Quiet time is important for highly sensitive parents while high-sensory activities, like roller coasters, are important for sensory-seeking children.
She wants conversation 24/7. I want time alone to rejuvenate. She wants the volume turned up to 11. I want to enjoy the silence. She wants her days to be messy and stimulating. I want my days to be orderly and calm. In essence, I am her quiet place. She is my wild. She’s my sensory-seeking child, and I’m her highly sensitive parent.
What Is Sensory-Seeking Behavior?
Highly sensitive (or sensory-avoidant) brains “over-respond” to stimuli. A little stimulation goes a long way in filling our sensory cups. Sensory-seeking brains, on the other hand, “under-respond,” so they need more input for the same amount of stimulation.
Sensory input includes the five main senses — sound, smell, taste, sight, and touch — as well as two others that are equally important. The first, proprioception, is the awareness of where our body is in space; the other, vestibular sense, is responsible for balance and motor control.
Because of their high threshold for sensory input, sensory-seekers crave more intense or frequent stimuli, like loud noises and rough play. A few hallmarks are thrill-seeking, repetitive motions, and accidentally hurting others or themselves (though they often show minimal pain).They’re constantly jumping, spinning, smelling, and touching — the exact things highly sensitive people (HSPs) avoid.
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Opposites Attract… Right?
My other two children are introverts like me (one is even an HSP, too). So people assume my sensory-seeking child is the hardest for me to parent. In some ways, that’s true, but in other ways, my sensory-seeker brings out the best in me.
She’s the youngest of my three, so when she came along I thought I had the basic parenting beats down pat. But every day, she shows me how much I still need to learn as a parent.
Like when our family of five moved overseas. My older two kids were content to sit quietly with toys and movies on the nine-hour flight. Meanwhile, my youngest was flopping around in my lap, broadcasting a running commentary of everything she saw, and going to the bathroom more than was strictly necessary (mostly because she wanted to say hi to people and see all the things).
Over the past seven years, I’ve had to navigate uncommon situations (like that trip), but also everyday challenges. Here’s how I get both my highly sensitive needs, and her sensory-seeking ones, met while still staying connected.
5 Ways to Connect With Your Sensory-Seeking Child — That Can Work for Both of You
1. Set aside one-on-one time (even when you’re at full capacity).
When on a family outing, my sensory-seeking child is the one charging forward, sometimes without the rest of us. It makes logistics a challenge with three kids (and sometimes two cats). My older kids need my attention, too, as does packing or checking reservations. I’m immediately overwhelmed when I have her high-sensory needs on top of what is already a high-sensory situation for me.
Sensory-seekers get more dysregulated the more stimulated they are — unless that stimulation is intentional, like heavy work or tight hugs. When we’re both dysregulated, but in different ways, it’s impossible for me to connect with my sensory-seeking child in the moment. We do our best and let go of the rest.
So it’s important for me to set aside one-on-one time with her when I know I’ll be at full capacity. With my other two kids, I can have quiet time with them that also addresses my own needs. With my sensory-seeking child, the activities she wants to do use more of my mental and emotional energy. I can connect with her better when my own nervous system is regulated.
2. Embrace the wild, but contain it with time and place.
For younger kids, healthy sensory input can include getting messy with Play-Doh or slime and not being too overscheduled. As kids get older, theme parks or concerts might scratch their sensory-seeking itch. Just like quiet time is important for HSPs, high-sensory activities like these are important for sensory-seekers to feel fulfilled and balanced.
To meet our sensory-seeking children where they are, we have to embrace the wild sometimes — while respecting our own limits. I often try things I normally wouldn’t for the sake of my youngest. Even if it ends up being something I wouldn’t do again, I connect with her and have a cool experience.
The critical part to enjoying it, though, are the boundaries and limits. Time and place are easy ones to start with. “I’d love to play slime with you! I’ll do it for 20 minutes, and let’s make sure it stays on the table.” Or, “I’ll ride two roller coasters with you. Then I’m going to take a break, so pick your favorites first!” Or, “I’m excited to go to the concert with you! Let’s get seats next to the aisle, without people in front of us.” Having these types of limits will help you embrace your child’s sensory-seeking and your high sensitivity at the same time.
