7 Steps to Help Kids & Teens with Rejection Sensitive Dysphoria

with Penny Williams

In this episode of the Beautifully Complex podcast, I tackle the topic of rejection sensitive dysphoria (RSD) and provide 7 essential steps to help kids and teens facing this challenge. I share insights on recognizing signs of RSD in kids and teens, fostering open communication, building self-esteem, challenging negative thought patterns, teaching coping strategies, practicing self-compassion, and seeking professional support when needed. Our role as parents and caregivers is crucial in helping our neurodivergent kids navigate these challenges and thrive. If you want to learn more about supporting your child with RSD, don’t miss this episode. Remember, you are not alone on this journey, and together, we can help our kids grow into resilient, confident, successful, happy, joyful adults.

3 key takeaways:
    1. Recognition of Rejection Sensitive Dysphoria (RSD): Parents and caregivers must be vigilant for exaggerated reactions to criticism, avoidance of social situations, and an excessive need for reassurance and validation, as these may indicate RSD in kids and young adults.
    2. Building Coping Mechanisms: Teaching healthy coping strategies, promoting self-esteem and confidence, challenging negative thought patterns, and modeling resilience and perseverance are essential in helping individuals with RSD navigate the emotional challenges they face.
    3. Seeking Professional Support: In cases where parents feel overwhelmed or are unsure of how to help, seeking professional support such as therapy or counseling tailored to the needs of rejection sensitive dysphoria can provide valuable insight and guidance.

You’ll Learn

  • Recognizing signs of rejection sensitive dysphoria in your child, teen, or young adult

  • Actionable strategies for helping your kid with rejection sensitive dysphoria, such as open communication, building self-esteem, and challenging negative thought patterns

  • Teaching coping strategies for managing intense emotions, including regulation activities and creative outlets

  • Modeling resilience and perseverance for your kids

  • The importance of seeking professional support if you or your child needs it


  • Subscribe to Clarity — my weekly newsletter to help you get clear on how to be the parent your neurodivergent kid needs.

  • Work with me to level up your parenting — online parent training and coaching  for neurodiverse families.

Some of the resources may be affiliate links, meaning I receive a commission (at no cost to you) if you use that link to make a purchase.


Penny Williams [00:00:03]: If you say something to your kid and they go, oh my gosh, you're being so critical, or I can't do anything right, and you think to yourself, where in the world did that come from? I didn't even have a negative thought about it, much less say anything negative about it. You're probably dealing with a a kid who has rejection sensitive dysphoria. Welcome to the Beautifully Complex podcast, where I share insights and strategies on parenting neurodivergent kids straight from the trenches. I'm your host, Penny Williams. I'm a parenting coach, author, and mindset mama, honored to guide you on the journey of raising your atypical kid. Let's get started. Welcome back, friends. I am so happy that you're here with me.

Penny Williams [00:00:58]: Today, I'm gonna talk about 7 steps that will help kids or teens or young adults that have rejection sensitive dysphoria. It is a topic that affects a lot of people, adults, kids, all ages, but it's really misunderstood for the most part. And I actually had a parent reach out and ask me to cover this topic of rejection sensitive dysphoria, sometimes also known as RSD, rejection sensitive dysphoria. So over the next 20 minutes or so, we're going to explore what RSD is, how it manifests, and then most importantly, how you can navigate its challenges with resilience and compassion. So rejection sensitive dysphoria is a term that really originated in the ADHD communities, but it impacts beyond just that ADHD diagnosis. I first learned about it in an article that I read by doctor William Dodson in Attitude Magazine many years ago. And I remember very clearly, the first thought I had was, well, that explains so much about my husband and my kid, but it was a big about my husband who we know has ADHD even though he's never been diagnosed. So RSD is an extreme sensitivity to perceived.

Penny Williams [00:02:35]: So it doesn't even have to be actual, it can just be perceived, rejection, criticism, or failure. For people who experience RSD, even the smallest hint of disapproval or disappointment can trigger intense emotional reactions. And I want to say and add to that that sometimes there isn't any hint of rejection, criticism, failure, disapproval. Sometimes someone with RSD will perceive rejection, criticism, or failure without any intention from the other person. And we'll talk about an example in a second, but if you say something to your kid and they go, oh my gosh, you're being so critical, or I can't do anything right, and you think to yourself, where in the world did that come from? I didn't even have a negative thought about it, much less say anything negative about it. You're probably dealing with a kid who has rejection sensitive dysphoria. They will perceive it even when there isn't the slightest hint or inclination in what is said to them, because they're so worried about the potential that there is some rejection, criticism, or failure in what you're saying or the messages that you're giving them. I want you to imagine feeling like your emotions are dialed up to the max at all times with every interaction carrying the potential for great emotional turmoil.

