Understanding the Unique Needs of Highly Sensitive Teens: A Comprehensive Guide for Parents

Welcome to our podcast series on Understanding the Unique Needs of Highly Sensitive Teens. In this episode, Tiffany Herlin, LCSW interviews Discovery Ranch's clinical director, Matt Childs, LCSW, to help parents understand and support their highly sensitive teens in a way that fosters their emotional well-being and personal growth. We will explore various aspects of high sensitivity in teenagers, including how it manifests, the challenges it presents, and the unique strengths it brings.


Understanding A Highly Sensitive Child

As caregivers, our ultimate desire is to see our children thrive with vitality, equipped to face life's challenges boldly. Yet, nurturing a highly sensitive teenager can introduce distinctive hurdles, often inducing feelings of uncertainty and being inundated with the best course of action.

In this episode, therapist Tiffany Silva Herlin, LCSW, and Matt Child, LCSW, Clinical Director at Discovery Ranch, discuss:

  • Understanding heightened sensitivity with your child
  • The impact heightened sensitivity may have on social dynamics
  • Potential benefits of heightened sensitivity
  • Effective coping strategies for your child

If you’re a parent grappling with how to support your highly sensitive child, we can help. Discovery Ranch provides personalized mental health treatment aimed at empowering teenagers to lead meaningful, independent lives. Our therapeutic program helps in creating life-changing experiences and building strong relationships. Start healing today. To learn more about our services, call us at 855-662-9318.

Highly Sensitive Child Podcast Transcript

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    Tiffany: Welcome to our podcast. As parents, we all want our children to grow up healthy and strong, ready to tackle the world head on. However, raising a highly sensitive child, particularly a teenage boy, can present unique challenges that may leave you feeling overwhelmed and unsure of the best approach. If you feel this way, then this podcast is for you.

    Our goal with this podcast season is to help you understand the concept of high sensitivity, recognize it in your child and nurture their resilience.

    Please remember that this podcast is not a replacement for therapy. Please always seek a mental health professional for your specific situation. 

    All right. I'm Tiffany Herlin, a Licensed Clinical Social Worker. Today, we have a rather unique podcast where we will be interviewing two experts on this topic from Discovery Ranch, a residential program for teenage boys and today, I'm excited to be interviewing Matt Child, who's a clinical director at Discovery Ranch. Matt, start by telling us a little bit about yourself and your role at Discovery Ranch. 

    Matt: Well, first of all, it's good to be here. Thanks for this opportunity. I appreciate it. So I'm an LCSW and I've been working with youth for about 26 years now, which is crazy to think it’s been that long. 

    Tiffany: It makes you old. 

    Matt: I actually feel really old to say that. But I’ve just really been drawn to working with this population. And maybe if I could just really quickly share a story. I had a really unique experience when I was very young. I was in ninth grade and I had a basketball coach that I had a lot of respect for, and this would never happen today, but he asked me if I would teach the resource class. So there were eight students in the class and I was asked to teach reading skills, social skills, and then we would do a physical education piece after. I was the same age as those kids and it seemed pretty overwhelming initially. But it turned out to be such a great experience and I really was really hooked at that point. And so that was pivotal. 

    Tiffany: You knew from a young age that this was your goal in life. 

    Matt: That's really what I wanted to do. So I feel really fortunate to be able to do what I feel so passionate about. 

    Tiffany: Yeah. Not a lot of people have that experience knowing from a young age. I kind of had something similar where I just knew from high school that I wanted to work with people and talk to them and help them. So that's awesome. And how long have you been at Discovery Ranch? 

    Matt: So actually from the very beginning. I was the first therapist. That's my claim to fame. I was the first therapist hired there. 

    Tiffany: That's awesome. 

    Matt: We're coming up on 19 years. 

    Tiffany: Okay. So you've got a lot of expertise. Well, I'm excited to be talking to you about this.

    What is Heightened Sensitivity?

    Tiffany: In this particular episode, we're going to be talking about a highly sensitive child, which is not something you're going to find in the DSM-5 or something that we officially diagnosed, but it's a really hot topic.