Another way to do this is to provide a sensory opportunity your child can do on their own, then enthusiastically hear all about it. Some toys and activities are especially appealing for sensory-seekers, like ball pits and indoor rock climbing gyms. While they busy themselves with that, you can take some time to decompress.
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3. Charge up inanimate objects with love.
As much as we love our kids, it’s not possible for any parent to be available for their kids all the time. This is especially true for HSPs, whose sensory-seeking children want to be touching them all the time (raising my hand here!). So when you’re touched-out — and your sensory-seeker is decidedly not — use an object to carry your love for you.
For younger kids, a “worry stone” (which is exactly what is sounds like) or special stuffed animal (especially a weighted or scented one) works great. Show your child you’re charging it up by hugging it or keeping it with you for a day, then give it to them, full of your love. You can even take pictures of it coming along with you places if you and your child are apart.
For older kids, a GIF, meme, or song works in much the same way. Having inside jokes or callbacks is a less sensory, but equally meaningful, way to charge up something inanimate with love. When your sensitivity is high, send it to your kiddo, and you two will connect — even if you don’t want to sit on the same couch.
4. Be a safe space for your sensory-seeking child.
My sensory-seeking child expresses her big emotions in even bigger ways. She’ll do this by running off crying to her room, slamming her door, screaming, plowing into me, and holding on tight. In return, I let her know that as long as she’s not hurting anyone (including herself), it’s all okay. It’s the exact opposite of how I react when I’m overwhelmed, but that doesn’t make it wrong.
I accept all of her, so she knows she can come to me with anything, even if I may not understand her reaction right away. She knows I’m still a safe person to confide in and share things with.
But being a truly safe space goes a step further than accepting. It’s seeing our children’s qualities in a positive light. My sensory-seeker is the first one to walk up to friends at the park, bringing her wary siblings along with her. She’s willing to try anything more than once, even (and sometimes especially) if she didn’t like it the first time. When everyone else in the family is down or tired, she has the energy to get us all laughing again.
It’s so easy to recognize the parts we like about ourselves in our children and focus on those. But the things that make our children different to us (or even the things we see in them that we don’t like about ourselves) are opportunities for us to embrace our children as whole, complicated, beautiful people… which is the basis of genuine, long-lasting connection.
5. Set boundaries for your child, and listen to their boundaries, too.
Included in all of the above (but important enough to have its own point) is boundaries. Boundaries are the key to having a satisfying, healthy relationship with anyone. This is especially true with people who are the “opposite” of you, like sensory-seekers. As parents, we need to set our boundaries, but we also need to set our kids up for success in listening to them.
For example, if your sensory-seeking child has no time or place to have their sensory needs met, it will be extremely hard for them to listen when you tell them the living room isn’t for roughhousing. Whether it’s having a playroom, going to the playground, or enrolling in sports or other classes, sensory-seekers need an outlet as much as HSPs need a refuge.
It’s equally as important to listen to your kids’ boundaries. While relationships with our kids will never be equal (we’ll always be doing more for them), they’re still a two-way street. The best way to show our kids how to respect boundaries is to respect theirs.
I’m Grateful to Have a Sensory-Seeking Child
My sensory-seeking child may not have sat still on our plane ride overseas, but she did share her wonder with everyone. After the plane landed, an older couple in the seats in front of us turned around and told me how delightful it was listening to her infectious laughter. The man admitted that flying had always made him nervous, but hearing her enjoy it so much made him enjoy it, too.
She’s my wildflower child, and I wouldn’t have her any other way.
You might like:
- How to Tune Out the Noise When Raising Toddlers as a Sensitive, Introverted Parent
- 5 Realistic Ways for Introverted and Sensitive Parents to Decompress Right Now
- How Not to Overschedule Your Introverted Child
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