We all start out listening to our own internal compass. If Great Aunt Mary wants us to hug her, and we don’t want to, we won’t. If a movie is too loud, we will cry, hide, or just walk out. If we want to wear our favorite Dora the Explorer pajamas everyday, no amount of criticism will change our mind.
When puberty starts, along with it comes an increased social awareness: what’s in, what’s out, what’s cool, what’s not. During the ages of 12-16, peer acceptance becomes very important. We are learning to separate from our parents, but we aren’t strong enough to stand on our own so peers become our safety net until we achieve independence. The ability to tune into social cues and interpret meaning becomes key to enjoying the adolescent years. If your child is on either end of this “social cues spectrum”, he or she may start having difficulties at school.
On the far side of the spectrum are kids who have difficulty understanding social cues, missing nuances, difficulty understanding other people’s emotions and interpreting meaning. They may have a diagnosis like Autism or Aspergers, higher testosterone, or just be more cerebral and “left brain” dominant. School counselors can be very helpful for these kids, taking the subtle and making it clear and concrete.
I like to work with the teens and adults who lie on the other end of the spectrum, HIGH empathy kids. These kids notice EVERY subtlety and can soak up other people’s energy like a sponge. Sensitive kids with high empathy can be very social, but find themselves exhausted with too much social activity, sometimes feeling anxious or depressed when left alone. They have a hard time differentiating their emotions, from everyone else’s, and may find the company of animals and children easier to deal with.
It’s common for sensitive teens, preteens, and adults, to assume the negative. When we tune in to the people around us, it’s easy to notice someone or something is “off”. Maybe it’s a delayed reaction time, maybe it’s a surprising tone of voice, maybe it’s that the words didn’t match the emotion behind them. Any of these subtle nuances can make a sensitive person’s radar go off and question “What was that about?” Empathic kids (or adults who haven’t learned to manage their energy) can feel really bothered by this, they may get physically weak, tired, sick with headaches or stomachaches, get nervous or anxious. Our brain goes to work trying to solve the puzzle of “What was that about?” and we often end up making it mean something negative about us: “I said the wrong thing.” “She’s mad at me.” “I hurt her feelings.” “People don’t like me.”
It’s important to acknowledge your intuition and respect that it picked up on the fact that “something is off”. We were born with this intuitive ability to sense danger and it’s a valuable skill set to have. (Your intuition is always calm and easy to ignore, your brain is hard to ignore and keeps repeating itself, don’t mix the two.) Our job is to respect our inner compass sensing “something is off” and manage our mind to think thoughts that are true and helpful. The adolescent years are when negative self talk really explodes so it’s important to make sure we aren’t telling ourselves horrible things about our appearance, our intelligence, our futures and our failures.
Beware of invisible assumptions. You may have no idea why her words didn’t match her emotions. It could be she was distracted, she had a bad morning, was worrying about an upcoming test, just started her period, drank three red bulls, we don’t know. If you are going to allow your brain to answer “What was that about?”, make sure it’s something that feels good to you like, “I don’t know but I know I care about my friend’s feelings.” “She’s having an off day and that’s ok.” “I can still like me, even if she doesn’t.”
Just because you didn’t want to hug Great Aunt Mary, didn’t mean she was an evil person, or that you were rude for not wanting to hug her. Just because the volume of the movie was too loud for you, didn’t mean you are wimpy. And you, refusing to wear anything other than your Dora the Explorer pajamas, doesn’t make you weird, unless you like believing that you are weird. Your inner compass is here to get your attention and guide you, but you get to decide what you make it mean.