Lessons in Parenting a Highly Sensitive Child: The Art of Acceptance & Closing Our Ears

For the first three months of their lives my three sons cried a lot. My eldest, like clockwork, cried between 7pm and 10pm each and every night. The rest of the time he struggled to settle for sleeps in his bed, only being able to sleep when he was held in our arms, upright. His brother was the same, but he cried for longer periods consistently and also wouldn’t (couldn’t) sleep unless he was in my arms or, because we got cleverer, in a baby carrier. It was put down to colic or stomach cramps.

My third son had reflux and couldn’t lie on his back to sleep for any extended period for the first six months of his life. It was so bad that sleep deprivation put me back in hospital just days after giving birth.

However, third time around I had already learnt a valuable parenting lesson; a high needs baby is what it is. There is no changing it. No amount of sleep training makes one bit of difference. Going with the flow, meeting needs, is the only way to go.

BabyBut it was a hard lesson to learn. Learning the lesson meant going through a steep learning curve. I eventually learnt that deviating from a routine that actually worked meant days of unrest before we got back on track. It meant days of hysterical crying and fussiness. It meant sleepless nights, missed feedings. It meant tears from all sides.

Eventually we learnt to turn down family evening birthday celebration invitations because it just wasn’t worth the disruption and the aftermath. It meant conflict with my in-laws who felt our eldest son should be able to cope with the change of environments and break in routines to suit their social invitations. They wanted us to put him down to sleep at their house, then wake him to take him home when the party finished and then settle him again in his own bed when we got home. We refused. We knew our own child. Suggestions were made that there was something wrong with our son – his cousin moved from one house to another with unpredictable sleeping arrangements and routines with no problem and our son should be able to do the same.

It meant standing up for what my sons needed at that time, even as babies and toddlers. It meant learning to trust my instinct. It meant learning not to compare one child with another. It meant casting aside ‘loved ones’ who judged us and insisted on my family changing to accommodate their needs without any willingness on their side to do the same for us.

I recently read a comment on a parenting forum that made my toes curl. It was in response to a mother’s plea for advice. I could relate to a fellow mother’s inner struggles, conflicted by her in-law’s expectations and what she knew was best for her baby. Her choice was disrupt her sensitive baby’s routine for a meal at a family member’s house and pick up the pieces for days after or stay home and face the family wrath. She knew that going at a time that didn’t fit with her baby’s routine would result in a sleepless night or two, and sleep deprivation was already an issue. If you parent a HSC then chances are you have been in this situation. Chances are you have had the same dilemma. Family pressure is strong. Conflict is often one wrong action away.

So often understanding is absent.  Which brings me back to the comment I read that made my toes curl – a statement that not taking the baby to the family meal would create an inflexible child that couldn’t deal with change.

And there, in one little sentence, is the crux of what parents of HSCs deal with on a regular basis. The suggestion that a baby, a few months old, should conform to the world around them. The suggestion that there is something wrong with a baby or child that needs structure, predictability and familiarity to stay calm. The suggestion that a mother should have to make choices that she knows will have a detrimental effect on her child and her family life for days after just to keep the peace.

Sometimes closing our ears is the sane thing to do

Sometimes closing our ears is the sane thing to do

As a first time mother I bowed to this sort of pressure; I began to believe my baby should be able to go with the flow. Luckily for my eldest son, and for me, I learnt quickly that it simply wasn’t true. Some children need quiet, they need structure and routine. Others don’t. It is as simple as that. A child is sensitive by nature. Not created. Not made by having their young needs met. Sometimes it’s best to close our ears, listen to our heart, and trust our instinct.

Our job as parents of highly sensitive children is to help them cope with a world that is certainly not ideal for sensitive people. It is our job to help them learn which tools they can use to forge a way in this world that values anything but sensitivity.

