My Interview for Parents Magazine on Strategies for Overwhelmed, Overstimulated, and Highly Sensitive Parents
Writer Felicia Schneiderhan reached out to me this month as a source for an article she is writing on overwhelmed, overstimulated, and Highly Sensitive parents for Parents Magazine. Here’s our interview from March 22, 2018 with lots of information and strategies for overstimulated and overwhelmed parents.
Questions from Parents Magazine writer Felicia Schneiderhan:
Felicia: What special considerations should HSP parents know/understand about themselves to bring their best selves to their children?
Laura: The innate trait of Highly Sensitive Persons (HSPs) is sensory processing sensitivity, as defined by Dr. Elaine Aron. Dr. Aron summarizes aspects of high sensitivity with the acronym DOES—and here I am quoting her: “depth of processing, overstimulation, emotional responsivity/empathy, and sensitivity to subtleties.”
The word sensitive in our culture often has a negative connotation. Being a highly sensitive person doesn’t mean you are neurotic or dramatic or needy by nature. It means that you process things more deeply—all of the sensory stimulation in your environment, interactions, emotions, subtle changes. This can be overwhelming. Add kids—and the kaleidoscope of their needs, little voices, little bodies in motion, and unpredictability—and this can mean even more stimulation for an HSP.
HSP parents are going to experience more overwhelm as a result of overstimulation. Highly sensitive parents just need more down time, more time for self-care, more time for quiet, than parents who are not highly sensitive. Being highly sensitive also means these parents are often more keenly attuned to their children and their needs, so they can parent very effectively when they are well rested, schedule their time judiciously, remain vigilant about self-care, and seek concrete support. Self-awareness is critical in managing the day to day for HSPs. I’d highlight these strategies:
1. Attend to your sleep hygiene.
2. Set a daily routine, as much as possible.
3. Manage your schedule by predicting limits and learning to say ‘no.’
4. Find means of self-regulation and self-soothing that work in the moment.
5. Schedule time alone in activities that are rejuvenating or in quiet, daily if possible and weekly at minimum.
6. Seek support actively from partner, extended family, and a therapist (like me!) who specializes in working with Highly Sensitive Persons.
A therapist who specializes in HSPs and who is also trained somatically, such as a Somatic Experiencing Practitioner, who can help you understand and attune to your nervous system and its regulation, can be, in my opinion, really beneficial.
Felicia: What happens to HSP parents if they don't take care of themselves?
Laura: When HSPs don’t take care of themselves they can experience activation in the nervous system that approaches or crosses over into survival states of fight/flight or freeze. Irritation, anger, and rage are all possible, and so are getting a bit fuzzy or spacy mentally, and feeling numb or shut down. Emotional overwhelm, exhaustion, insomnia and other sleep challenges, and depression are also possible.
Overwhelm is different for every person. It’s important that HSPs build a repertoire over time of strategies for soothing the nervous system that are effective for them individually. Quiet, music, water, movement, time with animals or in nature, breathing, and meditative practices are good places to start experimenting. Finding or creating environments that reduce stimulation are important—a room or even a quiet corner where there is less artificial light, soothing color, external order, and items that are comforting can be helpful. You really need a place to retreat, a place of peace, as an HSP.
Felicia: How can an HSP parent handle having a kid who is not an HSP?
Laura: You have to pace yourself even more intentionally if you have a kid or kids who are not Highly Sensitive. Their exuberance, activity, and higher tolerance for stimulation are great—you just have to pay attention closely to your own inner state, knowing that the additional stimulation of your kid(s) is going to take a toll during the day on your ability to be present and calm. You’ll need more time to recharge. I believe self-directed play, time in quiet, and some structure is good for all kids. We seem to have lost the art of boredom, of pausing, and self-direction in our culture in the last decade, particularly with our ubiquitous use of technology. Your kids don’t need a cruise director. They need a present parent who is resourced. So take a break while they do some reading or drawing or another safe activity. You can model excellent self-awareness, asserting needs, and self care as a parent who’s an HSP. When my kids were little ones we had a partial walk in closet that we called “the pit.” Our kids could spend special time in that space when I was resting nearby. The pit was filled with a collection of sundry items--tags, old socks, art supplies, newspaper, anything that they could use to create as they wished. Because the space wasn’t always available, it was a treat for them to use and provided a safe place for them to explore and create independently while I had a little restorative quiet time. They knew that I would be recharged, nurturing, and happy when the brief period was over.
Felicia: How can an HSP parent limit interactions and establish boundaries? (It can be especially hard with very young children.) I'm also thinking about boundaries and interactions with people outside the family.
