and an HSP and it’s taken me many painful years to realize this. I was just so irritable and sarcastic much of the time and didn’t know why. The more I take care of myself, the more I have time to be kind to others. Keep writing! I found it very difficult to deal with my daughter who is extroverted, ADHD and somewhat sensitive all at the same time. She is a handful at all times. I’m not sure how I would manage with another child though my husband and I wish to have another. Perhaps think of writing an article with how ADHD and HSP interact within a person and with others.
Irritable & sarcastic? Who, me?? 🙂 I hear you!!! Hi Sabrina, thank you for your comment. I’m glad you like the post. I have to say, I don’t know a lot about ADHD but I should learn more. Hang in there and remember to take time for yourself!!
I am an introvert HSP. I have just recently, through a counselor, found a name for how I have felt my whole life. My hubby & I have sort of a Brady Bunch situation- he had 3 kiddos, and I had 3 kiddos, and we have 1 together. His oldest son does not live with us, but the other 2 are with us full time(along with my 3 kids & our 2 year old daughter together). They both are on the autism spectrum and my step daughter has ADHD as well. We have also just moved, and I am feeling incredibly overwhelmed! I just happened to find your blog post, and I am so thankful for the suggestions! It is so hard for me to find even a moment to myself and I know I need to take those times to recharge. It’s good to find that I am not alone, that I am not a terrible person for feeling overwhelmed and stressed.
Thank you again for the suggestions!
Thank you, Jenna! I’m so glad it helped you!
I just recently found out about HSP when I was researching bipolar disorder, which both my son and I have been diagnosed with. While reading about it I instantly knew that I was an HSP. It made me start thinking “am I really bipolar” or just highly sensitive. My son and I have an extremely close relationship, he’s my pride and joy. But it’s been a tough road both emotionally and physically. Unlike my daughter my son needs someone to keep him entertained 24/7. I try to be there for him but I find myself exhausted by the effort it takes to keep him from getting bored. I find I need to shut myself away to regroup but then the guilt starts and I become even more exhausted. I’ve been plagued with one health problem after another, fibromyalgia being the worst. So the guilt keeps piling on to the point where I’m anxious and nervous all the time. I find myself falling into a depression not taking care of myself. Always worried about how my actions are affecting my children. I know I love my kids more than anything but that’s just not enough. If my son is going to be able to make it in this world he needs more from me than just love. At 11 he already knows that I have a hard time saying no and if he keeps at me I’ll give in and give him whatever he asks for. Because I feel his pain I’ve babied him and have not been able to give him that tough love that he needs that every child needs. My daughter is sensitive like me so often times she gets overshadowed by her brother. So she’s developed her own insecurities. I’ve been searching and praying for help. So when I came across HSP it was an answer to my prayers. I immediately downloaded Elaine Aron’s book and immersed myself in it. I can’t tell you how much it has helped me to understand myself better and with understanding comes acceptance and the desire and strength to change how I handle things. My children are my greatest inspiration. Thank you all for sharing your thoughts. It has helped me so much!
Buffie, thank you for sharing! I’m so glad that discovering high sensitivity has helped you and your relationship with your family. It sounds like you are working hard to do your best…don’t forget to take time for yourself, too. 🙂
I always knew, without any doubt, that I didn’t want children, but it is only lately that I have realized that my HSP-ness is at the core. I love my nieces and little cousins and the other children in my life, and we get along great and have fun together, and it’s such a luxury that I don’t have to be in charge of them day in, day out.
On a separate note, I am astonished at how often I see the advice, as in this post, to deal with noise by using headphones to listen to other noise. I guess it must work for many people, or they wouldn’t suggest it. But for me it just adds more sounds; I end up hearing the music or white noise from the headphones AND the ambient noise, and they clash and make each other even more annoying, so it makes me more stressed instead of less stressed. (I have expensive so-called noise-cancelling headphones, but the only noise they seem to reduce is the roar of an airplane.)
Earplugs reduce the external volume, but then I start to hear the sound of my own heart beating, and the noise my feet make when they hit the ground reverberating through my body, and the plugs feel uncomfortable in my ears, so again it’s trading one stressor for another. (I had custom-fitted earplugs made — the discomfort comes from having them in my ear at all, not from the fit.)
Sound sensitivity in our noisy world is the single hardest part of my sensitivity. The only things I have found that help are (1) seeking out quiet places and spending time enjoying them, (2) avoiding noisy public places, and (3) appreciating the flip side, my ability to hear subleties in music that seem to be missed by most other people.
This is an interesting list. I discovered I was HSP back when my first child was around 2. But I largely ignored my findings for various reasons. There were many times when I wondered why I just couldn’t handle parenting like other moms could, why I was almost always overwhelmed. Then we had a second child 4 years later and that was my tipping point. Then we moved when the baby was 11 months old to Los Angeles off all places and I spent the next 4 years struggling to adjust and figure out why I just couldn’t cope with anything and why I had become so angry. I also discovered I was INFJ, which was a real eye opener. Because I didn’t really know what was going on with me or that my needs were not being met, I couldn’t communicate what I needed and just basically was trying to survive.
