If your teenager is highly sensitive, chances are you already know it. Being highly sensitive means having a nervous system that is more impacted by environmental, emotional, or social stimulation. Up to 20% of people are highly sensitive, and traits begin to show up as early as infancy. Here are some of the common characteristics in highly sensitive teens:
- They feel deep emotions
- They are introverted and need time alone to recharge
- They take criticism and disagreements hard
- They are extra-sensitive to their surroundings (light, temperature, noise, etc.)
- They are creative and/or deep thinkers
- They get easily overwhelmed or overstimulated
- They often deal with anxiety
- They are intuitive about others’ feelings
- They have a few close friends instead of a huge social circle
It’s important for both parents and teens to know that sensitivity is a personality trait, not a disorder, and most highly sensitive adults say they see their sensitivity as a gift. To discover the superpowers in their sensitivity, teens need help learning to manage their nervous systems and navigating a world that feels too intense at times. Here are our top four tips for supporting your highly sensitive teen.
1. Understand sensitivity and help them see their strengths.
If you think your teen is highly sensitive, you can gain perspective by reading psychologist Elaine Aron’s book The Highly Sensitive Person. The first researcher to define the trait, Aron is an HSP (highly sensitive person) herself. She’s also written a special series of blog posts for teens. Because the majority of the population is not as sensitive, many highly sensitive teens feel like there’s something wrong with them. Maybe they don’t like crowded parties or noisy concerts, struggle with public speaking, or feel completely deflated after a disagreement with a friend. They may have been called a crybaby, made fun of, or told to “toughen up.” Aron helps parents and teens define sensitivity, understand its strengths, and learn to manage it in a positive, proactive way.
2. Build a foundation of wellness.
Wellness is important for all teens, but it’s even more so for HSPs. Highly sensitive teens need stable routines for diet, exercise, and sleep to keep their nervous systems running smoothly. Start with simple goals, like making sure they get 8 to10 hours of sleep and eat a healthy breakfast every morning. Teach your teen how to HALT: when they’re feeling Hungry, Angry, Lonely, or Tired (or overwhelmed in any way). They can take a pause and do some self-care, like going for a walk or just closing their eyes for one minute to breathe. Research has found that all teens, including HSPs, should get at least one hour of moderate to vigorous exercise most days. Besides the physical benefits, exercise helps highly sensitive teens stay mentally and emotionally grounded.
3. Help them manage hectic schedules.
Between school, homework, extracurricular activities, after-school jobs, and time with friends and family, teens lead busy lives. Highly sensitive teens can easily get overwhelmed juggling it all. Most HSPs need extra rest and time alone to recharge. Teach your teen to prioritize their own well-being first, followed by the responsibilities and relationships that matter most to them. Help them schedule downtime, and suggest tools for self-care and managing stress, like these mini-meditations. If they seem drained, irritable, or overly emotional, ask them if they need a break and let them know you’re here to help. Make sure they know the need for downtime isn’t a weakness. Instead, it activates sensitivity superpowers like creativity and intuition, and helps them have more energy for the things they care about.
4. Empower them to be independent.
Lots of highly sensitive teens experience anxiety or seem to struggle more than most with everyday challenges. This can send well-meaning parents into helicopter mode, but it\’s important for sensitive teens to learn how to be independent, too. Think about how you can empower them to stretch themselves without overdoing it. Highly sensitive teens may need extra structure and support to meet their goals, like talking through options, clarifying their values, and setting micro-goals. One mom says she was worried when her highly sensitive daughter planned to go to the same huge state university as her two best friends. But, after a few campus visits and heart-to-heart talks, she decided on a college with smaller classes and more mentorship for first year students. “She’s really found her niche there, and she’s so proud that she made the right choice for herself.”
Highly sensitive teens are special. They are empathetic, conscientious, perceptive, creative, and often driven by high ideals and care and concern for others. With your support, your teen can learn to see their sensitivity as a superpower and start using it to make the world a better place.