Penny Williams [00:04:28]: That's what it feels like for many people who live with rejection sensitive dysphoria, kids and adults alike. It's not simply being overly sensitive. It's a deeply ingrained response that profoundly affects daily life. Typically, when you have RSD, you are seeing or worrying about rejection, criticism, and failure all the time. All the time. It is a constant constant sort of sensitive alarm trigger, if you will. So let's have an example of what rejection sensitive dysphoria might look like. Here's a scenario.

Penny Williams [00:05:13]: Your child comes home from school. They're visibly upset. We know what that looks like. Right? They're slamming things. They're yelling. They might be saying ugly things, but they're visibly upset in one way or another because they weren't chosen to play tag with their friends during recess or the kids that they felt were their friends. Right? This might seem like something really minor to you or to I or to some kids, but for a kid with RSD, it can feel like it's the actual end of the world. The actual end of the world, folks.

Penny Williams [00:05:49]: They might interpret that rejection as a reflection of their worth. They might internalize feelings of inadequacy. They might decide that these kids are really not their friend, even though they thought they were their friend. And it could have been that your kid was late to recess and they just didn't even notice when they came in to add them to play that game of tag. Right? But in their minds, they always jump to worst case. It's always rejection, criticism, and some sort of reflection on their inadequacy. That's how they interpret these sort of things because they're just so worried about that potential all the time. I remember 1 year when my son came in from school, he was riding carpool to a charter school at the time.

Penny Williams [00:06:43]: I believe he was in 6th grade. And he was riding with some other boys to and from school. And at that age, boys are really mean to each other to show each other how much they care. If you are my friend and we are boys, we are gonna be mean to each other to show each other that we're actually friends. It's bonkers. I don't get it, but it happens. It's very, very, very common. And so my son, being on the autism spectrum, he could not adequately interpret tone of voice, body language, all of those nonverbal cues.

Penny Williams [00:07:22]: And so what he took from it, because he's highly sensitive, was that they weren't his friends anymore, that they were mean and awful people. He would come in and say he was gonna call the police because they were bullies, and, you know, that wasn't the intention coming from the other kids. And his sensitivity to people not being nice to him, people rejecting him, caused him to really have very big reaction and big emotions to that and to just really not understand it. So how can we, as parents or other caring adults in our kids' lives, recognize those signs of rejection sensitive dysphoria in our kids. You have to keep an eye out for really exaggerated reactions to criticism or perceived slights, sometimes avoidance of social situations, and sometimes an excessive need for reassurance and validation from others. If your kid takes something that you say is criticism when you truly, truly had no intention or thoughts of criticism, even passive aggressive, then they're likely struggling with RSD. So for parents, you know, it's really natural for us to wanna protect our kids from pain and disappointment. That is the way we are wired.

Penny Williams [00:08:47]: Right? We want to protect our kids, But when we shield them from rejection entirely, it's not feasible. At some point, something's gonna slip through the cracks, and it's also not beneficial for them in the long term because they're not learning to manage the emotions and develop resilience to bounce back when those things happen. So instead, it's really essential for you to teach your kids or your teens some healthy coping mechanisms, and those all important resilience skills so that they can navigate the ups and downs of life. Life is a series of ups and downs. We all know that it is. If we don't give our kids the opportunity to have to experience that when they're kids, they will not have the skills to experience it in a healthy way as adults. They could be very anxious, depressed, they could turn to self medication from drugs or alcohol. You know, we need those skills as adults to live a healthy life.

Penny Williams [00:10:06]: So I wanna talk to you about 7 different steps that you can take to help your kid, your teen, your young adult who has rejection sensitive dysphoria. One way that we can help them is by open communication and really creating safe spaces for them to express their emotions. We want to encourage our kids to talk about their feelings, and then we need to validate those experiences without judgment, without any judgment folks. Let them know it's okay to feel what they're feeling and that you're just there to support them. We're not judging how we're feeling. We're not judging how sensitive they are. We're showing up and saying it's okay to feel how you feel, and I'm here to support you. Number 2 is to help our kids build self esteem and confidence.

Penny Williams [00:11:06]: We've had 1 or 2 recent podcast episodes on that, so I encourage you to go back a little bit in the list of episodes if you're interested in learning more on how to help our kids build self esteem and confidence. It really boils down to focusing on what I call tips, talents, interests, and strengths. And then we also need to celebrate, to notice their successes and their accomplishments no matter how small they are. No matter if all of their same age peers had those accomplishments 3 or 4 years ago, Accomplishments for an individual are accomplishments for an individual. They are based on that individual's characteristics and where they are. They are not based on comparison to others. It's very important to remember that as parents of neurodivergent kids because they do have developmental delays. So it really boils down to just helping them to develop that positive self image, which takes work and time.

