As my oldest daughter approaches thirteen, I have become more conscious of what she will need to negotiate her teen years as a highly sensitive person (HSP).
As an HSP myself, there were things that worked for me during my teen years — such as creative outlets for my strong emotions — and things that really didn’t. Most HSPs struggle to deal with our emotions, relationships, and identity as teens, perhaps more so than others. We’re far more impacted by our environment, too: an HSP will do even better in a supportive environment, and even worse in an unhealthy one, compared to other kids.
Now that I’m a parent, I want to give my HSP teens the environment and tools she needs to thrive — not to struggle. Here are five things that our wonderful highly sensitive teens need from us that will help them flourish.
5 Things Highly Sensitive Teens Absolutely Need
1. An understanding of what it means to be highly sensitive
High sensitivity often seems like a weakness. HSPs could easily label themselves as shy, too sensitive, a “cry baby,” or anxious. When I was a teen, I thought I was overly emotional and hated that I would burst into tears over the smallest things — even when I wasn’t feeling sad!
But high sensitivity has some amazing positives. Highly sensitive people are deep thinkers, tuned in to other people and their emotions, and see things that others miss. They are creative, peace-loving, and full of empathy. Highly sensitive people (and highly sensitive teens) can be introverted or extroverted, high sensation seeking or happier with routine.
Helping your teen discover their own unique strengths and understand their high sensitivity will boost their self-confidence. It will give them a sense of positive identity — which is essential for HSPs of all ages, but especially teens.
2. Alone time
Our teens lead busy lives. With busy school schedules and increased workloads, sports practices, after-school activities, and friendships, the weeks can fill up quickly.
Being a highly sensitive person might mean your teen gets overwhelmed more easily by these events — or by big groups or parties. For a teen, this can also seem like a weakness, because it may look like their friends have all the energy they need.
The truth is, enjoying downtime and having space are key things that HSPs need to be happy. The sooner a highly sensitive teen learns to value such downtime, the sooner they can start feeling comfortable and in control of their personality. Help them schedule in periods of quiet alone time, and encourage them to rest if they seem emotional or stressed.
Likewise, if you teach them relaxation techniques, talk to them about self care, and help them discover ways to recharge, it will benefit them for the rest of their lives. And this is true no matter how social or outgoing they are — even extroverts need alone time!
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Teens in general struggle to get enough sleep. About 8-10 hours a night is the recommended amount for teenagers, but researchers have found that many are not getting anywhere near that.
The reasons vary. For some teens, late nights on their devices are the cause, and researchers suggest that dimming lights at night and having device-free time might help. Others say that teens’ shifting circadian rhythms are the problem. During the teen years, sleep patterns can shift and end up 2-3 hours out from adults’ rhythm. This might mean you are ready for bed at 10 p.m. but your teen is wide awake until midnight. Either way, this lack of sleep has profound health effects.
But sleep is even more essential for deep-thinking highly sensitive teens, because their brains do a lot of processing during the night. Sleep plays a critical role in brain health and development; without enough of it, your teen will be more emotional and less able to cope with the pressures of the day. In other words, lack of sleep is a disaster for highly sensitive people.
If your teen has to get up early for school, there may not be much you can do about this, but it does make a difference to encourage them to rest their bodies. Teach them good sleep habits — such as no devices two hours before sleep, plenty of exercise early in the day, and not eating late at night — and try to be forgiving if they sleep till noon on weekends.
4. A sense of control
Teens want to feel an increasing sense of ownership and power, but often this is the age when parents tighten their control. That means that, counter-intuitively, much of a teen’s surly or rebellious behavior is actually precipitated by the parent.
It’s easy to see why. When our children are young, we have almost complete say over what they do, and when. As they grow, it’s our job to give them more and more control, preparing them for the adult world by teaching them to make their own choices. But it can be hard for a parent to let go of the level of control they once had, especially when they can already see their teen pulling away and acting more independently — which can be scary for a parent.
But giving them that freedom is crucial for a teen’s development (and happiness). Highly sensitive teens, in particular, feel anxious when they don’t have control over their own lives, and that anxiety can last well into adulthood. With their ability to think deeply, it’s important that they feel heard, can voice their own opinions, and have them valued and respected. They may lack the experience of an adult, but it’s likely they’re already thinking things through very carefully before acting — that’s a key HSP trait.
So, within reason, give your HSP teen the freedom to choose, knowing full well that they will sometimes make mistakes. As long as the potential mistakes are not life-altering (like unprotected sex or drinking and driving), you will see them truly blossom when you gradually increase their responsibility and freedom.
5. Our support and guidance
Even though we want to increase their freedom, our teens definitely still need guidance from us. The teenage brain does an incredible amount of shuffling, rearranging, and growing new connections; unfortunately, that means teens don’t always make the best decisions. This is because the prefrontal cortex is the last part of their brain to mature. This is the part of our brains responsible for all our self-control, personality expression, planning, decision-making, ability to think about future consequences, and even to suppress urges that would be socially unacceptable.
So, when teens act like teens, it’s their underdeveloped prefrontal cortex at work.
During all this massive brain development, highly sensitive teens are vulnerable to depression and anxiety just like other teenagers — perhaps even more so.
But it also affects them in unique ways. Their ability to tune in to the emotions of others means they may get caught up in frequent dramas at school, be deeply affected by their friends’ problems, and get heart-broken more easily (and yes, there are things you can do to help your teen recover from heartbreak). They may also go deep into their negative thoughts and emotions, processing them over and over. All of this paints an image of a sensitive empath who gets overwhelmed by issues and problems in the world — and that’s a very accurate image of a highly sensitive teen.
As a parent, you have to be their bedrock.
One of the most important jobs you can do for your highly sensitive teen is to be available to listen, tune into their emotions (which helps them learn emotion regulation), and be a sounding board for their thoughts. Often, this will mean remaining non-judgmental and giving support before advice. It’s hard, but it’s what your teen needs.
Highly Sensitive Teens Can Thrive, Too
The teen years for a highly sensitive person can be creative, powerful, and fun as they explore their friendships and talents, but it can also be a very challenging time. As parents of highly sensitive teens, we play a huge role in helping them flourish during this time. And there is no better way to do that than to give them the environment and support they need.
Because, as parents, we know a secret that our children don’t: our teens need us more than they think they do.