The first time I knew something had fundamentally shifted in my core being, I found myself standing on our third-floor-unit deck overlooking South Boston, at 3 a.m., in my PJs, barefoot in 40-degree drizzling rain, crying.

The next time, I found myself in our garage, sobbing and screaming simultaneously because it felt like the only way I could get a volcano-sized explosion of angst out of my body.

There were other signs, too. The TV would be too loud. I couldn’t hold a conversation with my husband while my daughter whined or cried. A loud noise would make me jump far more than I would anticipate. Even simultaneous music and conversation with other adults would be too much for me.

As any Pisces knows well, I’ve always been sensitive to emotions — my own and others’. Before becoming a parent, I didn’t feel quite the intensity I now feel. But it’s safe to conclude I am a highly sensitive person.

The trouble with being a highly sensitive parent is that kids are, well, sensory bombs. From high-pitched screaming (across the entire spectrum from delight to sadness), to dumping all the toys out of the bin, to demands for attention and the constant need to be touched, it is a lot of input for a highly sensitive parent. That’s not to say these types of things don’t affect my husband. But when we talk about our responses to our child’s needs, I have a heightened response that drains me far more than my husband.

There are benefits to being so in touch with emotions. When my daughter has a hard time calming down, I collect her in my arms, assure her she’s safe, and take deep breaths. Eventually, she falls into my pattern of breathing, relaxes, and we both come up for air. I can read each of her subtle facial expressions and eye movements, discerning between eyebrow raises and the tiny corners of her mouth moving ever so slightly. I patiently look for cues and clues when she insistently repeats a word no one can understand.
But each time, I have to dip far down into my own well of emotional reserves to make space for what my daughter needs — while keeping my own emotions at bay. I am exhausted by the end of it. Or, worse, sometimes I don’t have enough energy or space left for both my heightened emotions and my daughter’s, and I snap. In either scenario, the result is the same — intense guilt that I am not enough.
I’m working hard to manage my heightened sensitivities, recognizing that each day can’t be a perfect blend of being 100% present for myself and my daughter (while also being a present wife, coworker, and friend). But there are a few things that have helped:

I tap out, a lot.

I’m grateful to have a parent partner who can withstand the wailing meltdowns of a toddler better than I can. My husband’s stamina for toddler tantrums is truly impressive. He is the primary bedtime parent, allowing me to run down into the basement and work out — an excellent outlet for my pent-up emotions. I also try to pay careful attention to my emotions bubbling and ask for help before I boil over.

I remove myself from the stimulus.

I’m an extroverted introvert. I enjoy being around others, but at the end of a long day of being around others I need to crawl into bed and not talk to anyone. Since that’s not always an option, I find small ways to remove myself. Having a dog provides an excellent excuse to get outside and walk. I’ve been found standing on our porch or in our backyard, absorbing nothing but nature sounds and the occasional car driving by. I have also occasionally excused myself to the bathroom just to get a few moments of relief.

I count my breaths.

Probably the hardest for me — but the one I need to do the most when I can’t tap out or take a walk — is breathing. There are many techniques, but my favorite is the box breathing method. Even in the midst of a tantrum I can count to four. Counting also helps shift my brain to focus on something other than my rising emotions and the wailing screeches of my child-turned-banshee.
If you, too, are a highly sensitive parent, my hope is that you know how valuable you are, not just to your children but to everyone around you. In taking on the emotions of others, I hope you find ways to take care of the most important person in these relationships — you.
Sarah Aspinwall
Sarah grew up in Connecticut, but Massachusetts has always felt like a second home with extended family across the state. With a master's in public health and a lifelong passion for healthcare, Sarah moved to Boston after graduation. She is a fierce advocate for better access and reducing the complexities of the healthcare system. Sarah met her husband covered in sweat and lifting weights at a local CrossFit gym (talk about first impressions!). They adopted a rescue pup from Mississippi and welcomed their daughter in 2021. After nearly a decade of city living, Sarah and her family headed to the Metro West area to start a new adventure in the suburbs. Sarah has volunteered for Community Consulting Teams of Boston (CCT), offering pro bono management consulting to Boston-area nonprofits, and she served a three-year term on the board. She is an alumna member of the Kappa Delta sorority and has served as an advisor to the Northeastern chapter since 2014.