How to Calm Big Emotions for Your Sensitive Kid and Yourself

A highly sensitive, introverted parent carries his crying son

To help our sensitive and introverted kids soothe their strong emotions, we must start with ourselves.

Being a highly sensitive person, an introvert, and a parent is the trifecta of challenging life dispositions. Any parent can tell you how exhausting it is to manage kids’ big emotions. But when you’re a highly sensitive introvert, it makes it that much more challenging. 

A highly sensitive person is someone who is more responsive to the sights, sounds, emotional cues, and other stimuli around them. You know, like your four-year-old melting down for the 45,783th time this morning while her two-year-old brother begins melting down because his sister is melting down… meanwhile, the TV is blaring the most annoying cartoon and the dog is barking to get let back inside and you simply can… not… take… any… more… noise.

Couple that with your innate need to be alone (hello, introvert) and the fact that when you’re looking around for those wild kids’ mother, ready to hand them back, you realize it’s youyou’re the mother — and there’s no escape plan in place. 

So how are we, as highly sensitive, introverted parents, supposed to actually help our littles handle their own big emotions when it feels, at times, like we’re barely managing our own?

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It All Starts With You

It might feel counterintuitive, but to help them, we must start with ourselves. By intentionally tending to our emotional state and addressing our needs as highly sensitive introverts, we are modeling the tools they will need to process their own emotions. And, if you’ve been around kids for any length of time, you know they like to mirror your actions, words, and attitudes. (Like the time I let out an expletive as the diaper bag fell out of the car and onto the wet, muddy ground, and my preschooler immediately yelled out the same expletive.)

On her podcast Thrive Like a Parent, Dr. Brooke Weinstein talks at length about self-regulation and how, as a parent, helping our children regulate their nervous system begins by first regulating our own. Which makes sense, right? I mean, it’s hard for kids to calm down when a big grownup is angrily telling them to calm down. That doesn’t even work well when grownups tell other grownups to calm down (just ask my husband). 

What Is a Dysregulated Nervous System, and What Does That Have to Do With ‘Big Emotions’?

Let’s face it. We’re tired. Sooo tired. Right? Which is one more reason it’s incredibly difficult to deal with our kids’ big emotions. We can’t support our kids without supporting ourselves, which is kind of the opposite of what we usually do, right? We’re the last to sleep, the last to eat, and on and on. Most of us probably feel like we’re running on empty every day. It’s a sign of a dysregulated nervous system. 

The sympathetic nervous system is where we find the fight-or-flight response, which pumps adrenaline and cortisol through our body, resulting in a quickened heart rate, rising blood pressure, and so on. Meanwhile, the parasympathetic nervous system is where we find the rest and digest mode, enabling relaxation and recovery, digestion, our immune response, and other things, like tissue repair. 

A regulated nervous system doesn’t necessarily mean you constantly reside in the calm of the parasympathetic world, but that you can appropriately navigate back and forth between the two when needed. For example, you need the adrenaline to kick in when you see a bear in the wild and need to run away. But once you’ve escaped, your body needs to settle back down and recover. 

However, in today’s world, we don’t encounter bears in the wild as much as we encounter social events that send our brain into panic and neverending to-do lists that don’t allow us to find our way back to rest mode. 

So we spend much more time in the sympathetic nervous system, running on adrenaline and getting far too used to things like anxiety, poor digestion, high blood pressure, or worse. 

In the midst of all that, we’re expected to calmly deal with our kids smashing goldfish crackers all over the living room and melting down over which Bluey episode they want to watch. 

It feels impossible. 

So what do we do? Let’s flip the order in which we do things. Here’s how.

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How to Manage Big Emotions as a Highly Sensitive, Introverted Parent

We have big feelings as sensitive people, right? That’s no secret. But how do we manage those feelings and also address our needs as introverts and effectively handle everything we need to do as parents? 

Let’s first deal with our own big emotions before we tackle the kids’ emotions. Let’s get ourselves to a healthy place so we can work with our kids from there and teach them how to do the same for themselves. 

It’s a process, of course, and it begins by slowing down. Here are five steps that have become my blueprint to regulate my nervous system and manage my big emotions: 

  • Notice when you’re getting worked up and pushed into fight-or-flight mode. Pay attention to what is happening at the time and what specific things seem to trigger you. Don’t jump into action mode yet, just take some time to notice.
  • Observe your body and mind. What physical sensations are present in those moments you start to feel upset and moving toward fight-or-flight? Observe your mind. What thoughts come up? 
  • Find ways to let go of the tension and other physical sensations that you’re experiencing. You can shake it off (literally), do a quick workout, or sit in meditation. Experiment to find what works for you.
  • Find a way to keep track of what you’re noticing and observing, and ways you release the tension. Write down how each experience felt, what worked, didn’t work, and so on. Consider it all data. 
  • Create your own regulating tools. After a while of noticing, observing, releasing, and keeping track, you’ll start to see patterns. You’ll see what works better than others in certain situations, and you might even identify specific triggers. Use that information to create tools for yourself — like journaling or taking a timeout and going for a quick walk (alone) — and a game plan for when you notice it happening again. You may even choose to make some shifts in your life to avoid or remove certain triggers. 

Teach Your Kids Your Secret Formula(s) 

Once you have the hang of it, you can teach the above process to your kids. In fact, if you bring them along with you on your journey, they’ll learn just by watching you. And if you have kids who are also highly sensitive or introverts (or both!), this can be an invaluable experience for them to see themselves in you. 

The more we talk to our kids about big feelings, and learn that each of us can find our own unique ways of managing them, the more proficient they’ll be at regulating their nervous systems as they grow up. 

While this isn’t a quick fix, I can attest to its effectiveness in the long run. I know that when my four-year-old says, “Mom, I just need some alone time right now, okay?” that we’re on the right track.

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