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Teenage Zone

Teenage Zone

Teenage Zone

Sensory processing difficulties can impact many aspects of your life, from school and work to relationships and hobbies. The teenage years can be difficult mentally anyway, but sensory processing difficulties have also been known to provide secondary challenges, such as anxiety, depression and social challenges. Considering the teenage years are when most people start to socialise a lot more, having sensory processing difficulties can hold you back socially and become a major challenge.


Some teenagers have sensory processing difficulties that cause them to react differently to sensory input than others do. Their processing of information is impacted by many differing factors and can result in a reaction / behaviour that is out of proportion to what appears to be non-threatening sensory input and different to others, for example, the texture of certain fabrics or sounds.

Sensory overwhelm or overload

If you have sensory processing problems you might easily get overwhelmed and overloaded as a result of your sensory processing difficulties.

This may trigger a stress hormone response in the body, which can result in a fear, fight, flight or freeze response:

Fear: You may become more anxious and worried about everyday tasks
Fight: You may get angry and lash out more easily, either during or after a difficult sensory experience. This may involve trying to push off something that is touching you.
Flight: You may try to run away or avoid situations that are uncomfortable for you.
Freeze: You may shut down, making it hard for you to plan what to do or speak.

When we have these restrictions, it becomes harder for us to think clearly and process what we are being told.

Additional issues for teenagers

Puberty: hormones can change the way the brain processes sensations. You may become more or less sensitive to certain things.

Motivation: As you get older, you become more affected by what your peers are doing. This motivation may over-ride your sensory preferences. Suddenly you may tolerate things you refused before. This doesn’t mean your sensory processing problems are solved, just that you are choosing to push yourself  despite them. This can result in difficulties spilling out when you are safely home.

Exams and stress: Years 10-13 can be very stressful. Stress hormones increase sensitivity to sensations and can make you more easily over-whelmed.

Movement: As you get older you may move less and spend more time sitting or lying down. Being more sedentary can add to your sensory processing problems. Movement is calming and organising for the brain. Movement will get you going if you need a kick-start or calm you down if you need to focus.

Screen time: This also reduces movement and can be a great way of avoiding sensations and focusing in on sensations that are fully controllable and predictable. However, spending a lot of time doing this can result in narrowed sensory experiences and the brain not developing strategies to manage the real world.

Coping strategies for teenagers

Teenagers need to develop self-reliance and independence. You can learn to use a toolkit including:

  • Which sensations or activities organise you and which activities you find harder to cope with.
  • Recognising when you are getting to their coping limits.
  • Knowing how to get yourself focused if you become easily withdrawn or disengaged.
  • Strategies you can use to organise and regulate yourself anywhere, anytime – that are not embarrassing or noticeable.
  • How to communicate your difficulties to teachers, responsible adults, or employers.
  • Start to make a note of which activities are difficult for you and which activities help you.

You can think about it as zones or traffic lights:

Blue Zone: Low in energy, hard to engage, tired, ill.
Green zone: The just right state, where you are calm and can engage in activities and learning.
Yellow Zone: You are starting to get a little agitated, excited, stressed or upset. You can still think clearly and access coping strategies.
Red Zone: You are very agitated, excited, distressed and can’t access coping strategies easily. Overload!

https://www.dchft.nhs.uk/wp-content/uploads/2021/01/Sensory-Strategies-for-the-Older-Child-and-Adolescents.pdf

Creating a Sensory Profile
Creating a sensory profile may help you to work out what changes are needed.

Helpful easy reasonable adjustments

Headphones can also help if you have to go somewhere that is busy / noisy.

Tactile/fiddle toys– You may still find that fiddle toys help you concentrate.  You may choose something inconspicuous such as a piece of blutac. In addition, having crunchy foods, ice pops, or gum can help with oral motor skills and sensory integration. 

Movement Breaks– can be helpful in regulating your nervous system. Adding in muscle work can help to ground you.

Deep pressure, for example massage style touch, can be calming to the nervous system. Some young people like to wear tight fitting clothing, for example sportswear (can be worn under other clothing), some like to carry something weighted / have a weighted object on their laps as this weight provides deep tactile input

Eating and drinking

As you get older you will have more say about what you have to eat or drink.  You may be choosing your meals at school and have money for snacks.  This will help where you satisfy some of your sensory needs with textures and tasty foods.  Just make sure you keep a balanced diet as much as you can.

Art and Music

Other outlets that can act as a wonderful sensory filter with cognitive benefits are art and music. Consider joining a band or taking regular art classes. These provide sensory benefits as well as communication and social-emotional benefits.  You may also want to go to nightclubs and gigs with your friends- you can make adjustments such as discrete ear plugs so that you don’t miss out.

Socialising

Social situations can be very overwhelming because crowds and closeness to others can trigger sensory overload. While you may struggle to express how you are feeling, you may be hyperaware of how you respond in social situations and feel helpless when you struggle to connect.

