The empathic Highly Sensitive Person (HSP) may be relatively new as a namesake, but certainly not as a concept. Some of us are just wired a bit differently than most others, be it from nature or nurture (although in this case, science argues for both). And with nature to thank—not to blame, but to thank—those of us who become parents need to learn parenting strategies that are not only effective, but also keep us from feeling overwhelmed by our children, the very people whose care has been entrusted to us. Personally, I come from a long line of highly sensitive and empathetic people. I’m the daughter of a highly sensitive person. I am one, myself. And now, I have little one of my own. I write this based on years of research as well as from my own experience. In other words, I “get it.” My hope is that my research will help empathic parents find greater peace in their parenting strategies.
Highly Sensitive People Feel Things Differently
To be an HSP is a lot of things, but it also isn’t a lot of things. (We don’t sit around crying and it has nothing to do with emotional strength.) No one size fits all. Just as everyone has distinguishable personality traits, there are positive and negative aspects to who we are. In short, highly sensitive people have nervous systems that work differently than those of the other 75 to 80 percent of the population. However, HSP traits don’t necessarily manifest the same across the remaining 15 to 20 percent of the population that we comprise. What science does demonstrate across the board for HSPs, however, is that our MRIs show distinctly different areas of brain activity versus non-HSPs in response to the same stimuli. Specifically, the MRIs show “stronger activation of brain regions involved in awareness, empathy, and self-other processing” (source). As a result, HSPs can experience the same events entirely differently from non-HSPs. And empathic HSPs take their innate sensitivity even a notch farther. That said, there are a couple of concepts worth noting before addressing parenting strategies: “Highly sensitive people are typically introverts, while empaths can be introverts or extroverts (although most are introverts). Empaths share a highly sensitive person’s love of nature and quiet environments, their desire to help others, and their rich inner life.” (Source)
For this purposes of this article, I’m using “empathic” in the scientific and literal sense, having to do with understanding and sharing the emotions of others.
Think of empathic (or its synonym, empathetic) as being very compassionate. The science fiction version of “empath” isn’t my thing (my mind reading skills are substantially lacking). This article won’t go beyond that for defining the traits, but if you’re curious about HSPs, there are a few really detailed and exceptionally good books to study, such as The Highly Sensitive Person by Elaine Aron, PhD, and Reading People by Anne Bogel (the latter is only a chapter, but it’s entirely relevant). I recommend them to HSPs who want to understand themselves better. They’re also beneficial to non-HSPs who want to understand us better. You can watch a movie about highly sensitive people. You can even take a online quizzes to gauge whether you’re a likely a highly sensitive person and/or an empath. If you’ve read this far, though, you probably already know the answer. I didn’t need a quiz or an HSP “label” to understand my own wiring, but it didn’t hurt to know what to call it so that I could research beneficial parenting strategies more effectively. With or without a quiz, if you understand yourself to be an empathic HSP and want parenting strategies that support you, you’ll want to keep reading.
Parenting Strategies for Empathic and Highly Sensitive People
While mainstream parenting is, well, mainstream, we simply aren’t. Therefore, we can’t expect that standard parenting strategies would work well for us. If we try to fit into a certain “box” that doesn’t reflect our empathetic nature, parenting might feel harder than it has to be. Some of these ideas can lighten your load.
1. Be the parent you needed when you were little.
Many of us have what feels like a whole lot of extra neurons dedicated to empathy. And as empathic HSPs, following a standard rote of discipline that leaves us feeling disconnected from our children simply isn’t a good fit. Every day, we need to do the work required to connect deeply and positively with our children. Parent gently. This includes “parenting” yourself, too. Be kind to yourself and keep your inner (and outer) voice in check. Quick disclaimer: it won’t always work. As is true for anything we practice, the more we attempt it, the easier it will become. If empathic parents treat our children harshly, many of us will internalize the punishment and feel it ourselves on some level. If our parents were harsh with us and we have emotional memories of that, we’ll feel those feelings all over again as we administer them in our own homes. And those feelings don’t feel good. Of course, children do need loving limits. With practice, we can hold those loving limits compassionately with our children while also healing your own inner child. If you’re new to gentle parenting or want to learn about it in ways that support the information in the books, many positive parenting groups exist to support you. Support from likeminded parents can help you navigate to a gentler way of being. Release the pressure to parent the way our parents did, or our peers did, or the way some parenting book said we should. Our children are real and they need us today. Create a joyful life with them that includes the gift of your empathy.
