I am one of the 20% of parents who are wired more sensitively. I feel more deeply, startle more easily, have a rich internal landscape, prefer to wear soft cotton over any other material, and need pockets of solitude throughout my day to help me feel balanced. Less has to happen for me to feel overwhelmed. And it doesn’t take very much to be overstimulated. As you can imagine, life with two little kids under the age of 4 brings about all kinds of excitement.
Dr Elaine Aron’s work on Highly Sensitive People changed my life. Being a HSP herself, Dr Aron knew firsthand the challenges of being a minority in this overwhelming world. It felt so validating to realise that there isn’t anything wrong with me. If you haven’t already, I encourage you to do the test.
My sensitivity, as much as it can pain me sometimes, is also what makes me an incredibly attuned mother. From just one look on their faces, I can tell when my daughters are upset. I can read their body language with uncanny ability. I know not to overwhelm them with repeated verbal instructions, and I can tell when they’re flooded and need quiet time. I respect their needs, play with them daily and set empathic limits. Most of all, I am mindful about truly enjoying their company. And I always, always apologise when I lose my cool.
My eldest daughter is a Highly Sensitive Child. If you’re wondering if your child is too, then click here. She is bright, intuitive, and deeply empathic. I’ve been cutting off tags off her clothing since she was old enough to tell me to. She dislikes the sound of vacuum cleaners and blenders, and rushes to cover her baby sister’s ears when she hears either. She loves puppet play, role playing, and can lose herself in stories. And she has no shortage of questions. About everything.
Just like me, it doesn’t take very much for her to feel overwhelmed. Unlike me, she doesn’t have a fully-formed frontal lobe, nor does she have years of experience in self-soothing. I’ve only just started to piece together the fact that so much of her screaming meltdowns have to do with her being overwhelmed. Less has to happen for her to feel flooded, and she is still learning how to integrate her emotional experience. So because of that, every day, I try to put routines in place to help her keep balanced. I combine downtime for both of us e.g. going upstairs to her bedroom while she plays with her train set while I read a book.
On my good days, I’m on the ball. On my overwhelmed days, then it’s really hard for me to quiet my internal world while managing my daughters’. It feels exhausting, sometimes. 70% of HSPS are introverts — like me. Of course, my daughter seems to be one of the 30% who are HSC and extroverted. But of course! She has no issue in expressing her feelings. When I haven’t taken care of myself, it is so much harder for me to stay present with my daughters’ big feelings. That’s when I’m much more likely to lose my equilibrium.
To help me feel more balanced, I have my own nourishing routines. After I drop off my eldest at preschool, my favourite thing is to walk around the deserted shopping mall close by, my baby in her carrier. The quieter, the better. Once the lunch time crowd hits, then I hightail it out of there. While it’s still quiet, I bring my baby to a play area where she toddles around, plays with me, then she naps in the stroller while I drink my Boost juice and do my writing. When she wakes up, we have lunch, then we pick up her sister from pre-school. This quiet time in the morning recharges me for the exuberant reunion with my little extrovert. She loves to go to the playground near her school. Just like me, transitions are hard for her, so getting away from the playground is a whole other story.
I live in a very common Malaysian extended family home. There are always loving adults to love and look out for my adventurous little ones. On the other hand, there are always so many competing needs and big feelings. I have had three decades’ more practice than my daughter — I can tell, most of the time, when I am veering close to overstimulation. I am old enough to excuse myself, go to my room, turn on a meditation track, and then reengage when I’m calmer. My daughter ends up growling and running away. When she’s calmer, I teach my daughter to say, “I’m tired and want to go up and rest.” So that is a work in progress.
So far, it looks like my second daughter is wired differently to her sister. The differences between them are so clear, even from such a young age. She is less interested in breastfeeding, for starters. In hindsight, I realise now how my eldest would nurse every time she felt overwhelmed — which was often. My baby, on the other hand, is happier in her own space. She toddles around at 14 months, enjoys shouting to make her needs known, and enjoys sitting alone on her favourite spot on the stairs. She seems to have inherited her father’s less sensitive temperament — much to my relief, and my guilt.
Ultimately, having a highly sensitive daughter is a door to my own self-acceptance. She teaches me to gently respect and parent my own inner highly sensitive child, in a way that I did not experience in my own childhood. My daughter learns more from who I am, compared to what I say, and if I feel ambivalent about my high sensitivity, then she is likely to inherit that from me. My greatest motivation to fully embrace my high sensitivity is the hope that my daughter will too.