Laura: You have to learn to say ‘no’ as an HSP. “That isn’t going to work for me” is usually effective. If that’s tough, start with buying yourself some time. Say: “I’ll need to think about that and get back to you.” Saying that you’ve considered something and can’t take it on at this time is really okay. I think it’s often more effective than explanations or excuses. And modeling for other parents, perhaps particularly for other mothers—that it’s okay to set boundaries without explanations—is a gift in our culture.
I think it’s also important to establish boundaries around volunteer and optional activities. Do the small number of things that are meaningful to you. They will likely be less draining than the obligations that feel overextending in and of themselves. Say ‘no’ to the rest. And if your children are very young, give yourself permission to just parent during this time as an HSP.
With your own kids, simple explanations around your need for time in self-care can be helpful. Letting them know that you need some time, what the limitations are, that you love them, a time frame, and when you will enjoy time together again, can be helpful. Especially if you have children who are also HSPs, making these transitions gentle and predictable is important and can reduce distress. Letting them know, we’ll be doing this in ten minutes, in five minutes, and then in a minute or two can make transitions much more smooth.
And remember that it’s okay to say ‘no’ to your kids, too. Children need love, kindness, presence, nurturing, and patience—not eight scheduled activities, play dates, and a short order cook. I’m increasingly convinced that if you’re genuinely engaged with your kids, excited about time with them, greet them with love and enthusiasm, speak to them with kindness, nurture them, set boundaries, discipline gently, and are present, they will be just fine. Give yourself permission for the self-care you need in order to give this to them. It’s so much more important than the year-round hockey or the violin lesson or the big themed birthday party.
Felicia: Can you talk about the role of the internal critic/perfectionist in the HSP’s mind – particularly how this applies to parenting?
Laura: Many HSPs, because of their innate deep processing, naturally find themselves reflecting on past, present, and future. This can mean reviewing the tape, so to speak, around any or all aspects of parenting, often with too critical an eye. Most HSPs are conscientious and, therefore, especially good parents. If you’re a conscientious person making a truly concerted effort at parenting, you can probably trust that you’re doing an adequate job. Self-compassion is so important for HSPs. Be gentle with yourself. Trust you’re enough. Know there’s no manual. All you can do is your best every day. You get to be human, too. When you make a mistake, apologize sincerely, resolve, repair, and move forward. And at the end of the day, try to set aside this day and enjoy the rest you need.
Felicia: Can you talk about the stress of decision-making and how an HSP parent can simplify – or better handle – the many decisions that need to be made with children?
Laura: For day-to-day decisions, simplifying as much as possible can be helpful. Think about things like morning and evening routines that you can realistically hold to most of the time. Streamline things. Stay organized, and get your kids onboard so that it’s an expectation and more automatic. And, again, say ‘no‘ –no to too many activities for yourself or for your kids. Aim to make automatic as many daily activities as possible so that decision making is eliminated or limited. It should reduce your fatigue and the amount of energy you need in any given segment of the day. For example, two simple breakfast options—say, whole grain avocado toast with sprouts and olive oil or overnight oats—are easier than five from which to choose, and keeps your weekly grocery list to those same items every week. You might try having two good options for six to 12 months, and then change it up. Having predictable processes, like making menus Thursday night, shopping Friday night, and cooking a one-pot meal on Sunday and Wednesday—or last call for all laundry at 6:00pm every Saturday night—can also help. Making a schedule that hangs in a place everyone can see it—like the kitchen—can also help to keep decisions to a minimum and kids on track with what to expect, and to see visually what you have coming up. Glancing at the calendar and seeing two birthday parties on a weekend might make saying ‘no’ to another activity a clearer and easier choice. Children flourish with predictability and routine, too, so embrace your need for calm. It will benefit them, too. Here’s my list of strategies:
1. Simplify, simplify, simplify.
2. Make and try to keep routines, such as morning and evening routines.
3. Streamline processes in your home.
4. Stay organized.
5. Say ‘no’ to activities for yourself and your kids.
6. Keep a schedule or calendar in a prominent place so you can see what’s coming up and make decisions more effectively and clearly.
