Below are some strategies for assessing and managing your child’s upsets – whether he has some sensory integration (SI) challenges or an actual Sensory Processing Disorder (SPD).

What is sensory integration? ­

SI is the ability to integrate input from our environment through the senses of sight, touch, sound, taste, and smell – plus proprioception, internal body awareness, and the vestibular system – how we unconsciously sense up from down, forward from backward, swinging and circular movements within our bodies. To assess your child’s sensory processing capacities, ask yourself the following questions:

  • Does my child enjoy movement, sights, smells, sounds, and other people, or are they seemingly noxious? Does he shut down or react in extreme ways when he encounters them?
  • Do bright lights or loud noises bother him? Is dressing, eating, bathing, or bedtime a daily struggle?
  • Does my child become so over stimulated that he will push, bite, or hit me (or another child) because he feels out of control and frightened?
  • Does my child reject unfamiliar foods or certain clothing?
  • Does my child become agitated or fearful when transitioning from one activity to another?
  • Is my child able to tell me when he’s having a hard time, or does he go straight into tantrum mode lasting more than a few minutes?

Let’s face it – tantrums are a common occurrence among young children because they have not yet mastered the skill of self-regulation (managing one’s nervous system in order to fully engage). Children over three or four years of age will become better able to communicate their needs verbally rather than acting out or avoiding an uncomfortable experience. For a sensory-challenged child, however, many situations will continue to be extremely distressing. He may quickly go into a fight, flight, or freeze response – either lashing out, running away, or shutting down.

Some parenting strategies for both typical and SI-challenged children include:

  • Staying calm and assessing the situation before responding.
  • Narrating what might be upsetting him, and being compassionate about his struggle before setting a limit.
  • Remaining firm about reasonable expectations while knowing when an environment or expectation is just too much. In such circumstances, altering the noxious stimuli by either leaving a chaotic environment, trying a calming strategy, or changing course in some other way, will help him to self-regulate and will probably work better than forcing the issue.
  • Applying calming techniques such as “being a hamburger or a burrito.” Asking: “do you want to be a hamburger?” while setting up two large pillows and inviting your child to lie face down in the middle. Then exerting firm pressure on the top pillow and watching his reaction. Another technique is to place a blanket on the floor with your child at one end and then rolling him in it “like a burrito”. If your child likes the feeling of firm pressure, he will giggle with relief and pleasure. A third technique is to place your child in a blanket and with your partner on one end and you on the other, swing your child back and forth or up and down vigorously. For some children, swinging and bouncing is pure bliss.
  • Offering your child lots of time to adapt to novel situations and experiences and preparing him in advance for what he can expect. This will help him to prepare and manage his sensitive nervous system.
  • Providing a sensory-enriched environment:
    • A ball pool for him to “swim” around in
    • Soapy water, sand, or uncooked rice in a container with hidden objects for him to dig up
    • Finger paint, play dough, bubbles, and dirt play for providing a variety of textures to explore. These activities are great for all kids, not just for those requiring sensory stimulation.
  • Providing movement opportunities:
    • A sport, martial arts, cooking, music or dance classes are all sensory-rich experiences.
  • Arranging play dates so he can learn cooperative social skills.
  • Maintaining a routine – most children thrive on consistency, in parenting behaviors and in their scheduled daily activities.
  • Practicing mindfulness – slowing down, doing some deep breathing, maybe together, and responding to distress signals with reflective listening.

Reflective parenting techniques involve having an understanding of what is triggering you as you observe your child’s behavior, knowing that your child’s behavior is a communication that needs to be understood, and then reflecting back what you think might be underlying the problem behavior – a need for power, attention, appreciation, or comfort. Sensory processing challenges can affect a child’s ability to make friends, learn, and fully engage in everyday life. Taking a proactive, preventative approach — by learning what you can about sensory integration processes — will equip you to manage your child’s struggles mindfully.

If you suspect that your child has a SPD, set up a consultation with a pediatric occupational therapist (OT) right away. An OT can offer you an array of environmental adjustments and strategies for home and at school that will optimize your child’s ability to manage him self successfully. Any young child will reach a “tipping point” and melt down given the right circumstances. Without understanding your particular child’s signs of impending sensory overload and without strategies to deal with them, you will likely end up feeling helpless and frustrated. With these tools in your toolbox you will find them to be much more manageable. May your journey of “coming to your senses” enrich your self-knowledge, increase your child’s capacities, and enhance your relationship.

Deborah and the Well Baby Center Family

Deborah Groening Rother is a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist,  Doctor of Psychology (PsyD), and Certified Infant-Parent Mental Health Specialist. She is also the Clinic Director of Well Baby Center.