Third time around I feel no need to bow to any pressure around me for my children to conform to other people’s expectations. They do not have to bend so far they break just to fit in with someone else’s plans. I don’t absorb that pressure any more. I defend, fiercely defend, who my sons are and what they need to feel comfortable with who they are. I won’t allow friends or family to force a change upon them to be something they are not. I want them to learn how to live as square pegs in round holes, rather than be forced to smooth down their edges, disguise who they are, in order to fit in the roundness of holes they didn’t ask to be put into.

The one thing I have learnt as a parent of highly sensitive children is that acceptance is the greatest gift I can give them.


About Amanda van Mulligen

Mother, writer, author, blogger. Born British, Living Dutch. I have three Dutch sons and a Dutch husband and I blog about Turning Dutch and raising highly sensitive children.
This entry was posted in Parenting as a HSP and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

16 Responses to Lessons in Parenting a Highly Sensitive Child: The Art of Acceptance & Closing Our Ears

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  6. Chris Garling says:

    Thank you for your article. I could relate to most of this as my eldest is also highly sensitive and my two younger kids have sensitivities too. I think the difference for me is that I instantly could relate to my boy’s sensitivities and I simultaneously realized that I am also highly sensitive. I have learned so much about myself through parenting. I never knew what kind of parent I would be before my children were born, but I instantly fell into a place where trust became my highest tenet for parenting. Conflict with family was also instantaneous, but their rationale for making my boy conform never seemed rational to me. My boy will be 11 tomorrow and there’s still very little understanding of his sensitive nature, but conflict has mostly subsided because they know I accept my children’s sensitivities and that’s not going to change.


    • What a strong mama you are! He’s incredibly lucky to have you on his side. Learning to trust ourselves is a great thing – but it takes some of us longer than others. Shame that our familes can’t alsways be as accepting as we need them to be. Thanks for taking the time to share!


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  10. Stephanie says:

    Thank you so much for this article. After a few challenges with my 6 year old, I’ve recently learned that she and I are highly sensitive. We’ve always put her needs first, despite others not understanding why she needs to be in bed by 7, so we can’t go out for late dinners or entertainment. I’m thankful to know I was doing the right thing.


  11. This is such an interesting read. In retrospect, now knowing I have a HSC, I was made to feel bad or mad about my basically making my world revolve around her, and giving her what is best – people couldn’t understand it and thought I was being neurotic rushing back for naps and bedtime and the like. I kept on telling people that the few times we broke routine, it was hell to pay. People didn’t believe me until they actually saw the outcome for themselves, my own mum included until recently! But having read this, I am so glad that I went with it and did just that…although it was clear early on that it was just not going to be possible to do it any other way!


  12. Amanda, this is spot on (as usual)! Most of my frustration I think when we had our first (HSC) was pressure and judgement and unwarranted advice from family and friends (and those without babies!). Eventually I learned to ignore it (although it still bothers me a little), but in the beginning it significantly added to my depression, making me feel completely incapable. To people, we were the parents who always overdid everything, who worried too much, who let their child change them (???), and who spoiled our baby by giving him too much attention. And really all we were doing was giving our baby what we knew he needed.


  13. Amanda, I can so relate to what you write here. My son didn’t have sleep issues (and I’m so thankful for that), but my girls did and I never went to birthday dinners – only lunchs or “highteas”: the event had to fit into our schedule and I didn’t really care about the reaction of family, friends etc. I was so sleep deprived, litterally in “survival mode” for years and today I know that my instinct made me do the right thing. – Maybe the fact that I’m HSP too and that I developed a very strong will (haha, always had that) helped me. I always knew what my children need, I’m very empathetic, and those around me who observed me and my kids were astonished how I could “predict” what would happen next (e.g. child getting upset, reacting in a certain way etc.). I am a strong believer that children don’t do things to make parents or grown ups upset. At least not my kids. 😉

    Liked by 1 person

    • That’s a better way of putting it – empathetic. My instincts ate strong – I know what things will affect my sons; I see it coming and so it makes it easier to take difficult decisions. Thank you for sharing your wisdom!


  14. craftiemum says:

    This is so true! Acceptance is powerful in this kind of situation.

    Liked by 1 person

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