7. Anticipate what may be highly stimulating and honor your needs and limits.
8. Get your kids involved.
For those bigger life or parenting decisions, you have to step out of perpetual evaluation and into being. If we constantly evaluated our partner, for example—Can I really live with this loud chewing every day for the rest of my life? Am I really happy enough with this person? Could I find someone better?—we would never choose someone, and we certainly wouldn’t feel content if and when we did. So if you’ve gathered information and made a conscious, well-reasoned decision, unless something is glaringly wrong, give the decision some time. If you need to return to evaluating it at some point, so be it; just make sure you’ve given it a fair amount of time. And when you notice you’re in evaluation, consciously pivot. This is tied to the whole perfectionist/internal critic so many HSPs wrestle with.
I often thought of two things when I was parenting young children and I would begin to worry about a particular issue or challenge with one of my kids. The first was a mother whom I told that her toddler had been standing in the middle of a busy street. “Well if he gets hit by a car he won’t do that again,” she said unmoved. I was probably doing just fine as a mother, and by that standard I was a rock star. The other was Fred McMurray, the actor who played the father on the television sitcom My Three Sons. His character always seemed to have read the end of the script—whatever the crisis mid-episode he was unflappable. “Fred McMurray,” I would think to myself, “it’s going to be okay.” The truth was, it was probably going to be just fine. And it was. Not getting into the special math group, not being invited to the birthday party, that suspicious rash, even the bullying in the end. Parenting is stressful sometimes. Parenting with every moment under a microscope is miserable. Enjoy it along the way. You have these precious little humans who will live with you for a season and soon enough—too soon—they will be adults themselves. Dr. Aron reminds HSPs that the parenting lasts about 20 years, while the friendship with your adult child lasts a lifetime. Build your connection with your child(ren). My kids are almost 27 and 24 now. Looking back, it’s the connection building that was most important. Nurturing them and appreciating them as human beings was the best thing I did, and the best thing for all of us.
Felicia: How do you handle mornings trying to get everyone out the door and that five o’clock witching hour?
Laura: These times of day it’s even more important to have a plan. I think about two strategies: going into things well rested and resourced and/or with a plan to spend some quieter time afterwards. And really streamline those times of day in particular. Talking with your kids about these times of day is important. Let them know what to expect and what’s expected of them. Experiment, find what works for your particular collection of personalities and needs, set up the gentle consequences, and then keep at it. Boots and winter coats at the ready and not kicked and thrown off somewhere, outfit laid out, laundry done on a certain day, lunch plan sorted in advance, same breakfast—all of these kinds of things can help. Brainstorm, get creative, experiment, keep what works and chuck what doesn’t.
Staying off the swinging emotional pendulum of your kids helps, too. Rather than getting mired in the mix or defensive or argumentative, you can offer compassion: “I’m so sorry, I know it’s so disappointing when you can’t have the shirt you wanted. That six o’clock laundry call is really important. Next week will be better when you remember.”
Felicia: How do you handle having time with your partner in the evening when by the time the kids are in bed it’s 8:30 and you’re exhausted?
Laura: If you can’t be present with your partner, take a break. If it’s 8:30 when the kids are finally in bed, by 9:00 you’ll have time together. I do this pretty much every day as a therapist. After a day with clients I really can’t listen when I get home. Even though my husband knows this, I often have to say, “I need 20 minutes of silence and then I’m all yours.” Every one in our family knows by now that that time is critical for me, and that I really will be more present on the other side of a short break. With our son in particular, who often had challenging questions, I would say: “How interesting. What a good question. In two or three minutes we can talk about that.” Eventually the kids would come with their own heads’ up for me. Even now, I schedule half an hour between all of my clients. With that time I know I’ll be fully present for them.
Felicia: HSPs seem to feel emotional responsibility for others, especially their children. What can you do as an HSP parent when your kids are fighting, for example, and you feel immediately stressed and compelled to take on their emotions.
Laura: I think the best thing you can do is to develop keen awareness of your own nervous system and learn to shift states at will. I think of Michelle Obama’s “When they go low, we go high”—except in reverse. The higher the activation in your children, the more grounded you need to be within yourself in the moment as a parent. When you can do this, parenting—and life—is so much easier. And this is possible with work with a therapist specializing in the nervous system, such as a Somatic Experiencing Practitioner.
Felicia: How do you do this?
Laura: By first developing awareness of your internal state and your particular body signals.
Felicia: Like a racing heart beat?
Yes, this can be increased heart rate, and also decreased heart rate—heat or cold, flushing, chest tightness, nausea, headache, tingling, numbness, sensation in the limbs, an urge to move, feeling a bit frozen or the desire to retreat or disengage, and any number of other possibilities. Managing small waves of activation is much easier than managing a steady build or crash or huge spikes of activation. When you are grounded, you respond from a place of calm. Suddenly the kids’ fight and the emotion don’t seem overwhelming. You see things more clearly and bring more resources. And you can help your kids to downshift into a calmer state more quickly, which will help them sort it out, too.