    So what does it mean when a teen has heightened sensitivity? 

    Matt: That's a great question. It's kind of self explanatory, but it's more complicated than just the name. So what we're seeing is that when the teenagers get to us, they experience the world a little bit differently. The highs are emotionally higher and the lows are lower and so there's really a range there. 

    Tiffany: This is a dramatic shift. 

    Matt: Yeah, there really is. And they pick up on really subtle cues. They read into experiences maybe more than what most people would and so the world can become a very overwhelming place for them. 

    Tiffany: Yeah. You hit it right on the head. I mean, I'll share with you what I've learned after researching this topic because it's actually a newer topic for me. I've learned that a highly sensitive person (HSP) was a term coined by psychologist Elaine Aron. According to Aron's theory, HSPs are of a population who are high in a personality trait known as sensory processing sensitivity (SPS). Those with high levels of SPS display increased emotional sensitivity. Like you said, they have stronger reactivity to both external and internal stimuli like pain, hunger, light, and noise. So you definitely hit it right on the head of what exactly it is. 

    The people who are struggling with this feel easily overwhelmed, they pick up on reading those facial expressions better than others, but yet often need time to get away from it all and recharge and relax. They can feel quite drained from an experience.

    So, if you're a parent listening, you're probably tuning in because you are dealing with a child who's highly sensitive and you're overwhelmed by it yourself, or maybe you yourself are highly sensitive, right? 

    Matt: It's not uncommon. 

    Tiffany: I just wanted to dive into some statistics. Overall, about 15-20 percent of the population are thought to be highly sensitive. People who come to therapy are actually closer to 50 percent highly sensitive people. So about half of our clients that we're working with are highly sensitive people. 

    Matt: Right.

    Impact of High Sensitivity

    Tiffany: What does it look like when a teen is over attuned to the emotions of themselves and others? 

    Matt: So what we're seeing is that again, a situation will arise where there will be an experience and as we look at it, we would think that a normal response would be in a certain range but the response that we're seeing is well beyond what that normal range would be. And again, it has everything to do with experiencing the world in a more heightened sense, right? 

    Tiffany: Yeah. It's like you get the volume turned up to 10 versus maybe the average of five to seven.

    Matt: Absolutely. 

    Tiffany: What does it look like when a teen is over tuned to social and relationship dynamics? 

    Matt: What we see is, for example, there will be some sort of feedback that the student will receive and they're just going to really take that to heart. They're going to see that as some sort of knock on them. They'll hang on to it for a long time. It becomes very painful for them. 

    Tiffany: Yeah, that makes a lot of sense. I mean, I can think of a lot of people I've worked with and even family members and friends who are experiencing this.

    What does it look like when a teen is over tuned to internal and external physical stimulus? 

    Matt: We'll see a heightened sense of reactivity. I think that you mentioned a few of those. You talked about light and sound. It will often happen in crowds. We'll see that a lot, that just because there's a lot taking place and they're taking in so much stimuli, it becomes overwhelming for them. 

    Tiffany: That makes sense. I think it's important to note to our listeners that a lot of times, this could reflect someone who's on the spectrum but it doesn't necessarily have to be someone who's on the spectrum. You can be highly sensitive and not be neurodiverse or have autism spectrum disorder. It can fall on a variety of people who are struggling with this. 

    Matt: Yeah. Well stated. We see that spectrum and we work with neurodiverse students and with neurotypical kids as well. But they still have that heightened sensitivity.

    Contributing Factors to High Sensitivity

    Tiffany: What are contributing factors to highly sensitive people? 

    Matt: That's hotly debated, actually, on the just the nature versus nurture aspect. We have students that have, from a developmental standpoint, experienced traumas. So as a result of those experiences, they become very sensitive to the world around them almost out of necessity because they are working to keep themselves safe. As a result, they kind of have their head on a swivel. They're trying to read the people around them. They're trying to read the situations around them. And so that can be one of the contributing factors. 