Penny Williams [00:12:17]: Right? But we do that by emphasizing their unique qualities and their talents. Let's celebrate strengths. Let's celebrate what makes our kids individual instead of worrying about or judging them for the things that make them unique. Number 3 is to challenge their negative thought patterns. This can be really difficult. It's definitely a long term strategy, but it's really important, especially for kids with anxiety. When you catch your kids ruminating on past rejections or anticipating future failures, try to help them reframe those thoughts in a more positive light. Focus again on their strengths and accomplishments no matter how small they are, and that will help to shift that negative thought pattern to a more positive thought pattern.

Penny Williams [00:13:16]: And remember, this is really difficult because our brains are wired for the negative to stand out in our memory more than the positive, which is a self protection measure. Right? It's for safety. But what happens is we get consumed by the negative, and we completely lose sight of the positive. So you have to help your kids and yourself, honestly, to challenge those negative thought patterns, focus more on the positive. Number 4 in helping our kids with RSD is to teach coping strategies for managing their intense emotions. We talk so much on the podcast and in the work that I do with the behavior revolution about regulation and emotional intelligence, those communication skills, those regulation skills around emotions are so important for us to focus on and work on building those skills. A lot of that is not natural for our kids. So we can teach those coping strategies for managing emotions through regulation activities, like deep breathing exercises, mindfulness practices, yoga exercise, blowing bubbles.

Penny Williams [00:14:39]: You guys know there's a million different things that you can do. So many lists are available online. We also have a card deck full of those regulation activities inside our behavior revolution program. And the other way that you can build those coping strategies is to have your kid engage in activities that they enjoy to distract themselves from that negative thinking, to distract themselves from sort of staying stuck in those intense emotions. We want to encourage them to express themselves creatively too. So many people, adults and kids alike, use creative outlets to process their feelings. That could be art, music, creative writing, dance, even like aerial yoga, things like that. Anything that they can be really creative in is going to help them to process emotion.

Penny Williams [00:15:46]: Number 5 is practicing self compassion. You need to model for your kids and teach them to treat themselves with kindness and understanding, to treat themselves the way they would treat a friend who is going through that thing. We have to remind them that they are worthy of love, of acceptance, of taking up space regardless of how much they perceive that they have flaws or shortcomings. We need to model self compassion for our kids as well. And if you are not building your awareness muscles, it is gonna be really hard for you to be practicing self compassion, especially just going through the motions of your day to day life. So I encourage you to also focus on how you are modeling self compassion for your kids. Number 6 is to model resilience and perseverance in your own behavior, again, in front of your kids. Show your child that setbacks and failures are just a natural part of life and that it is possible to bounce back from them, that it's even possible to bounce back from them stronger than they were before that setback.

Penny Williams [00:17:16]: You can share your own stories of overcoming challenges so that you can reassure your kids that they can do it too if you've been able to do it. They are capable of that resilience just as much as the rest of us are. Lastly, number 7. Get some professional support if you or your kid needs it. You might be feeling really overwhelmed by their RSD behavior. You might be really unsure of how to help. You might try some of these strategies and feel like you're not getting anywhere, that it's just not helpful enough. And a therapist or a counselor can really, really help you to provide valuable insight and guidance that is tailored for the needs of rejection sensitive dysphoria.

Penny Williams [00:18:09]: It is a somewhat new term, I believe, but I'm not totally sure that doctor William Dodson actually coined this term. But not all professionals know about it yet. But seek out someone who has heard of it, does know what's going on there, and can really help you in helping your kid or to help your kid directly. As we wrap up here, I wanna leave you with this thought. Your role as a parent, as a caring adult or caregiver in a neurodivergent kid's life is incredibly important in helping them to navigate rejection sensitive dysphoria. Fostering open communication, building self esteem, teaching healthy coping strategies, and also seeking that professional support if needed, then you can empower your child to thrive despite having something so challenging like RSD ahead of them. As always, I wanna thank each and every one of you for being here. I wanna thank you for taking the time to learn better so that you can do better for both your kids and for yourselves, folks.

Penny Williams [00:19:32]: It's also about you. Remember that you're not alone on this journey, and together, we can help our kids to really grow into resilient, confident, successful, happy, joyful adults. I will see you on the next episode. Take really good care. Thanks for joining me on the Beautifully Complex podcast. If you enjoyed this episode, please subscribe and share. And don't forget to check out my online courses and parent coaching at parentingadhdandaustism.com and at thebehaviorrevolution.com.

Thanks for joining me!

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