Teenagers and Sensory Issues: Special Challenges for a Special Time

As I look forward to my son entering his teens very soon, I’ve been thinking a lot about teenagers and sensory issues. Years ago, when I was first thinking about writing a practical guide for parents of kids with sensory processing disorder, I knew I wanted to cover teenagers and their sensory challenges. I knew of teens with SPD and I recognized that there was nothing out there in books or on the internet to help parents. I’m very proud to say that my coauthor, Lindsey Biel, OTR/L, and I were really at the forefront of talking about sensory issues in teens in our book.

I’m repeating here my most recent Sensory Smart News because I know how eager moms and dads, and professionals who work with teens with SPD, are to get info aimed at this particular group of kids. So here it goes:


Teens with sensory processing disorder have special challenges because of the stage of development they’re in and the fact that until now, their sensory issues may have gone unaddressed. In the award-winning book Raising a Sensory Smart Child: The Definitive Handbook for Helping Your Child with Sensory Processing Issues, you’ll find an entire chapter devoted to teens as well as many practical tips for older kids. If you are unfamiliar with the special challenges of teens with sensory issues, here they are—followed by practical strategies for addressing those challenges.



1. Finding the right OT can be challenging. Few occupational therapists are trained or experienced in working with teenagers who have sensory processing disorder. Play-based SI therapy may seem silly and embarrassing to teens.


2. Poor self-esteem. Teenagers who have had sensory issues for years will have learned at least some accommodations to get around them and are less likely to experience the extreme behaviors and responses they did when they were younger. However, years of feeling different and not knowing why, and noticing that they have never been quite as mature and self-controlled as their peers, take their toll. Teens with sensory processing issues usually struggle with self-esteem. They need a lot of encouragement to admit they have sensory issues and need some help.


3. Need for independence. Teenagers need to have their independence respected, so being told, “You need to do X, Y, and Z to manage your sensory issues” usually doesn’t go over very well!


4. Desire to fit in. Even teenagers who don’t feel the need to have a lot of friends or be conformist want to have some friends they feel they fit in with. Sensory challenges can embarrass them and may make them feel isolated, and different in a negative way.


5. Changing hormones. Teenagers have ever-changing hormones that can exacerbate sensory issues by making them more sensitive to input than they were in the past. The normal changes of adolescence can also make them more moody and emotionally sensitive.


6. New expectations. People are less likely to see your teen as a young, immature person with a hidden disability and more likely to see him or her as a young adult whose behavior is willful.



What’s a parent, teacher, or therapist to do?


1. Modify traditional SI therapy techniques to be more teen friendly. As a substitute for playing with a tray of shaving cream or finger-paints, encourage the teen to cook, garden, do art or arts and crafts, and engage in other activities that challenge his tactile issues. Work with a sensory-smart occupational therapist who is willing to alter her approach to helping your teenage son or daughter to reduce any embarrassment or defensiveness.


2. Talk about sensory issues positively. Reassure your teenager that sensory issues are simply a difference in brain wiring that can have advantages but that can also be controlled and addressed to make life a little easier. See Raising a Sensory Smart Child for specific advice on helping teenagers overcome their defensiveness about having sensory processing disorder and how to talk to them about the “little tricks” you and the OT can teach them to “make their lives easier.”

3. Offer accommodations and sensory diet ideas for him or her to choose from. Present accommodations and activities to teenagers and let them decide which they would like to use. Honor and respect their choices and encourage them to engage in problem solving with you. If they don’t want to be seen doing a brushing protocol for tactile issues, can they do it discreetly in the bathroom at school? If all the kids are wearing loose clothes and they prefer them tight, can the teen wear tight clothing, such as bicycle shorts, underneath looser clothes that seem more stylish?


Teens with sensory issues need teen-friendly activities as part of their sensory diet.

4. Help him to feel okay as he is and find a group of peers he’s comfortable with. Practical solutions for grooming, picky eating, and dressing, and encouraging talks about the upside of being different, can help your teen with sensory issues feel more comfortable among his peers. However, he may also feel better about himself if he expands his group of friends. Encourage your teen to develop hobbies and engage in new activities from individualized sports that don’t require high levels of skill and competitiveness to enjoy them to groups that engage in the arts, community service, spiritual growth, etc. Extracurricular activities can help kids find their “tribe” and feel the power to make a difference in the world as well.


