Are you worried that your teen seems more anxious or withdrawn compared to her peers?
You might notice that she prefers time alone in her room, frequently gets irritable after a long day, or loses sleep worrying about a class presentation.
Reflecting back, you may even remember that she’s always been a bit more fussy, picky, quiet, or easily overwhelmed — and you hoped she would grow out of it.
If this sounds familiar, you might be worried that there’s something wrong with your teen. But many teens struggling with anxiety and fatigue actually have a highly researched, perfectly normal personality trait: something called Sensory Processing Sensitivity, also known as being a highly sensitive person (HSP).
Many highly sensitive teens who are unaware of this trait struggle to understand why they feel more overwhelmed — and different — than others their age. But they can easily thrive with a few lifestyle adjustments.
If you think your teen may be highly sensitive, the most important thing you can do is understand their trait, and help them understand it themselves. Below, I’ll cover all of the major questions that parents of sensitive teens have, and the answers based on current research in psychology.
What Is High Sensitivity?
According to research by Dr. Elaine Aron and others, high sensitivity is a personality trait that allows the brain and nervous system to deeply process subtle cues and details that others miss. About 15-20 percent of the population are born with this trait, and it’s dispersed equally among all genders. It’s even found in other species besides humans — at least 100 species so far.
High sensitivity is often confused with introversion, but about a third of all HSPs are extroverts.
How Do I Know If My Teen Is a Highly Sensitive Person?
All highly sensitive people share four main characteristics (nicknamed D.O.E.S.):
- Depth of Processing, meaning they reflect deeply on things and tend to take longer to think and reflect before acting.
- Overstimulation, which happens because they are processing every little detail in their surroundings (as well as their own feelings). Teens may get overstimulated especially often, because they’re not yet used to managing their sensitivity.
- Emotional Responsiveness (or Empathy), which is a key trait of HSPs. Most HSPs are extremely aware of their own feelings and the feelings of others. The part of an HSP’s brain that considers the feelings of others is actually more responsive than in the average person’s brain.
- Sensitivity to Subtleties (and sensitivity to sensory stimuli), meaning they tend to notice things that others don’t, or make connections that others fail to see.
These characteristics can show up in many ways. For example:
- Complex thinking, asking lots of questions, or learning quickly
- Needing more time for transitions or getting distressed by sudden changes
- Getting easily flustered or worried, especially when trying something new or being watched
- Highly creative, or able to produce creative work that is distinctly different than that of their peers
- Difficulty falling asleep after a busy or exciting day
- Feeling all emotions deeply and showing empathy for others
- “Knowing” or guessing at someone’s feelings even if they haven’t expressed them
- A strong connection with animals or nature
- Having vivid dreams and an active imagination
- Being bothered by loud noises, bright lights, itchy fabrics, and/or strong smells
- Being bothered by minor noises/lights/smells that others don’t even seem to notice
- Perfectionistic or people-pleasing tendencies
Why Do Highly Sensitive Teens Get Overstimulated?
Due to the highly sensitive brain’s ability to deeply process information and notice subtleties, your teen is unconsciously taking in far more information than their non-HSP peers. That means taking in far more stimulation as well.
“Stimulation is everything you see, hear, touch, smell, and taste, plus all of your thoughts and emotions, plus whatever you are feeling in your body at the time — hunger, pain, cold, heat, or sore muscles,” Aron says. A highly sensitive teen’s brain processes much more of that than their peers do, and that means they will get mentally fatigued faster, too.
The result: Overstimulation occurs any time when we are “on” and receiving input for too long without rest. Think of it as an overheating computer that needs to be shut down.
And that means your teen will need more quiet alone time to recuperate than others their age.
Signs Your Highly Sensitive Teen May Be Overstimulated
For non-HSPs, overstimulation can seem like a mystery — it may seem to come out of nowhere, or in a context that wouldn’t be overstimulating to others. That often means parents miss the signs that their teen is overstimulated, even if it’s happening a lot.
Signs of overstimulation to pay attention to include:
- Your teen is anxious or worried often
- They have difficulty concentrating
- Your teen becomes hyperactive when excited or when there’s a lot going on
- They get angry or irritable when tired or under pressure
- It seems common that they experience headaches — especially when stressed
- They become withdrawn or exhausted
- Being nervous or upset gives them stomach aches/digestive issues
- Your teen has trouble falling asleep or staying asleep, especially after a long day or before an important event
7 Ways to Help Your Teen Minimize Overstimulation and Anxiety
Being highly sensitive doesn’t have to be overwhelming. Here are some ideas to help your highly sensitive teen thrive:
- Advance preparation. Schools tend to be crowded and noisy, so it helps reduce stimulation if you can prepare for activities in advance, especially new activities. For instance, practice presentations well ahead of time, or visit a new classroom before school starts.
- Avoid overscheduling. Moderate your teen’s after-school activities to avoid overscheduling and overstimulating them. The highly sensitive teen will enjoy quality over quantity — putting their focus on one activity rather than dividing it across several. (If they’re an extrovert or high sensation seeker, find activities that have more risk and novelty. On the other hand, if your teen is a quiet introvert, they may prefer a creative or more introspective activity.)
- Ensure that your teen gets plenty of sleep and rest. Allow your teen to retreat to their room to have downtime immediately after school. On weekends, give them permission to catch up on sleep and take one “off” day to relax or do activities of their choosing. This is where many parents of HSP teens push too hard, wanting their teen to get up earlier and “do something,” but it’s worth it to give them this downtime. (In fact, if your teen does not have a private bedroom, you may even want to create an area of the house devoted to quiet time.)
- Model self-care practices when you yourself are stressed or anxious, so your teen will learn how to prioritize their needs. Breathing exercises are an incredibly simple yet effective way to calm overstimulation and a tool your teen can use throughout their lifetime. Try this 3-minute Mindful Breathing Exercise or download the Buddhify app.
- Reduce screen time and increase immersive experiences such as time outdoors, time with animals, reading, or engaging in creative activities.
- Avoid pressuring your teen to make fast decisions. Remember, they are processing far more information than other people do in order to make a decision or take action on something. Nothing stresses out an HSP more than being pressured to make a decision without thinking everything through.
- Structure and predictability are important for your quiet teen. As much as possible, have consistent times for homework, meals, family activities, bedtime and so forth. This even means avoiding surprises, which can increase overstimulation and anxiety.
Not every withdrawn or stressed-out teen is highly sensitive. But if your teen struggles with anxiety, constantly feels exhausted, and needs more alone time, they may be a highly sensitive person. This trait is a good thing, it’s normal, and it comes with many benefits.
With a few lifestyle adjustments, your teen can start to appreciate their nature and step into their many gifts as a highly sensitive person. And you, as a parent, can help your sensitive child do just that.
You might like:
- Sensitive Boys Can Be a Favorite Target of Bullies. Here’s How to Prevent It.
- 4 Steps to Help Your Highly Sensitive Child With Separation Anxiety
- Your Highly Sensitive Child Is Normal. No Wait, She’s Extraordinary.
- 21 Signs That You’re a Highly Sensitive Person
- 14 Things Highly Sensitive People Absolutely Need to Be Happy
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