    Then there's some compelling research that is stating that some of these kids are just coming into the world with that heightened sensitivity.

    Tiffany: Maybe kids who are neurodiverse. That's just how their brain processes things and how they're wired. That makes a lot of sense. 

    Matt: Well, I would say again that any parent who has more than one child will tell you like this particular son or daughter just came into the world and just behaves this way.

    Another piece of the research field that is really interesting is epigenetics. They're talking about some of these mothers passing some of these traits along genetically. It makes sense from a developmental standpoint that, and again we're just starting to understand this a little bit better now. They are trying to genetically load their child for maybe an unsafe world. 

    Tiffany: And so it's passed down? 

    Matt: Yes, yes.

    Tiffany: Interesting. That's really fascinating. And I think too, sometimes if you have a highly sensitive parent, they may also teach those traits onto their kids as well. So it's again, that kind of nature versus nurture debate where does it come from?

    Matt: The goal is to be safe, right? That's what we all want, to feel safe. So as a result, we end up doing things to help promote that feeling of safety. The parents they're trying to keep their kids safe and we deal with a lot of just fantastic parents that are doing their best to help assist their kids. But sometimes they love their kids too much and sometimes it gets in the way. 

    Tiffany: We like to call it enabling, right? 

    Matt: Loving too much sounds better.

    Tiffany: It does. That's a nicer way to put it. Clint and I will talk more about that too, in upcoming episodes. But I think you bring up a good point. A lot of times these highly sensitive children have a dysregulated nervous system, whether it's from trauma or genetically how they're wired or how they were raised. 

    So they're going to have a hard time being in a parasympathetic nervous system state where they're in rest and digest and they're often in a hyperarousal state. 

    Regulating Nervous System

    Tiffany: How do we help them recognize those triggers and help regulate their nervous system? It's going to be a big one for them. 

    Matt: Absolutely. 

    Tiffany: Yeah, and like you said, we talked about anxious attachment. If they're struggling to feel safe in a relationship, let alone their environment, they're gonna have a really hard time feeling extra heightened sensitivity. And we talked about neurodivergence and then ultimately, they just have a low resilience or low frustration tolerance.

    Matt: Agreed. And if we look just from a societal standpoint, there's so much that's taking place right now that does not help individuals that are dealing with these challenges. 

    Tiffany: Well, if anyone lived through 2020, then I feel like we're all going to have a little heightened sensitivity, right? We lived in a state that was of alarm and there's this perceived threat but we could never see it, you know? And so I think  kids who grew up during that time period are maybe going to have a more heightened sensitivity than other kids. 

    Matt: Absolutely. The social isolation that's taking place now and everything that's happening with technology and the further isolation, it will continue to create additional stressors. 

    Tiffany: Yeah, I agree. It feeds into that anxious attachment, which is fascinating because kids now have these electronics in their hands and in their pockets which connect them to everybody. But yet kids will report they feel more alone and more anxious than ever. 

    Matt: Absolutely. More disconnected all the time. 

    Tiffany: Why do you think that is? 

    Matt: I think that there is not a substitute for the actual connection that takes place. I'm much older than you, Tiffany. We used to play night games.

    Tiffany: Hey, I did too, by the way! 

    Matt: We would organize teams and do all kinds of things together. We would have the opportunity to negotiate our world from a much younger age. But when's the last time you heard about kids being able to go out and play night games? They don't get to do that. And so, again, it’s just part of that further isolation that's taking place. 

    Tiffany: Or even just going out and playing without parents knowing where their kid is for the next couple hours. I'm guilty of that. I’ll ask, “Where are you going? Who are you going to be with? Let me know when you get there, you know?” And so it's such a different world that we live in.

    Benefits of High Sensitivity

    Tiffany: So interesting enough, I feel like there's benefits to being highly sensitive. It's not completely a negative thing to be highly sensitive. What do you think are some of the benefits? 