5. Accept that your child may be more emotionally sensitive at this stage. Be alert to signs of increased anxiety and depression and consult a medical health professional with any concerns you have. Remember, addressing sensory issues will reduce overall anxiety that can lead to mild or moderate depression (when you feel you can’t manage your discomfort, over time, you can develop depression). Don’t forget some of the most effective treatments for mild or moderate anxiety and depression include physical exercise, time spent outdoors, meditation, and breathing exercises. Mindfulness practices from yoga and tai chi to tai kwan do and karate can help, too.


6. Focus on self-awareness and accountability for self-regulating. It’s very difficult to get others to accept poor self-regulation in a teen, even if you educate them on hidden disabilities. Therefore, the sooner you collaborate with your teen in creating a workable sensory diet that prevents negative behaviors, the better. It will be easier for your teen to develop better self-regulation if she is trained in using specific self-calming and self-alerting techniques that she knows work for her. Hold her accountable for using her alerting music and gum, taking time out to sit in a quiet space and do breathing exercises or use a brushing protocol, etc. Have her participate in creating a sensory diet tailored to her needs to keep her sensory needs met and to prevent fight-or-flight behaviors. Let her experience the natural consequences if she refuses to use her calming, focusing, alerting techniques.


Above all, never forget that kids with sensory issues need a “just right” challenge, a balance of accommodations to make them more comfortable and challenges that take them out of their comfort zone.  Sensory diet activities for teenagers help them to develop a higher tolerance for situations and activities they’ll encounter in life, and over time, retrain their brains to process sensory information more typically. Be creative and encouraging in setting up a sensory diet for a teenager, and always be collaborative to respect the teen’s need for independence.


Finally, if you’re a parent frustrated by trying to get your teenager’s sensory issues under control, consider joining an in-person or online support group, such as the ones on yahoogroups.com, or creating one. Knowing that you aren’t alone, and having practical and emotional support from other parents going through the same experiences with their teen, can help you enormously at this stage of your child’s development.

Check it out!


Know the symptoms of depression in teens: See the information on the Mayo Clinic website. Information on Generalized Anxiety Disorder, which often begins in adolescence, can be found at WebMD.

Find more quick information on teens and sensory issues at www.SensorySmartParent.com and in the award-winning book Raising a Sensory Smart Child.

NEW WEBSITE AND BLOG! If you liked this article, PLEASE come join me at the new www.SensorySmartParent.com and sign up for my NEW newsletter and blog. Thanks!



Filed under exercise and movement for sensory kids, grooming, heavy work, helping your child with SPD at home, Lindsey Biel, Moms of kids with SPD, online support groups, OT, Practical tips for sensory issues, proprioceptive input, Raising a Sensory Smart Child, sensory diet, sensory diet at school, sensory processing disorder, sensory seeking, teenagers with sensory issues

12 responses to “Teenagers and Sensory Issues: Special Challenges for a Special Time

  1. Iliana

    “If all the kids are wearing loose clothes and they prefer them tight, can the teen wear tight clothing, such as bicycle shorts, underneath looser clothes that seem more stylish?”
    Or can they just wear the tight clothes and forget style? Sorry, but this bothers me a little. If a teen doesn’t care about whether his/her clothes are stylish, then why should the parents make that an issue?

    • As an iconoclast, I’m all for supporting kids in being unapologetically iconoclastic. However, not all children DO want to be different in certain situations. They often want to wear certain styles of clothing but can’t tolerate them due to their SPD. What’s more, they can get teased or even bullied for not being able to fit in–and while that’s absolutely wrong, you don’t want a teenager refusing to go to open swim because he can’t bear loose swim trunks and the other kids, whom you can’t control, torment him for wearing jams like Michael Phelps wears. I’m supportive of teens’ choices but I want them to have more choices and not have their sensory issues get in the way of dressing the way they wish to.