The nervous system develops when we are very young. At birth we are unable to self regulate. You can imagine that as babies we become hungry, for example, cannot meet this need, become distressed, experience a wave of activation in the nervous system, and, ideally, a loving caregiver attends to the mystery of our need, meets it, and soothes us. We develop a pattern of activation and calming. Over time, we learn to manage this ourselves. The cat gets out—a wave of charge in the nervous system follows, we catch the cat—ah, relief and calming in the nervous system; a pattern of fairly easy waves over time. Of course, this is the ideal. You can imagine that not every person has this experience, and negative and traumatic experience and cumulative stress have an impact on our patterns. Every person has a window of tolerance in the nervous system, from average to wide—those enviable people who seem unflustered—to narrow, much harder to manage. As we approach the outer limits of this tolerance and survival states of fight/flight and freeze, it is much more challenging for most people to manage regulation. If you have a pattern of being chronically highly activated—with the gas pedal stuck on, so to speak—or the opposite, with the brake stuck on—or both simultaneously, it’s quite challenging. Learning to recognize and work with your nervous system, to rewire if necessary, and to shift states at will, is a gift.
Felicia: How can you develop nervous system regulation?
Laura: Through awareness and things like working with a therapist trained in Somatic Experiencing, consistent daily meditative practices over a period of time, clinical hypnosis, and neurofeedback, for example.
Felicia: I'm also wondering about scheduling - how an HSP parent can arrange their schedule to be enough but not too much.
Laura: It’s easy for conscientious, empathetic HSPs to take on and to give too much. Learning to predict what you can and can’t do is so important. Things like going to an amusement park are an obvious drain for HSPs, but paying attention to the people and activities you find over-stimulating, and being honest with yourself in advance about this, is critical. That loud person you adore, the difficult or highly emotive colleague, sitting through a loud rec basketball game, a meeting you know will be stressful, even a trip to Target with a toddler, all take a lot of energy for HSPs. If one of them is on your calendar, it may be wise to say no to the others, or to schedule a longer break in between them. Thinking through how you’re likely to feel, or remembering how you’ve felt when you’ve overscheduled in the past, may help you to draw boundaries and to honor your needs in advance. Being an HSP is an opportunity to respectfully and gently advocate for your needs and self-care over and over. And to model this for your children.
Felicia: Any other points for consideration for HSP parents?
1. I think the most important questions we can ask ourselves as HSPs before we agree to something is: Can I realistically do this and if I say yes can I expect to feel calm, present, and have enough energy for the day?
2. I think the most important question we can ask ourselves as HSPs when we notice we are becoming over stimulated or overwhelmed is: What do I need in this moment?
3. Remember to use your down time in activities that actually recharge you. Screen time may be a pleasant distraction, but if it’s adding stimulation, you will likely not feel refreshed when it’s time to return your attention to parenting or other tasks.
4. Remember the gifts of being highly sensitive, and not just the challenges: exquisite attunement to others, empathy, conscientiousness, kindness, tenderness, noticing subtlety, deep appreciation for the arts and music and beauty, and making connections others don’t always make, to name a few.
5. Cultivating self-awareness is one of the most important things you can do as an HSP. It’s much easier to manage a little overstimulation than to recover from overwhelm or exhaustion.
6. If you have underlying unresolved experiences that are making parenting more challenging, invest in your own healing. Find a good therapist who can help.
7. Limiting caffeine and investing in excellent nutrition can help.
8. Work to understand your autonomic nervous system, its regulation, your own patterns and early signs of activation or overwhelm, and learn and practice self-soothing measures.
9. Pay attention to whether your challenge is being “too in” or “too out,” in Dr. Aron’s words. If you tend towards forcing, pushing, and overextending yourself to meet internal or external expectations, practice setting better boundaries until you’ve mastered it. If you tend to withdraw too much, allow yourself to hesitate, but do engage with the world with a plan to retreat and process later.
If you think you may be a Highly Sensitive Person, or would like help with parenting, email or call me. I’d be happy to set up a free half-hour consultation to discuss how I might help. Contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org or 952.806.0014. Consultation for therapists also available.
Laura Lindekugel, MS, MS, LMFT, SEP is a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist, Somatic Experiencing Practitioner, partner in Rekindle Counseling, and a Highly Sensitive Person who has raised two HSP children. She specializes in working with Highly Sensitive Persons and parents of Highly Sensitive Children.