Raising Teen Girls
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Insights into the mental health and well-being of teen girls...

Emotional sensitivity and teen girls

It's just too much. I don't like my emotions.  Feeling love, happy, sad, angry... I try really hard not to feel them.  Feeling love makes my skin crawl.  Like, I push my mom away if she tries to hug me because the emotion is too intense and I hate it. When I'm sad, I'm afraid I might feel that way forever so I push it down.

Emotions are difficult for most adults to deal with so it's important to remember dealing with emotions as a teen can be incredibly hard.  Girls are just beginning to feel and learn to express them. Very few are "good" at it.  Most struggle on some level.  Some struggle extensively.  The more sensitive to the emotion the more difficult the struggle.

How do you know where your daughter might fall on the continuum and how she might be dealing with her emotions?

Consider her history

What was she like as a child?  How did she handle her emotions?  Did she tantrum?  Did she internalize?  Did she cry easily?  Was she overly-compassionate towards others and/or animals?

Also, what is her family history?  How do you handle emotions?  Is there anyone in the family that people always described as overly-sensitive?  Currently, is she allowed to feel and express ALL emotion or just the warm, fuzzy ones?  Some families despise emotions like anger and sadness and jump at shutting down the expression of them.  This becomes very problematic to a girl who is dealing with higher levels of sensitivity.  She typically will begin to believe something is very wrong with her for feeling the way she does.  This will start in childhood and intensify in the teen years.

Consider her behavior

Many times they don't have a strong enough vocabulary to say what they are feeling.  Girls will say "I don't know" a lot when asked. Observing her behavior may be the only way to know what is really going on under the surface.

There are a few key responses that can be indicators that she is feeling too much.  Perfectionism coupled with internalization is often a sign.  This is a girl who will shut you out emotionally and not verbalize much of anything except anger.  You may experience anger outbursts from you and towards you. 

In general, she is trying so hard to keep it together and act as if nothing is wrong and nothing is bothering her.  Meanwhile, typically a lot is wrong and a lot is bothering her.  The perfectionism blocks her from asking for help.

Another more common behavioral response are the self-destructive behaviors.  These are acts against self that are frequently used as an attempt to feel something different.  They can be extreme based on the level of emotional sensitivity.

These would include drinking, abusing drugs (including marijuana), sex, cutting, burning, biting, scratching, eating disorders and suicide.

It's really important as a parent to recognize that these are a response to feeling very deeply.  Grief is an incredibly difficult emotion for teens to deal with and can be a major underlying factor in these behaviors. Girls who feel deeply will most likely develop some level of anxiety and/or depression because of her thoughts and feelings.

Girls will use self-harm for a variety of emotional sensitivities.  Over the years I have seen it used to feel pain, to stop the pain (of her emotions), to punish herself, to get back at her family and in the context of OCD (meaning I think it and have the compulsion to do it).  I plan to do a separate series with more details on these destructive behaviors in the future.

Fear of parents

This may not be true in every case but I have observed that often there is a correlation between emotional sensitivity and a more extreme shutting out of parents. 

Almost all teen girls go through periods when they don't want their parents in their business.  This is normal and should be expected.  Girls should want to separate from the family (in a healthy way).  But sometimes girls are experiencing a lot emotionally and find themselves pushing even further away from their parents.

They will tell me they have a hard time talking to their parents because they often fear their parents response.  I hear things like...

"My mom can't handle it. She gets all stressed out if I tell her my struggles" 

"I'm not allowed to show anger. I'm told it's disrespectful." 

"If I tell mom I'm scared she just tells me to stop and get over it" 

"My dad just yells at me so what is the point"

"My dad makes fun of me and tells me I'm a baby"

Sometimes they are fully aware that mom or dad is a lot like them when it comes to emotions so they just avoid discussing their emotions with them.  They fear that mom or dad can't handle it.

They also fear mom or dad will just go into "fix it" mode and they recognize that no one can "fix" them so why bother talking to parents.

Often, they have created a scenario in their mind that their parents can't possibly understand so why even try.  I struggled with this in the teen years.  I had a deep belief that my parents just would not understand so why even attempt to talk to them.  Because I never "checked the facts" to see if they would get it, I kept them at a distance.  I struggled with high levels of anxiety which will often distort how things really are.  I often see similar struggles with many teen girls.

If you are recognizing some of these patterns in your daughter, know it might be because of her emotional experience.  The good news is that emotional intelligence (EQ) isn't fixed and can be worked on.  Girls who are more sensitive can learn about it and learn to cope with those emotions in better, healthy ways.