How to Help Your Sensitive Teen Manage Anxiety and Fatigue
Are you worried that your teen seems more anxious or withdrawn compared to their peers? Perhaps they prefer time alone in their room, are often irritable after a long day or lose sleep worrying about a presentation. Reflecting back, you may remember that they have always been a bit more fussy, picky, quiet or easily overwhelmed but you hoped they would grow out of it as they got older. Many teens struggling with anxiety and fatigue actually have a highly researched, but less well known personality trait known as Sensory Processing Sensitivity, otherwise known as being a Highly Sensitive Person (HSP). Many Highly Sensitive teens who are unaware of this innate trait struggle to understand why they feel more overwhelmed and different than others their age, but can easily thrive with a few lifestyle adjustments.
What is High Sensitivity?
According to research by Dr. Elaine Aron, High Sensitivity, otherwise known by its research term of Sensory Processing Sensitivity, is an innate personality trait dispersed equally among all genders and found in over 100 species. It is a temperament variation found in 15-20% of the population that allows the brain and nervous system to deeply process subtleties and details that others miss. This trait is often confused with Introversion, but actually 30% of HSPs are Extroverts.
How do I know if my Teen is a Highly Sensitive Person?
All Highly Sensitive People (HSP) share four main characteristics (D.O.E.S.):
Depth of Processing
Sensitive to Subtleties and Sensory Stimuli
These characteristics can show up as:
Complex thinking, asks lots of questions and learns quickly.
Needing more time for transitions and distressed by sudden changes.
Is easily flustered or worried, especially when trying something new or being watched.
Difficulty falling asleep after a busy or exciting day.
Feels all emotions deeply and shows empathy for others.
Strong connection with animals or nature.
Has vivid dreams and an active imagination.
Bothered by loud noises, bright lights, itchy fabrics and/or strong smells.
Perfectionistic or people pleasing tendencies.
The Problem With Overstimulation
Due to the Highly Sensitive brain’s ability to deeply process information and notice subtleties, your teen is unconsciously taking in more information and therefore stimulation than their non-HSP peers. “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”, according to Dr. Elaine Aron. Overstimulation occurs when we are “on” and receiving input for too long without getting proper rest. Think of it as an overheating computer that needs to be shut down. As a result, your teen will need more quiet alone time compared to others their age.
Signs that your Highly Sensitive Teen may be Overstimulated
Are anxious or worried often.
Have difficulty concentrating.
Become hyperactive when excited or when there’s a lot going on.
Get angry or irritable when tired or under pressure.
Often experience headaches, especially when stressed.
Become withdrawn or exhausted.
Commonly get stomach aches or digestive issues when nervous or upset.
Have trouble falling or staying asleep, especially after a long day or before an important event.
7 Ways to Help Your Teen Minimize Overstimulation and Anxiety
Below are some ideas to help your Highly Sensitive teen thrive at school and home:
The school environment is crowded and noisy, so it can help to reduce unknowns and prepare for new activities in advance as much as possible. For instance, practice presentations in advance, visit a new classroom before school starts and so forth.
Moderate after school activities to avoid overscheduling (and overstimulating) your teen. The Highly Sensitive teen will enjoy quality over quantity - focusing solely on one activity more than dividing their attention across multiple activities. If your Highly Sensitive teen is 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 so they can unwind and process the day. On weekends, give your teen permission to catch up on sleep and have one “off” day per week to relax and immerse in favorite activities. If your teen does not have a private bedroom, create an area of the house devoted to quiet time.
Model self-care practices when you are feeling stressed or anxious, so your teen will feel encouraged 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, with animals, reading or engaged in creative activities.
Decrease pressured decision-making and surprises which will only increase overstimulation and anxiety.
Structure and predictability are also important for your quiet teen. As much as possible, have consistent times for homework, meals, family activities, bedtime and so forth.
If your teen struggles with anxiety, constantly feels exhausted or needs more alone time, they may be a Highly Sensitive Person. Having this innate trait gives them the ability to notice subtleties and deeply process information, but also makes them more prone to getting overstimulated. However, a few lifestyle adjustments such as getting enough sleep, having downtime after school and incorporating more routine will help your teen thrive.
Sensitive Teen Support
If your teen could benefit from additional support, I offer individual therapy and group support for Quiet, Shy, Introverted and Sensitive teens in my San Francisco office. Fill out the contact form below to schedule a free phone consultation or get more information. I look forward to connecting with you soon.