    Matt: I think about some of the students that I've worked with, and it's not uncommon for them to be the most empathic individuals that you'll ever meet. They're feeling their own feelings and are really attuned to how someone else is feeling. If they have the proper coping skills to be able to do that, then that's a beautiful thing, to be able to empathize with someone and be happy for their success and be able to be sad with them. The world needs more of those people. 

    Tiffany: Oh, absolutely. 

    Matt: We want to help keep them in that range wherein they can function in a productive way. They often are very creative individuals that are able to share talents maybe on a deeper, deeper level. Or they experience the world in a deeper way. The world can be a very bright and beautiful place if they can continue to regulate in a prosocial way.

    Tiffany: Yeah, and be able to thrive in their environment rather than being overwhelmed. I think they make some of the best leaders and managers because they have that empathy piece that maybe other people are lacking. They are able to see what other people may feel and be experiencing and struggling with.

    Matt: Absolutely. Yeah. Well stated. 

    Tiffany: Oftentimes they really enjoy spending time in nature and really find beauty in the natural world as well. Kind of an interesting side piece I found as I was researching this topic.

    The Struggles of Highly Sensitive Teens

    Tiffany: What are the struggles of highly sensitive teens when they don't have the proper coping skills to manage their sensitivity?

    Matt: They're overwhelmed. I think the word trauma is used a lot, right? We hear it a lot and I think in many ways we're using it too much and in other ways we're not using it enough.

    And so in talking with the students that we work with, there was a time in a group setting with two boys sitting next to each other. One boy will be talking about his experience wherein he was in a car accident and lost a parent. So he's sitting next to a student who was called up in the front of the class to complete a math problem on the board. He did something wrong and the class laughed at him. And so he's really reluctant sometimes to say, “Well, my experience is not the same as his experience.” But we have a saying, “Anything that overwhelms the system is considered to be trauma.”

    Tiffany: Yeah. That's a good definition. I like that. 

    Matt: Yeah. Here’s one of the examples that we talked to the kids about that they seemed to relate. Let's pretend you have a laptop. This wonderful laptop is brand new and you take it and you throw it in the ocean, what happens to it? 

    Tiffany: It doesn't work anymore. 

    Matt: It's fried. But let's say that you take that same laptop out and you’re in a little bit of just a rainstorm and there's just enough rain that the system is fried. Well, fried is fried is fried.

    Tiffany: Yeah. Well, there's "big T" trauma there's "little t", but at the same time you're still dysregulated in the nervous system, is what's happening. 

    Matt: And so whatever that experience was, it overwhelmed the system. These sensitive kids are just very prone to having experiences like that, where the system is overloaded.

    Strategies to Help Highly Sensitive Children

    Tiffany: What are some of the best things you can do to help highly sensitive children? 

    Matt: I think there's a couple of things. One is teaching coping skills. It’s critical because, again, there is that desire to be back in that place of safety and security. If we can teach them ways to do things that are not counterproductive or that don't come with a lot of baggage, then it's going to be helpful for them.

    And I will say that these people who are highly sensitive are really at risk for other very unproductive coping strategies. They're trying to survive and that's where they develop addictions to gaming and addictions to substances or pornography. 

    Tiffany: They're self-soothing at that point, right?

    Matt: Yeah, right. 

    Tiffany: That makes sense. 

    Matt: And so if we can help by teaching them coping strategies that aren’t going to come with all that baggage, then that's going to be very helpful. 

    Another thing that I think is really helpful is working with parents to help them better understand how they can respond.

    Tiffany: Oh, that's huge. 

    Matt: Sometimes in our desire to help and toughen our kids up, we’ll say, “Don't be a crybaby,” or “toughen up,” or “Just pull yourself up by your bootstraps.” And that's not always the best approach. 

    Tiffany: Or they're over there on the other extreme being that helicopter parent. They're enabling and trying to protect their kids from feeling everything, which is only going to hurt rather than help.

    Matt: Absolutely. There are really well meaning parents that are either pushing too hard or they're protecting too much. We want to help caregivers and, of course, the students to strike that balance. We want them to be able to navigate the world in a meaningful way and have the coping skills and support system in place to allow them to do that.

