Teem woman looking into the distance

Mental Health and Sensory Challenges for Teens

Laura Beaune, MSW
The Toolkit addresses two important areas for teens: mental health and sensory issues. It offers a range of information including practical ideas and strategies. The Toolkit was written by Laura Beaune. Ms. Beaune is a social worker who has worked extensively with youth.

Photo by Jonathan Zerger on Unsplash

Being a teen can be both good and tough at times. Even though there are thousands of other people with autism, intellectual disability and/or other neuro-developmental differences, you may feel like you are the only one. You may be going through a difficult time, but remember that you are not alone.

This Toolkit is designed just for you, but it’s important to keep in mind that no two teenagers are the same. You may find that all the information, exercises or resources are helpful, or just one or two of them are. No need to go in order. Just use this Toolkit in any way that works for you. If you feel that you have questions or concerns that aren’t being answered here, it may be best to talk with a trusted adult like a parent, teacher or other professional.

If you find it challenging to read the Toolkit, find someone to read it with you. Or break it down into parts. The Toolkit consists of sections related to mental health and sensory issues that many teens and others experience. Let’s start with mental health.

Mental Health 

Teen life can be stressful. Things like changes in body chemistry, dealing with challenges, and figuring out school and relationships can be hard. Too much stress or not knowing how to manage stress can lead to changes in your mood or mental health. For some teens, this can lead to feeling depressed or anxious. If you are feeling such negative emotions and if these feelings are happening more often or becoming more intense or you are feeling distress and they are interfering with your day-to-day functioning, you need to check in with a parent or another adult you can trust who can support you and assist in finding resources that can help.

Emotions & Behaviours to Watch Out For:

  • Sad mood (feeling sad for a long time)
  • More frequent or more severe repetitive or compulsive behaviours
  • Feeling angry a lot (may come out as tantrums, being aggressive, screaming)
  • Irritability or agitation
  • Harder each day to do everyday things (like get up and go to school or do things that you usually do)
  • Self harm (hurting yourself)
  • Trouble sleeping or sleeping too much
  • Thinking about suicide or thinking a lot about death.


NOTE: If immediate or urgent help is needed, call 911 or go to the Emergency Department at the local hospital.


Other support resources are as follows:

Kids Help Phone 1-800-668-6868. This is a 24/7 national service that provides resources in both French and English.

Canadian Mental Health Association Website: They offer a variety of mental health services.

Additional resources are available later in the Toolkit.


Strategies to Check In & Boost Your Mental Health

  • Create a 5-point Scale (could be a thermometer, a ladder, faces or whatever you like) that helps you rate how you are feeling on a scale from 1-5. This will help you figure out what emotion you are feeling and how bad it feels.
  • Create a “mood” or “happy” map that uses visual cues to help you identify your emotions and create paths to more positive moods.
  • Use a visual tool that might help you recognize your own and other people’s emotions. You could use:
  • A Picture board
  • Social StoryTM
  • A picture of a body or face that shows where people feel emotions
  • A movie/video that you could watch with someone and talk about what emotions a favourite character is experiencing (how can you tell they are feeling sad, etc.). Talk about how you show your emotions and how others can tell how you are feeling.
  • Storybooks
  • A list of things that you like to do and that makes you feel better (listen to music, art, go for a walk, play a game, etc.).
  • Below is an image that has lines reaching out from a happy face. What is it that makes you feel more positive, content or happy. At the end of each line, you could write what people, creatures, experiences, things, etc. add enjoyment and happiness to your life.


Steps to try when you are feeling an upsetting emotion

  1. Identify your emotion or have someone help you identify/name what emotion you are feeling. Sometimes emotions can be tricky to identify. Anger, for example, can be a ‘secondary emotion’ and may show up after being embarrassed or hurt by someone. Try to track back and figure out the primary emotion too.
  2. Stop what you are doing.
  3. Take a ‘belly’ breath so that your stomach rises and falls.
  4. Continue to breathe slowly (best if in through your nose and out through your mouth).
  5. Relax your muscles.
  6. Walk away from whatever it is that’s upsetting you.
  7. Sit still for a while and either close your eyes or focus your attention on one thing around you.
  8. See if you can think about the situation in a more positive way now or maybe later.
  9. If you feel like it, rejoin the situation when you are feeling ready and more calm. If not, do something else that makes you feel good.