2. Bank the time that you can’t “take care of yourself first”–and find creative ways to weave self-care into your routines.
We all know we can’t pour from an empty cup. We’d like to be able to take care of ourselves first. However, some empathic HSPs find it challenging to find parenting strategies that balance self-care and our tendency to put others first. For me, taking care of myself first just wasn’t always my reality. When my child was very little, I couldn’t just let her cry and “figure it out,” no matter how exhausted I was. (And as a parenting researcher and writer, I don’t recommend that approach to anyone, regardless, unless it’s a matter of safety.) At the end of the day, I’d felt better if I’d parented lovingly and while being emotionally present for her. Does that mean that I just abandoned my needs, though? Absolutely not. Something that worked really well for my family included reducing screen time and replacing it with story time. That wouldn’t work for everyone, of course, but I knew I needed my quiet time to recharge. So, I created the best of both worlds: quiet and clutter-free areas around the house where I could go to read with (or near) her while still staying emotionally present. I also made mornings our standard time to get out of the house. That way, I knew I could come home and everything would be quieter from that point forward in our day. “Home days” earned just as much priority as other appointments. I consciously worked to find the patience for positive parenting, knowing that practice would make our inner lives more peaceful. If I couldn’t “go” to self-care, I brought it to meet me where I was.
3. Ground yourself in who you were before kids.
Many HSPs grew up keenly aware of their sensitivities to sounds, bright lights, and overly gregarious people. Whatever external stimuli triggered you before having kids, they’re likely still there, along with the responsibility to raise children despite them. And in many cases, kids are all the noise, lights, and excitement wrapped up into little human-sized packages of energy. That’s standard child behavior. That said, this is in no way a knock on children. They’re perfectly good at being exactly who they were designed to be, lights and all. Life moves on, as they say, but becoming a parent doesn’t mean you’re not yourself anymore. Suddenly, you’re responsible for raising a human who might challenge all of your HSP-ness. Remember how you grounded yourself before you had children. What’s something you haven’t done in so long that you’ve nearly forgotten about it, but that helped you find peace? A good book or a long and solitary walk? A warm bath in a darkened room, or some journaling time to center yourself, perhaps? Remember those things. And do them again for your mental health and happiness.
4. Connect outside the home.
Connect with friends or family outside the home. If you lack childcare or the desire to leave the house, connecting virtually can lift you up effectively. A video or phone chat with my faraway best friend does absolute wonders for refueling my emotional tank. And within certain parameters, even social media can offer some benefits specifically for introverts, including empathic HSPs. Connecting with other adults is easy to overlook because many don’t consider it a “parenting strategy.” However, it’s critical to our emotional wellbeing. That, in turn, contributes to the emotional fuel we have on reserve for the challenging parenting days—and for all of the regular days, too.
Empathic and Highly Sensitive People Can Be Highly Attuned and Compassionate Parents
Rather than trying to fit into a mainstream mould that wasn’t built for us in the first place, we get to create our own parenting strategies that honor who we are. We have every right to do that. We can create an approach that leaves us feeling encouraged at the end of the day, even despite all the ways that parenting stretches us and pushes our boundaries. With the natural bigheartedness of empathic HSPs, our children will fare better when we embrace that which comes naturally to us. There’s always room for more compassion in the world.
Continue the Positive Parenting Journey!
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