This post: Is Your Teen a Highly Sensitive Person? Here Are a Few Things You Should Know
Written by: Marybeth Bock
Do you ever find yourself worrying about your teenager because they take any hint of constructive criticism from you, a teacher, a coach or a friend far too personally?
Or perhaps you feel as though your teen’s reaction to certain situations is somewhat over the top, so much so, that you’ve (quietly) labeled them as “emotional.”
Or maybe your teen is introverted, shy or you’ve noticed that they become very anxious in social situations.
While it doesn’t hold true with every teenager (teenagers can have a wide range of normal behaviors and emotions), these types of behaviors are often indicative of highly sensitive people.
So, how do you know if your teen is behaving like a normal teenager with typical emotional swings or if something else might be driving their behavior?
Is Your Teen a Highly Sensitive Person? Here Are Things You Should Know
What Exactly Does it Mean to Be a Highly Sensitive Person?
The term Highly Sensitive Person, or HSP, was first coined by psychologist Dr. Elaine Aron, Ph.D. According to her theory, HPSs are those who are high in a personality trait known as sensory-processing sensitivity or SPS. It’s thought that about 15 to 20 percent of teens (and the population in general) are highly sensitive.
People with high levels of SPS display increased emotional sensitivity, or stronger reactions, to both external and internal stimuli – things like noise, light, hunger, and pain. They also are known for having a complex inner life, thinking, and feeling more deeply about almost everything.
Basically, highly sensitive people are more tuned into and sensitive to their environment. And, because they notice so much, feel so deeply and think about everything with more intensity, they also tend to become overwhelmed more easily and require more downtime.
Is Your Teen a Highly Sensitive Person?
If you’re a highly sensitive person yourself, chances are it will be easier for you to recognize the characteristic behaviors in your teen.
Many highly sensitive kids are considered shy, introverted or deal with anxiety in social settings. However, when they become teenagers, many make an effort to push down those natural tendencies so they can better fit in with friends making it challenging for parents to determine if their teen is, in fact, highly sensitive.
And, because there is no standard testing to diagnose someone with high sensitivity and it’s considered a normal trait, not a disorder, (in fact many experts identify it as a “gift” because HSPs are so aware and clued into the world around them) it can be easy to overlook or attribute it to something else such as a true disorder like generalized anxiety.
Dr. Aron has developed a list of the four key indicators of high sensitivity, which nearly every HSP will have. She says to think about the clues to this trait in terms of “MY CHILD DOES.”
1. Depth of Processing
Does your teen often come up with unusual and creative ideas? Are they unusually conscientious (aware of the consequences of failing to do things well)? Does your teen prefer to decide things slowly and mull things over? Are his or her decisions often right? Does your teen think about long-term goals and consequences more than most other kids their age?
2. Easily Overstimulated
Have you noticed that your teenager is more easily stressed by noise, chaotic situations, deadlines, or working in groups (true more for introverted HSPs)? Do they tend to seek out quiet spots? Do they prefer to work or study alone or at home rather than in a social setting? Outside of school, does your teen hesitate to make plans or often turn down invitations from friends to hang out?
3. Emotionally Reactive
Does your teen react strongly to feedback, both positive and negative – overcompensating and, for example, rewriting an entire paper when only some of it needed changing? Has she or he ever cried at school or during a sporting event when disciplined or called out for a mistake? Does your teenager have considerable empathy for others, or know more than most about other friends’ personal problems? Do they, when compared to their peers, worry more about how someone is reacting to a negative event, give more positive feedback, and generally deal with friend group morale? Does he or she become angry, curious, sad, anxious, or joyful sooner than others?
4. Sensitive to Subtle Stimuli
Does your teen notice things that others don’t? Do they pick up on other people’s feelings more than other kids their age? Do they arrange their personal space with special care, such as adjusting the lighting? Do they often comment on how someone looks or dresses, or on small changes in the environment or weather?
If you have observed many of these behaviors in your teen, they are likely to be a HSP.
How To Best Parent a Teen Who is Highly Sensitive
Open the Lines of Communication
The first thing to do is to have an honest and judgment-free discussion with your teen. Allow them to voice all of their feelings. Perhaps in the past, they have been unfairly labeled in negative ways as being too fearful, fussy, timid, or stubborn about personal wants and needs. It’s important and helpful to have family members apologize to the HSP for past behaviors and for everyone to acknowledge that they’ll move forward with curiosity and without negative labels. It can also be a great idea to set up regular family meetings so that your teen has a chance to express their feelings and concerns to everyone in the household.
Educate your HSP teen, yourself and any siblings about HSP and commit to re-framing the so-called “negative” traits that your highly sensitive teen displays. Talk to your teen’s pediatrician or your family doctor. Talk to experts and dive into available reading material. This will help you understand your teen better and challenge them to think differently about themselves well.
View It For What It Is ~ A Gift
While some may view high sensitivity as a weakness, in essence, it’s more of a gift. Highly sensitive teens are typically more in tune with others’ feelings and more aware of their surroundings and the little things in life. And, because they’re notorious overthinkers, they tend to steer clear of risky, dangerous or rebellious behavior and they pride themselves on making methodical, informed decisions. Highly sensitive teens are also typically persistent and work hard to attain goals. More often than not, they are “wise beyond their years” (in fact, many parents wish they had a child like that)! Another wonderful trait of highly sensitive people is that they’re often extremely creative.
Help Your Teen Find Ways to Relax
Because most HSPs are “overthinkers,” they need to find ways to calm their inner thoughts. Relaxation techniques can help your teen calm down and put life into perspective. These include:
- Listening to music
- Spending time with the family pet
- Time with people they’re comfortable with
Seek Out People They Can Relate To
Another way to support your HSP teen is to help them find confidants – other highly sensitive people who can fully relate to their behaviors and emotions. It’s great if they can find both a trustworthy adult (a counselor, aunt, uncle, or older cousin) or a fellow teenage friend who is also a HSP and who is willing to talk honestly about navigating life with this trait.
Keep Your Eye Out for Depression
According to Paradigm Treatment Center, a center specializing in the treatment of various mental health issues, “Some teens who are highly sensitive develop depression. This can happen because they feel like no one really understands them. In addition, they’re under a lot of pressure from their strong emotions.”
Some signs of depression include:
- Appetite changes
- Insomnia or too much sleeping
- A loss of interest in the things that they used to enjoy
- Withdrawal from friends
- A drop in school performance
- Some depressed teens also develop physical symptoms like frequent headaches, fatigue, and stomachaches.
Note: If you think that your teen might be depressed, seek help. You can go to your teen’s physician who will refer you to a counselor or therapist. If you think your teen is in imminent danger, don’t be afraid to call 911 or head to the nearest emergency room.
Tap Into Available Resources
Lastly, locate a few resources that will help you as the parent of a HSP and that will help your teen better understand themselves and how they process emotions as a highly sensitive person. This is something that they will be navigating the rest of their life, so embrace their creativity, empathy, and thoughtfulness.
*I suggest starting with Dr. Aron’s website The Highly Sensitive Person and her book The Highly Sensitive Child: Helping Our Children Thrive When The World Overwhelms Them, which has a chapter specifically on teens.
Marybeth Bock, MPH, is Mom to two young adults and one delightful hound dog. She has logged time as a military spouse, childbirth educator, college instructor, and freelance writer. She lives in Arizona and thoroughly enjoys research and writing – as long as iced coffee is involved. Her work can be found on numerous websites and in two books. Follow her on Facebook and Instagram.
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