The rise of highly sensitive parents (2023)

Family Tree | Parenting

(Image credit:

Prashanti Aswani


The rise of highly sensitive parents (1)

Are you an 'orchid' or a 'dandelion' parent? Researchers are uncovering the hidden personality traits that can shape our family life.


Ask any parent of young children whether they've ever felt overwhelmed, and the answer will probably be: yes. Even in the most relaxed households there can be days when the noise, mess and chaos seem to spiral out of control, leaving parents exhausted and irritated. Toddlers don't have an off button or a quiet voice.

As normal and common as this feeling is, there's a personality trait that can make everyday family life more overwhelming for some parents than others. Roughly 20-30% of the population are classed as being a highly sensitive person (HSP), according do a 2018 research paper – a trait receiving greater recognition by scientists as well as the general public. This sensitivity can relate to smells, sights or sounds. People who have it may, for example, find it hard to cope with bright lights and loud noise, and can find chaotic situations very stressful. It can also involve a heightened awareness of other people's moods or feelings, and come with a particularly strong sense of empathy.

Add the demands of parenting into the mix, and it surely sounds like a recipe for disaster. On top of the daily sensory and emotional overload, highly sensitive parents may face the additional challenge of caring for children who are also highly sensitive (being highly sensitive is thought to be 47% heritable).

Fortunately, though, the trait also comes with certain advantages, research suggests. For those affected, learning to understand these nuances could help turn parenting into a more joyful and enriching experience, rather than an overwhelming one.

The rise of highly sensitive parents (2)

Family life can be overwhelming for some parents (Credit: Prashanti Aswani)

The first step is probably to find out if you are highly sensitive. A team of psychologists from different universities who study sensitivity have developed a free online test for this. Crucially, being highly sensitive is not a disorder but a personality trait – a certain way of responding to one's environment. In particular, highly sensitive people tend to react especially strongly to sensory stimulation, a characteristic known as sensory processing sensitivity (SPS).

"Generally, sensitive people have heightened perception, they perceive more details," explains Michael Pluess, a developmental psychologist at Queen Mary University of London who specialises in the study of highly sensitive people and co-developed the test. "They will pick up on the moods of other people and have higher empathy. They also process things more deeply so they will pick up more about the environment." That is, they have a tendency to ruminate on what they experience and can be deeply affected by what they see and feel (which explains why I can't watch horror films).

Being highly sensitive involves a brain response to certain events or experiences that is measurably different from that of less sensitive people.

In one study, researchers asked a randomly recruited group of people to take a high-sensitivity test – a set of questionnaires, similar to the online test – then showed them photos of happy and sad people, and monitored their brain activity through fMRI scans. The highly sensitive people in the group, who had scored high in the test, displayed stronger activations of regions of the brain involved in awareness and empathy compared to the less sensitive participants.

Other studies showed similar patterns of people with sensory processing sensitivity displaying especially strong brain activation in regions involved in empathy and reflective thinking.

The rise of highly sensitive parents (3)

Highly sensitive people have been compared to orchids, which need specific conditions to thrive (Credit: Prashanti Aswani)

This tendency to process information deeply can leadto highly sensitive people being easily overstimulated, Pluess adds – and I can somewhat relate to that. I flinch at hearing about the plot of a gruesome movie. Watching it is out the question. It can feel physically painful to be in a noisy environment with bad acoustics. On London's screechy underground I have to cover my ears – and often wonder why nobody else does it. This sensitivity to noise – a typical feature of being highly sensitive – can make parenting especially challenging. When my children scream, it can feel as though my brain is imploding. To respond to their needs and comfort them, I have to learn to switch off that sensation. Of course, this is easier when I feel well-rested. Unfortunately, parenting tends to come with disrupted sleep, at least in the early years.

The challenges highly sensitive parents face – including stress and overstimulation in a chaotic environment – can interfere with "high quality parenting", explains Pluess.

Research has shown that in the early stages of parenthood, highly sensitive parents report greater stress and tend to find parenting more difficult than other parents do.However, they also report more attunement with their child – good news which chimes with other findings on highly sensitive people showing especially strong empathy.

