Working With Teens With a Highly Sensitive Person Diagnosis

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Working With Teens With a Highly Sensitive Person Diagnosis

Among diagnoses often overlooked and misunderstood is one named to describe precisely what it is—the highly sensitive person (HSP). The HSP teen often needs additional support due to their greater response to stress and tendency to be overstimulated. They are often deep thinkers who may need more time and space to process information. By learning more about the HSP diagnosis, you can help support your HSP clients.

What Is a Highly Sensitive Person Diagnosis?

The term “highly sensitive person” was coined by Elaine Aron, an American clinical research psychologist and author who wrote The Highly Sensitive Person in 1996. Hallmarks of an HSP include having deep central nervous system sensitivity to physical, emotional, or social stimuli. This has also been referred to as sensory processing sensitivity (SPS). The level of sensitivity can bring both strengths and challenges to teens who fit this diagnosis.

Some of the most common sensitivities include:

  • Avoidance of violent movies or television due to their intense and unsettling nature
  • Being deeply touched or moved by beauty expressed in nature, art, or music
  • Easily overwhelmed by sensory stimuli such as bright lights, crowds, loud noises, or clothing that is uncomfortable
  • A need for downtime, such as a quiet, dark room when stress levels or environmental stimuli are high
  • An internal dialogue that is complex with deep thoughts and strong feelings

People with HSP are considered neurodivergent and may be as common as one in five people in the general population. While they are often misdiagnosed due to similarities in symptoms, HSP has distinct characteristics identified in Aron’s Highly Sensitive Persons Scale. A self-diagnostic test can be found on the highly sensitive person website in the self-tests section. Some of the diagnoses that are commonly mistaken for HSP include:

  • Introversion
  • Sensory processing disorder (SPD)
  • Autism or Autism spectrum disorder (ASD)
  • Attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD)

What Does Support for an HSP Teen Look Like?

Teens with HSP need understanding, first and foremost. While adolescents, in general, are concerned about whether or not they are normal or what is wrong with them, the HSP teen stands out amongst their peers and has anxieties that set them apart from others. Educating them and assuring them that their brain simply processes information more deeply and intensely can help them understand and accept who they are and learn to function better from day to day.

Other ideas for support may include:

  • Helping them learn to say no
  • Finding a safe space for them to decompress
  • Teaching them mind and body techniques such as yoga and meditation
  • Teaching them to avoid stressors when possible
  • Increase positive input on a regular basis
  • Encouraging their creativity and academic success

Support for HSP Teens in Therapy

Teens who are identified as HSP also have specific needs in therapy. They need reassurance about who they are and how their brain functions. They need to learn how to advocate for themselves and their needs. Learning that it is okay to have sensitivity to sensory processing and how to live and even thrive with it is part of their journey.

Therapy can be a place where they explore and learn more about what sensory issues trigger them most and how they can learn to manage their sensitivities so they are not overwhelmed. Giving them the skills to adapt and learn to thrive with HSP can significantly benefit their therapeutic process.

Helping Families Find Support for HSP Teens

Families with HSP teens may also be looking for support, learning how they can better understand and help the teens in their lives. Educating yourself about available resources for families will help them access information to help their families improve their understanding and function better. Offering family therapy to help families improve communication and understanding of neurodiversity, such as HSP, can improve relationships and help teens feel less isolated within their home environments.

The Importance of Acknowledging Neurodiversity

The concept of being “normal” or “typical” can be so important, especially for teens. However, when they are aware that they are simply neurodivergent, many can come to terms with the fact that their brains simply function differently than others. Acknowledging neurodiversity for the positive sides can actually help HSP teens come to terms with who they are and help them embrace their uniqueness.

Because HSP teens are often creative, intelligent, and loyal to their friends, they are sought out by others and appreciated for their gifts. Despite the fact that they may have limitations when it comes to stress and certain other stimuli, their strengths often make them highly successful in many areas of their lives. Acknowledging and even celebrating neurodiversity can change their perspective about who they are and change limiting mindsets into limitless possibilities.

Learning to work with teens with a highly sensitive person (HSP) diagnosis can be as rewarding as it is challenging. Neurodivergent adolescents are often smart and creative, but they can simply become overstimulated by stress and other stimuli. Helping them learn and understand what being an HSP teen is, helping to educate their families, and giving them the right support in therapy can help them to succeed throughout their life. At Sustain Recovery, we understand that addiction and mental health diagnoses are not the problems, they are symptoms of the problems. Helping teens identify the root causes of their pain through our extended residential treatment helps them on the road to recovery. Our Irvine, California, treatment center offers personalized treatment that helps teens transition back into their real lives. Contact us at (949) 407-9052 to learn if our program is right for your client. 

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