Your peers may be starting to “date” or be socialising outside of their family homes by going to nightclubs, public events or to shopping centres away from parental oversight.  This is likely to bring sensory challenges beyond having a friend round to the house or coping in your familiar school environment.

You will want to join in but the thought may also feel overwhelming.  Lous echoing spaces, strange smalls and bright lights may be challenging.  It is important that you understand yourself and find ways to achieve the social life you want while managing the sensory impact.

Sports

The range of sports you can play may become more varied as you reach your teens and move away from the idea of school PE lessons.  Joining a sports team can provide a social group as well as regular exercise and a sensory workout.  You may want to think beyond the opportunities at school:

  • Going to the gym
  • Yoga
  • Martial Arts
  • Swimming and diving
  • Wrestling
  • Football
  • Tennis
  • Golf
  • Horse Riding
  • Athletics
  • Trampolining
  • Cycling
  • Exercise classes
  • Jogging

Personal care

Adolescence is a time when body changes means that personal hygiene will need to change too. Young men and women need to take extra care with hygiene. If they are prepared in advance for the changes that will happen, they can also be introduced to items they will use e.g. shaver, deodorant, sanitary wear etc. Early introduction, before they become necessary, may allow young people to investigate and accommodate any sensory issues. Some young people will have a heightened sense of smell or touch which can make some aspects of personal hygiene uncomfortable. The feel of water from a shower, the smell of particular soaps or shampoos and the texture of some towels may all have an impact.

As a teenager you may well choose to shower rather than have a bath.  Baths and showers are different sensory experiences and it is personal choice.

Although all teenagers have the same basic hygiene issues there will be a need to address some specific issues for:

Girls will need help to manage their periods. For example, parents might need to talk about how often to change her pad or tampon, and parents and school will have to discuss how to dispose of it hygienically.

Boys will need advice about shaving (how to do it and when to start), looking after their genitals, and about bodily fluids. Parents might talk to their son about wet dreams and how to clean up hygienically afterwards.

Self-regulatory activity for teenagers

Sensory modulation

 As you get older it is important to be able to take control of your senses and use them to your benefit.  Sensations can be used mindfully to help you feel calmer and/ or more alert.  The following examples are categorised as calming or alerting to help you to think about how they might influence you.  Circle those that you find helpful. 

Sensory Diet Exploration: activity checklist 

This is a checklist of things that people may use or do in order to help decrease and/ or to prevent distress.  Take a moment to tick off those things that seem to be helpful to you.  Each of the activities uses all or most of the sensory systems.  However, they are categorised to help you identify some of the specific sensorimotor qualities that you may want to focus on.  These include: 

  • Movement 
  • Different types of touch and temperature 
  • Auditory/ listening  
  • Vision/ looking 
  • Olfactory/smelling 
  • Gustatory/ tasting and chewing 

Grounding techniques 

Grounding techniques are simple active strategies to help with orienting and focusing on the present and/ or distract or self-soothe when feeling distressed.  Grounding techniques can be used in times of stress and can be used as sensory strategies to help remain at a calm and alert state.  You could (or parents could help the young person) choose certain activities from the list below that you feel would help you when feeling stressed or anxious.   

Mindfulness 

Mindfulness is the practice of becoming more in control of your mind instead of allowing your mind to be in control of you.  Simply put, it is the art of being fully focused on the experience of being in the moment.  Mindfulness practice helps to learn how to quiet the mind, which helps to calm the body and soothe the spirit.   

Some examples of mindfulness activities include: 

  • Focussing on and enjoying the tastes of your food while eating 
  • Focusing on the gentle rhythmic motion while rocking in a rocking chair 
  • Lifting weights or exercising and specifically focusing on the actions or sensations of your movements 
  • Focusing on the feeling of the warmth and pressure when lying under a weighted blanket 
  • Listening to a piece of music and paying attention to the different instruments 
  • Focusing on your breath during deep breathing activities 
  • Listen to all of the sounds around you 

Resources for teens

A Practical Approach at Home for Parents and Carers Life Skills (Teenagers)- Falkirk Council 
https://www.falkirk.gov.uk/services/social-care/disabilities/docs/young-people/Life%20Skills%20for%20Teenagers.pdf?v=201610191048

NHS Greater Glasgow and Clyde have some really helpful downloadable resources for 12-14, 15-17 and 18-19 year olds 
12 – 14 year olds – https://www.nhsggc.org.uk/kids/resources/search/age/12-14-years
15 – 17 year olds – https://www.nhsggc.org.uk/kids/resources/search/age/15-17-years
18 – 19 year olds – https://www.nhsggc.org.uk/kids/resources/search/age/18-19-years

Rotherham Information and tips for teenagers and parents on dealing with sensory processing difficulties
https://www.rotherhamsendlocaloffer.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2023/01/Rothsensoryteenagerspack_final_version.pdf

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