Emerging evidence also suggests the added stress highly sensitive parents feel can be short-lived. A pilot study due to be presented at the European Conference on Developmental Psychology in August 2023 found that whilst highly sensitive parents initially experienced high levels of stress, by the time their babies were nine months old they showed improved parenting styles compared to those who had low sensitivity.

Highly sensitive parents can be especially empathetic and responsive to their children's needs, research suggests

Francesca Lionetti, a researcher at G d'Annunzio University of Chieti-Pescara in Italy, conducted the study and found that there was another factor involved. Negative childhood experiences impacted how a highly sensitive person responded to parenthood.

"If they experienced rejection [from their parents as a child], then they reported more stress and were more intrusive in their parent-child interactions," she explains.

Lionetti points out that "being a highly sensitive parent does not need to be negative". Being attuned to details can, for example, be a positive factor in parenting. In the study, she found that for sensitive parents, being better attuned to their own respiratory signals was linked to more positive parenting. "That's related to the fact that [highly sensitive people] process more deeply what's going on inside their body," explains Lionetti.

This also tallies with research currently in press, which found that when new teachers were sent to teach in challenging environments, those who were more sensitive experienced a greater drop in wellbeing and felt greater stress than those who scored low on sensitivity. But once they got used to their environment, they fully recovered.

"It seems that sensitive people in the short term are more easily overwhelmed with change," explains Pluess. But when it comes to parenting, he says that highly sensitive parents have the potential to be exceptional. "Their sensitivity helps them to understand their child and respond more quickly and more appropriately to the needs of the child."

The rise of highly sensitive parents (4)

Highly sensitive people can find it hard to cope with certain sounds or sights (Credit: Prashanti Aswani)

Since parental overwhelm can of course affect anyone, whether highly sensitive or not, some of the coping strategies for highly sensitive people could in fact benefit all parents.

One is being aware of your own reactions, and knowing what makes you feel stressed or relaxed. Self-awareness then allows us to accept the positives as well as the challenges of parenting, Pluess says, and look for ways to feel calm or find spaces of quiet when we feel overwhelmed.

"Sensitive people seem to benefit from social support too," he adds. Research shows thathighly sensitive people respond better to mental health prevention programmes that promote resilience, while highly sensitive children benefit even more than others from anti-bullying interventions.

Highly sensitive people have been described as "orchids" who find it hard to thrive if the conditions are not right, unlike less sensitive "dandelion-type" people, which can grow in any environment. Of course, everyone needs light and warmth – and an apparent dandelion may just be an orchid-like person who was forced to deny their needs. But the metaphor might help convey that it's ok to try and modify our environment a little, to help us flourish.

Sometimes, parenting can actually help people make their lives more orchid-friendly. At school, my daughter gets regular "brain breaks", where her class sing songs to give themselves a rest. I haven't yet tried getting my entire household to join me for an all-singing brain break when things feel like they're getting out of hand – but maybe I should give it a go.

* Melissa Hogenboom is the editor of BBC Reel. Her book,The Motherhood Complex, is out now. She is@melissasuzannehon Twitter.


Join one million Future fans by liking us onFacebook, or follow us onTwitterorInstagram.

If you liked this story,sign up for the weekly features newsletter, called "The Essential List" – a handpicked selection of stories from BBCFuture,Culture,Worklife,TravelandReeldelivered to your inbox every Friday.

Top Articles
Latest Posts
Article information

Author: Duane Harber

Last Updated: 06/08/2023

Views: 5952

Rating: 4 / 5 (51 voted)

Reviews: 82% of readers found this page helpful

Author information

Name: Duane Harber

Birthday: 1999-10-17

Address: Apt. 404 9899 Magnolia Roads, Port Royceville, ID 78186

Phone: +186911129794335

Job: Human Hospitality Planner

Hobby: Listening to music, Orienteering, Knapping, Dance, Mountain biking, Fishing, Pottery

Introduction: My name is Duane Harber, I am a modern, clever, handsome, fair, agreeable, inexpensive, beautiful person who loves writing and wants to share my knowledge and understanding with you.