  2. LC

    Any ideas for a teenage girl who prefers loose clothing and no underwear? There are special clothing options for children, but is there anything in adult sizes?

    • Can she tolerate loose underwear such as cute all-cotton boxer shorts with covered elastic, or “boy shorts” underwear in a slightly larger size? Have you tried a brushing protocol, such as the Wilbarger brushing protocol, to desensitize her skin before dressing and perhaps throughout the day? Does using vibration against the skin help? Perhaps you might look at the possibility of gluten and casein intolerance, too, as sometimes addressing these issues reduces tactile sensitivity. Kelly Dorfman’s book “What’s Eating Your Child” is great for sussing out nutritional issues that can exacerbate sensory issues.
      Good luck!

  3. Gina Sizer

    I have a 17 year old and have been searching where to start and this has helped me so much. Thank you so much!

  4. Pingback: Teenagers and Sensory Issues: Special Challenges for a Special Time « The Sensory Spectrum

  5. Princess

    I have been looking for something that helps figure out how to help my sensory seeker who is now 13! His hormones are starting and he is changing before my eyes. I am so glad that there are others that have been there before me. As SPD is his only issue….it is challenging to find thigns that give me information that is helpful.

    • Hi Princess! In Raising a Sensory Smart Child, we have an entire chapter on helping teens who have SPD (and I have to brag ours was the very first book to address this population). We also have practical tips on teen issues such as learning to drive.
      Hormones can definitely be a factor but this developmental stage has its own gifts, too. Teens embrace their independence, so teaching them to take accountability for developing their own sensory smarts, knowing their bodies’ needs and advocating for themselves in a socially acceptable way, is part of the mix. You might be surprised at how quickly and eagerly your son takes on the challenge of meeting his sensory needs in a way that works for him and fits in well with the expectations at home and school.

  6. Jennifer

    Hi I will be working as a SERT next fall in an Academic Resource room for a large high school and would like to set up a sensory retreat area. We have a meeting room attached to AR, where we can turn off the fluorescent lights and close the door but still see through the large windows, so I would like to put it in there. I am thinking of a ball chair, lava lamp, squeeze toys, earplugs/headset and fish bowl. Do you have any other suggestions for teens? It would be great to have a number of things that I could rotate throughout the year. Thanks.

    • Hi Jennifer! I’ve never been involved in setting up a sensory room per se but I would suggest that for a sensory retreat area within a Resource Room, any of the items you suggest might work. Since you’re working with teens, who have a strong need to have their voice heard, why not ask them what they would find useful? Have them talk to each other about designing the Resource Room space in such a way that no one is imposing on others. For example, using sound to sculpt the environment might be helpful, but can they all agree on whether they like nature sound recordings playing, or should each individual decide whether or not to use these recordings on a personal music player?
      Often, one of the biggest challenges in RR is the sound of talking as SLPs and special ed teachers make their way around the room helping individual students, or students confer with each other. I would start by asking the teens to help you find ways to work around this common problem.
      Flourescent lighting usually annoys everyone, lol, but is there enough ambient lighting, even on rainy days, to make up for it? A lava lamp doesn’t actually provide lighting but can be used to relax, but I’m not sure if it’s helpful given the limited time everyone has in RR. Why not use a Himalayan salt lamp, which does double duty sending out negative ions into the room and providing some soft lighting?
      There’s a lot of terrific research, mostly from Europe and Japan, on nature helping calm the nervous system and reduce cortisol levels. A few plants, nature sounds, views of nature or at least of natural settings (posters, screensavers, etc.) can be very helpful.
      Do let me know what you end up with and what the teens contribute to the design!

      • Jennifer

        Thanks for the ideas. I’ve been doing a lot of reading related to nature and learning so the suggestion to incorporate natural items such as plants is wonderful. I will ask the students for input once the school year gets started but would like to have something as a base ready to go. Perhaps I will create a suggestion box. We have literally hundreds of kids that access the AR room so pleasing them all will be a challenge and of course not all have sensory issues but I think that everyone at one point or another needs and likes to find a space/retreat where they can find calmness and re-energize. It is nice to be able to refresh.
        I really like the salt lamp idea as well.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s