Self Care

Taking care of yourself and your mental health is important. Practice and put in place things that help you when you are feeling upset or stressed.

Some Self-Care Activities that Might Be Helpful:

  • Exercise and activity such as yoga, swimming or walking
  • Calming/soothing activity (sit down with a weighted lap pad, take a nap, find a quiet space, listen to music)
  • Talk with someone who you trust about your feelings
  • Get enough sleep
  • Eat healthy foods
  • Ask for help
  • Counselling: Cognitive Behaviour Therapy (CBT) is one technique that counsellors use to help people find new and more positive ways to deal with unhelpful thoughts and feelings, and learn more positive ways of being. Dialectical Behaviour Therapy (DBT) is a type of CBT that has been found to be helpful for autistic individuals who struggle with overwhelming emotional reactions.
  • Stress-relieving items/fidgets
  • Positive affirmations
  • Calming websites or apps
  • Add your own ways of helping: ________________

If these strategies aren’t helping enough, talk to your parents, school counsellor, or another professional. You may need to get some extra help from a doctor or counsellor, or call a Help Phone line (Kids Help Phone 1-800-668-6868). See the resources and contact information later in this Toolkit.

Managing Your Mood

Nobody goes through each day feeling happy all of the time or even most of the time. Everyone experiences ups and downs and lots of emotions that sometimes feel good and sometimes don’t feel good.

Photo by Darius Bashar on Unsplash

We all need to keep an eye on our physical and mental health to make sure that we’re staying healthy. Below are some ideas on how to be an “emotion detective”, and how to keep track of any uncomfortable symptoms like pain, distress, or ‘low mood’ that you may experience.

You may find it hard to identify, understand, and manage the emotions that you are feeling.  [DN1] Emotions in the teen years can be complicated. Changes to your responsibilities, independence, and expectations are all happening at the same time that your brain chemistry is changing. It is not unusual to have different emotions in a single day that can range from minor to intense.

You may find that you may experience one or all of these: feeling cranky, fidgety, frustrated, having trouble concentrating, or finding it hard to keep up with all of the changes in your emotions.

Be an Emotion Detective

Photo by Ali Hajian on Unsplash

Learning to be a thought and emotion “detective” will help you figure out how to understand which emotion you are feeling and how to manage that emotion. Remember that not all emotions are negative. Many are positive and helpful, and there are times when feelings are appropriate depending on the situation. Make a list of words that describe the emotions that you know. You could ask others to add in words that you haven’t thought of.

Here are some words that describe positive feelings and emotions, although there are many more:

Create a List of Negative Feeling/Emotion Words

Here are a few examples: Sadness, anger, fear, frustration, anxiety, guilt, embarrassment, jealousy, hopelessness, confusion (can you identify other negative feelings?). Perhaps you can use this list to help put a word to a feeling that doesn’t feel good to you.

Photo by Domingo Alvarez E on Unsplash

Thinking Good Thoughts About Yourself

Teenagers often have a hard time seeing themselves positively, and often compare themselves to others and try to fit in. A first step in understanding and describing yourself is to look at how you and others describe yourself. Learn to love your uniqueness!

Try this*

Exercise: Creating a Positive Me

This is an exercise for Teens. You data-sf-ec-immutable="" can download this and fill it on the computer, print it, type or print words[DN1]  or use photos, comics, pictures, drawings or whatever else you’d like to use to create a story about you. Try to find words and images that are positive and make you feel good. You can share it with others or keep it to yourself.

What words or images do I use to describe myself? (such as: creative, funny, serious, outgoing, quiet, kind, generous, artistic, a whiz at computers, good at swimming, funny etc.)

How do I describe myself to others?

What do I like to do?

What is important to me?

What am I passionate about? (such as something that I love to do or am interested in. Some examples might be: caring about the environment, fashion, taking care of animals, being on the computer, writing, photography, crafting, helping others, etc.).

What are my strengths? What do I do well?

