5 Ways to Cure Stimulation Overload as a Parent

Momming three kids was more than I could handle, but I finally realized it wasn't my fault since I am highly sensitive. Here's how I was able to regain a feeling of calm.

Parent standing on sidewalk with child and mess around her
Photo: Priscilla Gragg

Several years ago, I seriously questioned whether I was cut out to be a mom. Working part-time with three children under the age of 5 and no relatives nearby to give me a much-needed respite, I was running on caffeine and adrenaline. Irritable and exhausted from all the noise, emotional neediness, and decision-making, I'd dissolve into tears or start barking commands at my kids by dinnertime. I loved them, but I hated parenting.

One day, when 3-year-old Esther erupted into yet another screaming tantrum, I started screaming, too—and I realized that something had to change if we were going to survive family life.

Then a friend mentioned that Esther's tantrums might be caused by overstimulation and suggested I read The Highly Sensitive Person, by psychologist Elaine Aron, Ph.D. The book transformed my perspective: Not only was Esther an HSP, so was I.

High sensitivity (which researchers also call sensory processing sensitivity) is an innate temperamental trait affecting about 20 percent of the population. An HSP's nervous system is extra sensitive to physical and emotional subtleties in her environment; she can become easily overstimulated by bright lights, smells, and sounds as well as too much activity or interaction. But the truth is that all parents of young kids feel overwhelmed at times, especially in our increasingly fast-paced world.

"Over the last 25 years, I've learned that what's helpful for HSPs is helpful for almost everyone," says Dr. Aron, whose new book, The Highly Sensitive Parent, comes out this month. Parents who are constantly overstimulated run the risk of exploding and acting out in anger with their children, she says, and recent research shows that they're more likely to suffer from burnout. "Self-care has become a buzzword now, but it's always been crucial for highly sensitive moms and dads."

These five strategies can help you handle high-stress moments in everyday life and feel more in control over the long haul. Your kids will probably notice the difference too.

Accept Your Temperament

As a new mom, I looked to other parents as role models, and I kept comparing myself with them. My friend Katrina spent every day of summer vacation with her children, and I felt I should as well. By mid-July, however, I was a high-strung, anxious mess. So I tried harder, scheduled more activities for us, and played with my kids even more. But pretty soon I was going ballistic from the sound of a toy truck falling on the floor.

We all need to identify what triggers us and come to terms with our own limitations. For me, too much noise and nonstop interaction with my children tries my patience and drains my reserves. Maybe you can tolerate your kids' loud voices, but seeing their clutter everywhere sends you over the edge. When I finally admitted that hiring a babysitter for a few afternoons a week made me more relaxed and fun when I was with my kids, we all started having a better time together.

I also needed to accept my three kids' different temperaments and learn how to meet them in the middle. "If you have low tolerance for boisterous energy, think about how you can manage that but still let your kid be a kid," says Amy Morin, author of 13 Things Mentally Strong Parents Don't Do. I now know I'm not the one to host a Nerf gun party for 20 8-year-olds, but I love taking my kids for a hike in the woods.

Person standing on sidewalk with spilled coffee, newspaper, and keys
Speak up if you’re juggling too much. Photo: Priscilla Gragg.

Prioritize Downtime

Just as your phone needs to be plugged in when its battery runs out of juice, you need to give yourself time to recharge every day. Depending on your situation, it's important to let yourself ask for help from family and friends, or trade child care with other parents. And whether you work outside the home or are with your kids full-time, you can find creative ways to fit downtime into your day.

Even though I'm not a morning person, when my youngest began sleeping through the night, I started setting my alarm for an excessively early hour so I could get time to myself. The quiet time makes all the difference in my serenity when the breakfast train starts rolling. Anne Bogel, a mom of four from Louisville, Kentucky, who blogs at ModernMrsDarcy.com, says that Sundays used to feel like particularly long days. "When my children were younger, I'd walk around the block or read a good book for 20 minutes after they went to bed. That little pocket of strategic recharging gave me the energy that I needed."

Yes, you've heard this advice before, but Dr. Aron recommends meditating during your downtime, both to decrease your overall stimulation and to teach yourself to relax in overwhelming moments. "Meditation trains the body to have a certain response every time you close your eyes," she says, which can be very helpful when your kid explodes into a screaming fit. Even focusing on your breathing for five minutes can help quiet your mind.

Simplify Your Schedule

At the beginning of each day, think about which activities are going to demand more of your energy, and plan a reset before and after, suggests Laura Lindekugel, a marriage and family therapist in Edina, Minnesota, who specializes in working with HSPs. A big trip to Target with your kids might be manageable, but make it your only errand, followed by low-key time for everybody. The same concept applies to travel: If you visit family for four days over the holidays, schedule a final day to relax at home rather than jumping right back into school and work.

Whether we're highly sensitive or not, we all need to learn how to say no to miscellaneous requests and demands on our time from others. Give yourself permission to simply say, "That's not going to work for me right now" or "I'll think about it and get back to you," suggests Lindekugel. Set boundaries for how much volunteering you'll do, for example, and focus on a small number of things you find meaningful.

Especially if you're a working parent, you may feel bad about skipping a school event or a soccer game when you have a crazy day. "Remind yourself that it's OK to not be there for every single thing because you'll be more present when you're together," says Lindekugel.

Streamline Decision-Making

We're all suffering from decision fatigue these days, and it's easy to become obsessed with weighing the pros and cons of every choice from strollers to summer camps. If you're an HSP, you may get particularly overwhelmed because you tend to give every decision equal weight, whether it's what to make for dinner or which preschool to pick. Stepping back to consider the big picture can help you put certain decisions in their proper context: "The survival of the species is not about finding a meal that will make everybody happy, it's about getting food on the table," says Lindsay Hildreth, a marriage and family therapist in Hudson, Wisconsin.

Creating routines and rules can help eliminate small daily decisions. My kids used to ask me constantly if they could have a last-minute playdate, watch a show, or eat a snack, so I decided that friend time is after school until 5 p.m., screen time is at 6:30, and they can choose whatever they want from the pantry snack shelf. (They still ask me sometimes, but at least I already know my answer!)

For the more important decisions, Bogel finds it helpful to set aside a specific time to consider the options, and not when she's feeling tired or overwhelmed. To decrease the pressure of making those bigger choices, Dr. Aron suggests asking yourself, "How bad will it be if I make the wrong decision? Can I get out of the situation if I change my mind?" Almost no decision is perfect or irreversible—you can always switch to a different day-care center, for example, if the one you chose doesn't end up feeling quite right.

Step Back from the Chaos

During those inevitable times when family life seems out of control and you're feeling irritable, calming yourself is key. Dr. Aron suggests closing your eyes and taking five deep breaths. Inhale through your nose and out through your mouth, as if you're blowing up a balloon. Next, look at the environment. Can you dim the lights or turn off the music? Little things like fixing a cup of tea or giving yourself a foot massage can make a big difference.

If your kids are old enough, tell them you need to rest for a few minutes by yourself in a separate room. When another adult is home, step outside, since nature can be very calming. "Your kids don't need a cruise director, they need a parent, and they can quiet down and do some drawing or building while you relax," says Lindekugel.

I can't eliminate the hecticness of my family's end-of-day routine entirely, but reducing the number of noisy electronics, simplifying meal prep, and putting my to-do list aside for a little while has helped me manage my own dinnertime meltdowns. When I can just focus my attention on my family, I feel calm and clearheaded—feelings all parents can appreciate, whatever their sensitivity profile.

This article originally appeared in Parents magazine's April 2020 issue as "The Cure for Stimulation Overload."

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