Today, we have access to so much more research about our children and their mental health than I did when I was raising my, now adult, children. I recently learned about the concept of Highly Sensitive People, and realized that one of my children absolutely exhibited so many of the traits associated with highly sensitive people. I can’t help but wish I had been able to identify this trait, make her aware of it, and help her navigate a daily routine more compatible with her biological predisposition. Maybe it would have made her childhood and teenage years easier for her and for the family unit.
15- 20% of the U.S. population are Highly Sensitive People, meaning their autonomic nervous system is innately more aware of and reactive to many different types of stimuli. Dr. Elaine Aaron coined the term Highly Sensitive Person (HSP), defined by Sensory Processing Sensitivity, SPS, in 1996. Generally, this manifests in being highly reactive, easily stressed, and shy and inhibited in one's behavior. This is because people with a finely tuned nervous system have trouble screening out stimuli, and can be easily overwhelmed and distressed in response. (For a list of specific criteria, scroll to the bottom of this post).
How Do You Know If Your Teen is a “Highly Sensitive Person”?
My daughter HATED going to the mall with me. Though she was an excellent student, she always had trouble with participation in class. She would suddenly shut down at parties and keep to herself. At the time, everyone just thought she was shy, nothing out of the ordinary. I didn’t realize that these large, loud, incredibly social environments were exceptionally overstimulating to her, and actually causing a significant amount of stress to her autonomic nervous system. Highly sensitive people need time to themselves to “recharge,” as well as to use techniques to help them manage the stress hormones their bodies produce in response to seemingly mild or insignificant stimuli.
Dr. Elaine Aron devised two self-tests and a test for concerned parents, which you can access for free here.
Keep in mind that a non-highly sensitive person can possess more than one trait associated with higher sensitivity. Parents should remember that there isn’t a “spectrum” of sensitivity. Either someone is a highly sensitive person, or they are not. If your child presents multiple traits, then the likelihood is higher that they are highly sensitive, and should be provided the necessary support and assistance from parents, teachers, and their environment.
Why is it Important to Support Your HSP?
HSPs are significantly more susceptible to over-worrying, anxiety, and depression. Being told to “not be so sensitive” leads to low self esteem, feeling somehow abnormal, separate from the rest of their peers, and a victim consciousness.
High Sensitivity is a neutral trait, but our culture tends to reward aggressive behavior and stigmatize sensitivity as weakness, especially in men. For highly sensitive boys and teenagers, it's especially important to emphasize the value of their deep processing, empathy, emotionality, and awareness.
How Can You Help Your Highly Sensitive Teen?
It's important to affirm the highly sensitive person. Sometimes that means pointing out that there's nothing wrong with them; they simply have a more finely tuned nervous system. While this presents challenges for them coping day to day with just the overstimulation of existence, it also comes with many gifts. HSPs are highly aware of change, incredibly empathic, intuitive, and feeling. They make excellent friends, listeners, students, and artists, when they are comfortable in an environment and routine. Part of this is ensuring Highly Sensitive Teens also take quiet time for themselves away from stimuli. It's also important to help them find ways to compromise so they may more comfortably exist in a society where 80% of the population is not highly sensitive. It would be unhealthy to remove them entirely from these developmentally important social environments, but if you can teach your child/teen to recognize the feeling of overstimulation, and find a way to make them feel comfortable taking a break if they feel the need to, this will help your child navigate the world with less stress and anxiety, and without feeling alienated or different from everyone else. I share this information with you as a mom looking back and wishing I had known then what I know now.
More In-Depth Information
There are four essential aspects to this trait, known as DOES.
Depth of processing
Characteristics: tendency to reflect, asks deep questions, highly developed vocabulary, difficulty making decisions, clever sense of humor, being “slow to warm up” to new people and situations
Characteristics: notices and thinks about everything new, surprising and distressing meltdowns on overstimulating outings even on “fun” days, difficulty going to sleep or waking in the night after an exciting day, avoids team sports and speaking up in class, extreme reactions to change, pain, loud noises, changes in temperature, uncomfortable clothing
Emotionally reactive and highly Empathetic
Characteristics: deep feelings, cries easily, “reads your mind,” perfectionism, reacts intensely to making the slightest error, notices distress of others,
Subtle stimuli awareness
Characteristics: notices slight changes in the appearance of people or places, sounds in the distance, others’ tones and facial expressions
While all of this may sound “soft science-y,” multiple studies have found a biological foundation for this trait. All of these aspects are linked to differences in the parts of the brain that are activated in HSP’s versus non-HSP’s.