"My nerves are just shot!"
If I had a quarter for every time I heard my mother say this when I was growing up, I'd be pretty darn close to funding college educations for all four of my children.
There were various versions of this phrase - including "you kids are getting on my last nerve!" and "turn that down! My nerves can't take it!" - so clearly a lot of my mother's frustrations in parenting four kids born close together revolved around her nerves.
And when I became a parent, I discovered exactly why.
There are so many days when I just want to crawl under my covers in a dark room and hold my fingers in my ears for a little while, just long enough to let my nerves recover from the constant stimulation of being home with kids. (Children whom I love very much of course and who are precious and darling, etc. etc.) On more than one occasion, I've caught myself staring off into space, daydreaming about installing a sensory deprivation tank in our home.
In the past, I've written about being an ENFP and how that means my first cognitive function - or, the way I primarily take in information around me - is extraverted intuition which basically means I am constantly taking in all the information around me, considering all the possibilities, all the time. Which is fun! And exhausting!
For a while, I thought that explained why I constantly battled being overwhelmed and overstimulated at home, but when my friend Kelly Sauer turned me on to the theory of the Highly Sensitive Person, everything really clicked into place.
I took the short self-test created by Dr. Elaine Aron, author of The Highly Sensitive Person, and checked off 22 out of 27 statements indicating that a person is highly sensitive. Twenty-two! And so I began sleuthing out approaches to life that would allow me to create coping mechanisms so that my days weren't filled with constant frustration from overstimulation.
I soon discovered, however, that while a lot of the suggested coping techniques for highly sensitive people were truly helpful, they also included advice that simply isn't possible in the reality of parenting small children. Directives like "make sure to get enough sleep" and "avoid chaotic environments" aren't practical for me.
However, some of the suggestions can be made to work no matter what season of life you are in, so I've been adapting and practicing these coping techniques for a few months now, and it has made a tremendous difference in my quality of life! I wanted to take a few moments to share these suggestions with you, offering hope and a path to a more peaceful way to move through your days with your family.
15 TIPS FOR THE HIGHLY SENSITIVE PARENT
1. Be proactive about smell.
One of the chief indications of being an HSP is having an intense reaction to strong scents. This means disposing of dirty diapers outside the house immediately, keeping the fridge fresh and free of sketchy leftovers and rotting vegetables, and avoiding the use of cleaning products with noxious fumes.
2. Use essential oils that promote peace and calm.
I personally have a vial of doTERRA lavender EO that I use dabs of under my nose. I love the gentle calm it brings. I'm confident you already know someone who is a representative for an essential oils company, but in case you don't, I know my friend Lora Lynn would be happy to talk to you about how to use oils to bring peace and calm to your day!
3. Simmer down with soothing scents.
Essential oils in a diffuser can be a life-saver, but you don't even have to get as fancy as all that to create a home environment that smells nice. I like to simmer scents on the stove like this vanilla, rosemary, lemon Williams-Sonoma knock-off, or sometimes I'll put cucumber and lime slices along with peppermint oil in a mini crock pot to keep warm and fragrant.
photo by Aubrey
4. Be aware of becoming touched-out.
Part of parenting children, especially small children, is physical affection. For those of us who are more attachment parenting minded, the days (and nights!) of breastfeeding, babywearing, rocking, and co-sleeping can cause a parent (especially the mama) to feel touched-out very quickly.
Make sure to make space in each day to be able to sit and be with no one touching you. For me, this means waking up before any of my children, practicing mandatory quiet time for the big girls while the twins nap, and sitting for a few minutes absolutely alone after the last child is tucked in for the night.
5. Be physically aware.
Think about what physical stimulation triggers a negative response for you, and consider how you can be proactive about avoiding that trigger.
Moms like to joke about the lack of showering that comes with parenting, but I absolutely must bathe every morning. I only shower and wash my hair twice a week (weird, I know), but if I go a few hours past waking up without bathing each morning, I get extremely grouchy. The sensation of unwashed face and body is highly irritating to me, so I have to be sure to carve out time for bathing as a non-negotiable part of each morning.
This might not be a trigger for you, but maybe there is some other physical sensation that annoys you. Again, allow yourself to admit that it bothers you (even if no one in your family understands it), and work to find a way to avoid it.
6. Indulge in your favorite tastes.
This may sound ridiculously obvious on the surface, but parents (especially moms) can be self-sacrificing to the point of denying the simplest things that can bring great relief to a stressful day.
Go ahead and pick up that jar of your favorite olives. Keep a small stash of dark chocolate in a place known only to you. Fix yourself a chocolate mug cake after bedtime (this one is my favorite!). Even adding a splash of fruit juice to your ice water can feel like a small treat with each sip.
7. Insist on noise-free zones in the day.
When my big girls are in school and the twins are napping, I turn off every source of sound in the house. When the girls are home, it becomes a little more challenging to have some noise-free time, but we practice Quiet Times as much as possible. If they are watching a movie or playing a game, sometimes I'll slip out to the backyard and just sit and listen to birds and other outside sounds.
We also have a very strict "big voices go outside" policy in our house, but if your kids don't have access to the outdoors throughout the day, consider limiting big voices to one part of the home only.
8. Fill your ears with your favorite sounds.
I prefer quiet or nature sounds for relaxing auditory therapy, but many HSPs enjoy classical music playing in the background for calm and peacefulness. Whatever your favorite sound is, try to spend some part of each day indulging in listening to it.
9. Be aware of whine times.
Oh, whining! Even parents who aren't HSPs can be driven slowly to madness by the sound of a child whining. As children get older, you can pushback against the whining when it gets to be too much. When the girls are whining at me, I look at them like they are speaking a foreign language and say "I can't understand your words when you are whining. Can you try a regular voice?"