    Building Resilience and Secure Attachment

    Tiffany: Well, and have a secure attachment with their parents so that it allows safety and helps the nervous system to regulate, ultimately building resilience.

    Matt: Very much so. 

    Tiffany: It's going to be a big key. One of the ways to help them regulate their nervous system when they're feeling overwhelmed is by teaching them to cope using tools like meditation to help find that inner place of peace.

    The other thing is teaching them how to learn to feel their emotions, not just avoid them. They need to learn how to navigate those difficult emotions that come up.

    Matt: Well stated. One of the things that we see with these kids that are highly sensitive is that when they find themselves being overwhelmed, they start to detach from their feelings. They really start to distance themselves. We see it with teenage boys especially, who might be feeling a myriad of feelings, which typically will funnel down into one emotion and that is anger. The socially acceptable thing is for a teenage boy to be angry. And so all these kinds of complicated things that are happening in their world funnel down to that anger and they start to really distance themselves from those feelings. There’s a disassociation taking place with them. They figured out ways to separate or create distance.

    Self-Compassion and Grace

    Tiffany: It's easier to numb out all the emotions, but when you do that you numb out the good ones too. 

    Matt: Very much so. 

    Tiffany: Which leads me to teaching them self-compassion. When you have a heightened sensitivity to the world, you need to be gracious to yourself. It's okay that you need a break. It's okay that maybe you reacted strongly to that. Give yourself the grace and compassion that you'd give to others, but that is so hard to give to ourselves. 

    Matt: Absolutely. Coincidentally, I was just speaking with a former student. He's been home and doing very well. He's at college right now and he felt himself slipping. So he called and we just kind of touched base. I just asked him, “What would you tell your good friend who's experiencing what you are experiencing now?” And he said, “I would tell them to be kinder to themselves.” And I just said, “Can you tell yourself to be kinder? I mean, can you say to yourself, ‘I need to be kinder to myself?’” And he said, “I can and I will.”

    Tiffany: It's crazy. I've been working really hard in my own personal life to teach people these exact skills. I think everyone could use help to feel safe and secure, to recognize when your nervous system is off and then showing self-compassion. And as I even work with adults doing this concept, it's hard. I've had a lot of adults be like, “I can't tell myself that,” but I'm like, “Well, can you tell your friend that? Just pretend.” It's such powerful stuff though, and everyone should have that knowledge of this, these types of coping skills. But they're going to be especially helpful for someone who has a heightened sensitivity. 

    Matt: Well stated.

    Advice for Parents of Highly Sensitive Teens

    Tiffany: Matt, let's end with this question. If you had a parent call you up and say, “I have a teenage son who is highly sensitive and I am really struggling with him,” What message would you want to give them? 

    Matt: Probably what I would say is who's the target in the home. Because it's not uncommon for a highly sensitive teen to be able to navigate for the first few years and then kind of get to that teenage spot. And then it's not uncommon for me to have mothers say, “Hey, I had a really great relationship with my son and I've recognized that he's highly sensitive. Then all of a sudden, I've become the target of all this anger.” I can't tell you the number of times that that's happened, Tiffany, just that all of a sudden the relationship changes and there’s this disconnect. All of a sudden that primary caregiver becomes a target of this anger. 

    And so, I would say that you're not alone, that we have a number of parents that are struggling with something very similar to what you're struggling with. I also hope that I am able to send a message of hope, that things can get better, that we would do some of the things that we've talked about earlier, that we have the ability to teach more effective coping strategies, that we would be able to help and support them a little bit better. I truly believe that things can get better.


    Tiffany: Well, I think we're going to be talking with you again in a couple episodes about how we can build resilience and really a secure attachment with a highly sensitive teen who maybe is more anxious.

    Matt: Excellent. 

    Tiffany: So I'm looking forward to hearing and talking about that. Thank you guys so much for joining us today. In our next following episode, stay tuned because we're going to be meeting with Clinton Dorny, the executive director of Discovery Ranch, to talk about how to build resilience in highly sensitive kids. So stay tuned.