Holding space for a highly sensitive child

I am 31 weeks pregnant and today I am tired. Bone tired. Consider-calling-in-sick tired. Nap or eat tired. And hungry, although there’s not much space for a proper meal these days.

And I know there’s some parent out there laughing at my tiredness since it’s soon to get much worse.

In fact, if I admit it, I’m afraid of what it will feel like – to be sleep-deprived without reprieve, to have to put the needs of someone else before my own even if my body is screaming at me to lay down, or eat, or move, or whatever.

Part of my ability to thrive as a highly sensitive person has been to be able to identify and meet my needs – especially my physical needs – as priority one. When I don’t, I often end up sick – I get a migraine, or come down with a cold, or build up so much tension in my neck that vertigo sets in.

So, yeah, you could say that although I’m extremely excited to be having a child, I’m also heavily considering the affects it could have on my system and wondering what, if anything, I’ll be able to do about it.

I am a highly sensitive person. I will shortly become a highly sensitive parent. I do not know yet whether or not my child will be highly sensitive, so I don’t know if I’ll be an hsp parenting an hsp or just an hsp parenting (just!). I don’t yet have advice for you hsp parents in managing your overwhelm.

But I have been a highly sensitive child.

And although I don’t have tried and true parenting advice for parents of hsps (because I’m not one yet), I do know what it’s like to be a highly sensitive child. Here are five quick things (there are more, and there will be more articles like this one) that explained my childhood in a nutshell, broken down with tips for meeting the needs of (i.e. holding space for) a highly sensitive child. Enjoy!

I feel my way through life.

I mean that literally – my feelings and bodily sensations are the loudest thing I hear in the world. When you speak to me, I hear more the tone of your voice and the emotion behind it than I do the actual words. If your words and your tone don’t match, I am very confused. If your words are like honey but your demeanor exhibits something else, I will be wary.

Be honest with me. Tell me what you’re feeling. Learn emotional differentiation – the idea that others can only trigger emotions within you, rather than do things to you. This helps me know that even though you’re upset with something I did, you still find value in me, that all that needs to change is my behavior – not the core of who I am.

Be gentle with me. Because I feel every-damn-thing, criticism and harsh words feel like pain. I understand that I need to be taught, but please do so with consideration that my system is processing everything around me. Shame acts like trauma in my body.

Take me seriously. I’ma tiny human, but I’m a human. Help me learn to identify my feelings so they’re not so scary. Then believe me when I tell you about my feelings. Help me continue to trust my body’s super-charged nervous system – it is my best and often more reliable source of information. If I get disconnected from it now, I’ll become short-circuited and may spend hours of therapy or treatment trying to re-learn. Or, I may simply end up feeling I’m doing life wrong. Help me develop this incredible gift of feeling.

My emotional experience is big.

My emotions process more deeply than the average person. This might mean that I act out, throw things out of proportion, or seem dramatic. But really, my experience of emotions is simply bigger than I can handle.

Teach me that it’s okay to have big emotions. Teach me that my emotions are safe. Teach me the difference between having a safe emotional response and using my emotion to hurt something or someone else. Teach me how to have big emotions safely.

My experience of other people’s emotions is also big. If you’re in an argument, I feel it in the pit of my belly. Then I feel fear. I might also hold your pain of your argument in my body, because that’s what my body is designed to do – process things deeply. Even things that aren’t mine.

If there are underlying problems in the family, I might express them. Be cautious to label all of my reactions as problems with me. I might simply be the only one sensitive enough to express the underlying problems of the family.

Help me navigate emotions. Notice when my mood shifts suddenly, and use your grown-up detective skills to help me identify when I might have been affected by someone around me. Take me for a walk, hold me, or teach me how to breath deeply and release those emotions that aren’t mine. Be grounded and teach me these grounding rituals to help me calm down and come back to myself.

My world is highly creative.

Most of my time is spent in the subtle world of inspiration and creativity. I might sing a lot, I might make strange art, I might collect things that seem inconsequential to you (but they are so important to me!).

Teach me that it’s valuable to be creative. Do not tell me to stop singing, it will stifle my voice. Do not tell me not to create, or to only create “sensibly,” or to color within the lines. These directions will only teach me conformity, which helps no one (except maybe you feel better about me). Encourage me to be creative. With encouragement, this spark of creativity is what will solve world problems when I get big enough to tackle them.

Sensation can be overwhelming to me.

The feel of certain fabrics, textures on my skin or in my mouth, or normal sensations in my body (like hunger or pain) might all feel like really big deals to me, because they are. I might feel uncomfortable because a tag on my underwear has been scratching me all day, and I might express this as a meltdown. Please look beyond my meltdown for areas of sensory discomfort.

I might not understand that regular bodily functions are the way my body communicates to me. They might feel foreign, abrupt, or even painful to me. Teach me to understand my body’s signals. Teach me that they’re safe.

Bright lights, loud music and too many people may overwhelm me. I might suddenly experience intense stomach aches at school, or in movie theaters, or at sporting events, simply because it’s all too overwhelming for me. (Stomach aches are one thing – I could also have chronic pain, or simply a feeling of frustration). Notice the signs of my sensory overwhelm and teach me to notice them, too.

Certain people and situations will feel unsafe to me.

I will know things without knowing how I know them. I will feel uncomfortable or scared for no logical reason. My body is giving me information about my surroundings. Believe me when I say I don’t want to hang out with so-and-so. If I suddenly hate going to school, dig deeper into the reasons rather than assuming I just hate school.

Don’t force me to hug Uncle Larry every time we greet and say goodbye. His breath stinks and he wears scratchy shirts and he always rubs my back in a way that’s too forceful. Don’t make me give the authority of my body up to anyone who makes me uncomfortable. Teach me that my body is mine to be in charge of.

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4 Comments on “Holding space for a highly sensitive child”

  1. I love this. Like I love it down deep in the pit of my stomach. I feel like you are describing Zachary and my journey parenting him. I’d been flying blind until
    I met you and you have helped me be a better Mama to him, both by helping me learn to ground and get rid of what’s not mine so I can be more present for him, and with ideas and suggestions to help me learn how to respect where he is and meet him with tools to help him make sense of things. I adore you!

    Also, it is my humble opinion that you are going to be an AMAZING mama!

  2. Oh dear…!
    About your parenting advice: I would say that this is valid for any child, or isn’t it?
    And I wish I had something comforting to say about you becoming a mother, but it’s hard… I have two fantastic kids, now, thank God, 8 and 12. In retrospect, I believe I only survived their first years because I have a fantastic husband who did a large part of the job…
    So the only advice I can give is to get as much rest and relaxation as you can now, and I hope you choose the right partner (preferably a non-hsp)! And lower your expectations. A lot…

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