But it's not so easy with small children. Sometimes, you can't do anything more than acknowledge that it's going to be a bad whining day. The twins are both cutting molars right now, so there has been whining to the max around here. I try to divert them with outdoor time or stopping what I am doing to rock them, but sometimes, I just have to be aware that they are hurting and having a bad day, too, and just go with it.
I've also given serious thought to investing in some noise-reducing headphones. This may well be the summer that I finally order some. I'll keep you posted!
10. Control the clutter
Many HSPs become easily overwhelmed by visual clutter. For most of us in the midst of family life, however, clutter is part of life. I've found that intentionally building clutter control into my day makes a huge difference in how much I enjoy my time at home.
Currently, for us this looks like limiting the toys the twins have access to each day, keeping a clutter basket on the stairs for things that need to go up or down, and a family clutter clean of the entire downstairs each night before bed.
Frankly, I think that if you are an HSP and a parent, a minimalist approach to stuff works best. Joshua Becker's Clutterfree with Kids is fantastic, approachable inspiration.
11. Bring the outside in.
Highly Sensitive People often feel a strong connection to nature, and many find it to be very calming. As much as possible, bring nature into view by opening curtains and blinds, keeping fresh plants in the house, and even hanging nature-inspired artwork on the walls. You can bring your children in on this coping technique by taking long, slow nature walks and asking them to collect items for a nature table in the house.
12. Stage a comfort corner.
Many resources for HSPs encourage creating a calm, peaceful room in the home to which you can retreat when you are overstimulated. In that space between the girls being babies and big girls, there was a brief moment in time when our master bedroom was that kind of retreat. However, we haven't had that space all to ourselves since the twins were born. Sometimes for parents, an entire room dedicated to peace and calm is out of reach.
However, with a little creativity, you can stage an area for yourself that brings visual relaxation into view. This is what mine looks like:
It's my kitchen window sill. I spend a lot of time in the kitchen, and I love looking out the window. On the sill, I keep some nature (a tumbler of rocks the girls have collected and fresh flowers when possible), a hand-lettered quote my precious friend Leigh created for me with a line from my all-time favorite hymn, and other little things that bring me joy. Sometimes when I get overstimulated, I can go in the kitchen and just stand and enjoy the calming view.
13. Avoid emotional overstimulation.
I don't watch the news anymore. I used to feel terribly guilty about that, like I was an irresponsible adult or something, but the truth is that most HSPs feel the emotional weight of situations more heavily than others. (In fact, some HSPs are also empaths: "an empath will feel the pain of others as if it is their own. Since others’ pain feels as if it is really their own empaths will often think that everything they feel is their feeling, while in fact, it often belongs to people around them." From The Happy Sensitive Q&A)
I find news stories about pain and suffering to be upsetting to the point that I can't focus in on my responsibilities at home, and so now I just check the weather on an app on my phone and trust that the news stories I absolutely must know about will make their way to me via social media.
I also don't watch movies or TV shows with graphic violence, abuse, or other emotionally upsetting situations. I try to protect my mental space by avoiding things which overstimulate my emotions. Not all HSPs go to these lengths, but many do find it to be helpful.
14. Practice mental single-tasking.
Some of my most frustrating moments at home are when I am trying to focus on a happy distraction (ahem, social media) and my kids are hanging on/talking to/in general needing me. More often than not, this is when I know I need to put away the urgent or indulgent and single-task focus on my role as a wife and mom.
I have to clarify: I take my calling as a writer and blogger very seriously. I don't have arbitrary rules like "I don't let my kids see me on the computer" or "I only write during naptime." I just use common sense and listen carefully to the stimulation trigger in my mind.
Women are really good at multi-tasking, but for those of us who are HSPs, there is a time and place for intentional single-tasking. Your brain will let you know exactly when that time comes!
15. Incorporate supplements as needed.
You can put all of these tips into practice and still find yourself overstimulated by family life. Ask me how I know. *grin*
There comes a time when bringing supplements into your toolbox of coping strategies will be very helpful. I know friends who have found GABA Calm to be helpful in smoothing out the feelings of overwhelm. I personally have used Rescue Remedy for years and find that it works very well to bring those frazzled nerves under control.
* * * * *
Looking back, I can see now that my mother is absolutely a highly sensitive person. (Her aversion to overhead lighting is a big clue, too!) I wish I could time travel back to deliver these tips to her when she had four needy children at her feet, getting on her very last nerve.
However, since I cannot, I try to focus on using these techniques in the midst of the life of my own family so that they can experience me as a much more calm, centered, focused, and healthy wife and mother. I hope you find them helpful, too!
I am absolutely overwhelmed (in a good way!) by the response to this post. It seems the concept of being highly sensitive is resonating with so many of you. Thank you all so much for sharing this post far and wide. I hope that it is truly helpful in explaining to family and friends a little more about how you experience the world around you.
I've noticed quite a few of you are familiar with your Myers Briggs type. If you are new around here, you might not know that talking about MB types and how they relate to one another is sort of a pet passion of mine! Here are a few of my past posts on the topic:
Later this summer, I'll be launching a video series discussing Myers Briggs types and how our understanding of them can improve family relationships. I'd like to invite you to sign up for my mailing list to stay tuned for updates on that, and you'll also receive a free printable poster designed exclusively for my readers by Jen of The Little Illustrator.
And finally, quite a few of you are moms at home with little ones. Sister, I am right there with you in the trenches! Here are a few other posts I've written that I hope will speak encouragement to this season of life!