Finally, we were able to escape the madness of the city and found our dream house on 10 acres in a small town in northern San Diego. It was literally the first time in my life that I was able to feel at peace. Instead of being surrounded by constant noise and people and having to make time to escape, we get to choose how and when we interact with it all. My daughter is the only extrovert among us and she is beyond exhausting. But as she gets older and more independent, it gets easier on me. Luckily there are many activities for her to choose from in town where she can expend her energy and then we can come back to our “sanctuary.” My oldest, my son, on the other hand, is an introvert and sensitive, although I’m not sure I would say he was highly sensitive. He sort of naturally gravitated towards activities and ways of coping on his own. Which is amazing. He has the ability to just disappear when he needs his space. But there were a lot of early years when life was very tough on the both of us. And talk about parental guilt! Boy, could I write a book on that!
Noise is probably my biggest trigger. Smells is a close second. A lot of times I make dinner for husband and kids, and retreat to my room for peace and quiet while they eat. I cannot stand listening to people chew and swallow. And the end of the day I am just done. Anyway, all that to say, being an INFJ/HSP parent is very challenging. But the more I learn about myself and my needs and communicate those as best I can to my husband, the better off I am. And happier, too!
Thanks so much for sharing, Amanda!! I appreciate reading your experiences with your children and learning about your (and their) sensitivity. 🙂
I am so glad that you covered the topic of parenting! I wanted to write to you to ask if you have read anything about HSPs and pregnancy/childbirth. My daughter is now seven months old. I found pregnancy to be so exhausting – on every level, but especially on a HSP level . I was super aware of every change in my body and my mind. I felt constantly bombarded by this tiny person! As an introverted HSP, I felt I had no time to myself! By the end of the pregnancy I was saying to my husband “I just want to be alone!” On a positive note, I feel that my sensitivity helped me be so in tune with my body. Labor, of course, was intensely overstimulating! but because of my sensitivity to my bodies signals, I was able to have the labor experience that I desired. Thanks for writing this blog and for the podcast! And if there are any HSP moms that want to talk about their pregnancy and labor experience, I would love to hear about it!
Joye, thank you for your comment! Comments like yours scare me because I fear pretty much everything about pregnancy and parenthood! There is so much unknown, and there’s no turning back! I’d be interested to hear about your labor experience and how it feels to be a parent now with your little one. And congratulations, by the way! 🙂
Ha! I read my comment again and I guess it did sound pretty scary! I don’t want to discourage any woman from having a child if that is what she desires. It was a roller coaster of a ride, but it was definitely worth it. My little girl is so precious! Such an amazing miracle. I will get back to you soon about my labor experience.
Thank you for taking the time to make your podcasts. They are so validating! Being a HSP (and an introvert) are some of the main reasons I’ve chosen to bypass parenthood. It would be interesting to study what percentage of childfree folks are also HSPs. From reading the childfree thread on Reddit, it seems like most of us are indeed introverts.
Hi Amy Lynn, thanks for your comment and I’m so glad you like the podcasts! I, too, used to read /r/childfree but finally unsubscribed as it seemed so over-the-top and onesided sometimes–as if 100% of everything about babies/kids is terrible 100% of the time. As they often say on reddit, it’s a circlejerk. 🙂 But I digress.
I also wonder about parenting as an HSP. Since we have anticipatory grief, and in general we “look ahead” to things, perhaps we are more likely to think about the struggles and difficult aspects of parenting instead of the great things. Over the past couple years, I’ve been actively trying to think about the positives instead of dwelling on the negatives, just to try to make myself a more positive person and not so anti-kid. I can report than I *have* gotten better. I have also heard from HSP parents that they are absolutely in love with their kids and they mean the world to them. I can see how an HSP could get a lot of joy from parenting….but can they handle the incessant need for attention & chaos? I could go on….
I’m an introverted HSP, INFP and my dream growing up was to be a mother to lots of kids. That never went away, and after being married we had 5 kids in 8 years time (twins first). It has been both a dream and a nightmare from a HSP standpoint. My fourth and fifth had colic or reflux for the first 6 months to a year and would cry/scream for hours at night, waking up every 2-3 hours around the clock. Sleep deprivation and continuos overstimulation ran me ragged and I had anxiety issues which then turned into depression when things weren’t changing. At the same time I have such a gift to parent/nurture and serve my family/run a home efficiently. My attention to details, my empathy, my ability to be organized and multi task and be very creative in making things work has served my family so well. I don’t regret having a large family. Now that I know I’m HSP and know better what I need, Ive done better emotionally/mentally. Quiet time every day during my youngest nap is crucial and I have lots of quiet alone time at night too. I also make sure we do one thing out of the house every day because I feel overwhelmed when I’m home with all the kids energy all day. Getting out lessens the load on me as they better entertain themselves and I don’t feel so boxed in. School breaks can be tricky when kids are home all day. I’m at the end of spring break today and dealing with anxiety. It’s a reminder to work on self care. Natural calm magnesium throughout the day also has helped me to take the edge off when it comes to stress management.