What behaviours, thoughts or feelings cause me the most problems or distress?

What would I like my life to be like after high school?

What do I think are the things about me that are similar to other kids my age? What things make me unique or different?

How do I describe members of my family? What were my parents like as teenagers?

How do others describe me? This could be a friend, parent, grandparent, sibling, neighbour, coach, teacher or whomever you feel understands you. (Try to focus on what others like about you, and see as your strengths, interests, accomplishments, and things you do well.).

You can then create a “Me Book” or a Vision Board that has words and/or pictures of your likes, strengths, achievements, photos, school reports and words that you and others use to describe you. This may help you see and understand yourself, and help you start building a plan for yourself in the future.

Resources that Address One’s Uniqueness and Gifts:

The Spectrum Girl’s Survival Guide: How to Grow Up Awesome and Autistic, Siena Castellon, 2020

Autistic Not Weird Facebook Page

Aspie Comic Website

Resources to Support Mental Health:

Kids Help Phone 1-800-668-6868. This is a 24 hours per day/7 days per week national service that provides help and resources for youth. Support is available in both French and English.

211 Canada Tel: 211 Call in to get information on health and social services across the country.

Canadian Mental Health Association Website: They offer a variety of mental health services.

Raising Children Website

Outsmarting Worry: An Older Kid’s Guide to Managing Anxiety, Dawn Huebner, A practical handbook for children aged nine and over who suffer from anxiety – coaching techniques from CBT, acceptance and commitment therapy.

Turnaround Anxiety – turning fear into freedom - Child Anxiety Treatment products – interactive workbook activities, journals, audio books, 10 part adventure story that communicates the principles of CBT, Chill Kit – breathing and relaxation exercises.

Books Beyond Words: Picture books area available on topics related to sorting out emotions.

Managing Sensory Challenges

Photo by Katie Gerrard on Unsplash

Teens with neurodevelopmental differences often have sensory processing differences with sight, hearing, touch, smell and/or taste. Many have come up with some strategies to cope with their sensory experiences. This does not mean that they still don’t get overwhelmed by their surroundings from time-to-time, though. Many autistic people have described that when a lot is happening around them or they are stressed out about something, their sensory experiences become more overwhelming - even if they were okay before. For instance, a person may be able to ignore the loud school bell on some days, but if they have anxiety about an argument they had with a friend, the bell might really hurt their ears. Some teens with neurodevelopmental differences may find it hard to deal with too much or too little sensory input. This can mean that certain spaces, places or experiences are more challenging including, perhaps, school, public transit, or crowded areas. Transitions such as leaving a quiet home for a noisy school or other sensory challenging environments can be tough for some teens.

Consider some of these “tips” to help with these transitions and spaces:

  • Talk to teachers or others about your need to make environments more manageable. What changes could be made to make things work better for you?
  • Work with an occupational therapist with a specialty in sensory processing differences to help you come up with strategies.
  • Have items in your backpack that help reduce sensory input such as headphones, sunglasses or a comforting item. You can also have items that increase your sensory input such as ‘chewlery’ or squeeze balls.
  • Practice using distraction techniques if you need them (like listening to music, reading a book, or using your phone).
  • Learn how to order things online or ahead of your visit to a stressful setting (for example, order a favourite food for pick up so you don’t have to wait in a crowded restaurant).
  • Find ways to regulate your body when you have too much energy.
  • Avoid certain places or situations when you’ve had a long day and need a break.
  • Speak up for yourself when things are too much. For instance, you could ask to have loud sounds stopped or music turned down. You could ask to change seats in a classroom or public space.
  • Build ‘mini-breaks’ into your day whenever possible. Taking 5 minutes between activities to sit in a quiet place can help reduce your sensory load.


Child Mind Institute

Sensory Processing Differences Toolkit (AIDE)


Thank you for reviewing this Toolkit. We invite you to also read the corresponding Toolkits in AIDE Canada’s Teen Toolkit Series.  The other Toolkits are:

From Just Surviving to Thriving in High School

Physical Health and Safety for Teens

Beyond High School: Self Identity and Managing Life


Cover photo by lilartsy on Unsplash

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