On the playground one child is crying because he can’t get the sand off his hands and he hates the feeling. A second child is yelling “Higher! Higher!” as her dad pushes her on the swing as high as it will go. Another child is running around, sometimes inadvertently crashing into other children, while another hangs back on the edge of the playground, hands over their ears, looking overwhelmed by all the activity.
All four children are experiencing reactions based on the sensory input they’re receiving from the environment.
If you do not struggle with sensory integration issues it may be hard to understand why your child is:
- “So sensitive” to things like bright lights or loud noises
- Constantly touching things or people, chewing their clothes, or climbing on the furniture
- Unresponsive to sensory input others can’t ignore, like being hurt or someone calling their name
While we all experience our senses uniquely, based on how our brains perceive the sensation, a large part of the population can easily tune out what they need to tune out and focus on what they want to. For example, you may be able to focus on your conversation with a friend at a busy restaurant. You effectively tune out the background music and other conversations, the smells, and all the movement around you to focus on what your friend is saying.
For someone with sensory processing issues this may feel like a huge task taking more energy and conscious effort to just listen. It’s taxing to the nervous system and can easily send one into stress overload and anxiety.
In this post we’ll talk about the struggles you may see if your child finds processing sensory information difficult, how you can use the Hand in Hand approach to respond, and how to adapt the tools when your child has intense reactions.
Processing sensory information can manifest in many ways.
When a child has difficulties processing sensory information, it can manifest in any number of ways. There may be struggles with daily tasks like getting dressed or eating or frequent and intense emotional reactions including aggression that seem to come from nowhere. Challenges like getting along well with peers, and difficulties learning in the school environment are also common.
If your child is having frequent struggles around sensory issues, there are things you can do to ease the stress for both of you and support your child’s development. While seeing an Occupational Therapist (OT) who can help evaluate your child’s sensory processing and come up with a plan to support your child with sensory integration, the emotional support your child needs will mostly come from you, the caring parent.
A connection parenting approach, like Hand in Hand Parenting, focuses on building relational safety between parent and child. For children with sensory processing challenges their sense of relational safety is often more vulnerable. As parents we can work to help increase our child’s sense of safety by learning their cues and responding in an attuned way.
Working with the eight senses
Determining your child’s sensory needs, so you can respond to their behaviors in the most helpful way, can be a lot to think about considering there are 8 different senses, (that’s right, 3 more senses than you learned about in school!). Each one of the senses sends important information to your brain for processing so you can “make sense” of the world around you.
The first five senses you’re probably familiar with: vision, hearing, smell, taste, and touch. The other 3 are: proprioception (awareness of our body), vestibular (our sense of movement/balance), and interoception (how our body feels on the inside). When your brain doesn't process the information from any of these 8 senses accurately you may over- or under- react to the stimulus. This is where kids get into “trouble”.
How looking below the surface behavior helps
If your child’s behavior is baffling to you, take a look below the surface to see what’s driving your child’s reactions. Mona Delahooke, PhD, clinical psychologist and author of Beyond Behaviors writes in her article, Sensory Processing and Challenging Behaviors: Below the Iceberg, “When we look only above the surface, we tend to blame the child, the parent, or the caregiver. Looking below the surface opens new pathways for seeing the child’s behaviors as adaptations to internal needs, resulting in more compassion and less blame.
When we properly understand children’s behaviors, we can better support their sensory, motor and emotional development by attuning to what they need in the body and mind.”
When kids ask for connection in a sensory way
Attuning to our child and noticing what behaviors come up and when, can help us know how to respond in a way that both fulfills our child’s needs and builds relational safety.
Sheena Hill, psychotherapist and parent coach at Parenting Works, and a Hand in Hand Instructor Candidate, says if you notice your child doing something repetitively, for example bumping into you while you’re cooking after you’ve asked them to stop, your child may be signaling that they’re feeling “off” in their body and seeking more sensory input and/or they’re not feeling connected to you while your attention is away from them.
While you might feel annoyed with the behavior, the positive is that your child is coming to you for support. Children often can’t articulate their needs for support directly, so instead they ask for it through their behavior.
Addressing sensory and connection needs
It’s easy as a busy parent to get caught up in telling our children what to do, like “go play” or “stop bugging me ”, but what they need in the moment is for us to decipher their behaviors. When we can understand what the child’s behavior is trying to communicate it can save us a lot of time and upset in the long run.
Hill suggests that to meet your child’s needs, stop what you are doing as soon as you can and address both the sensory and connection needs.
In the example of a child bumping into you, she says, you can try meeting the need with a playful response. You might turn off the stove and say playfully, “I’m going to get you now!” to start a light-hearted game of chase for a couple minutes.
Follow your child's laughter to keep things positive for them. Some children will love being “caught” and given a vigorous snuggle, others may prefer always getting away. Keep your attention on what delights your child.
Depending on your child, they may need more frequent “doses” of this type of play to stay connected to their body and you. Taking a minute or two to meet your child’s very real needs for sensory input and connection can help their body feel calmer, possibly allowing them to play by themselves while you finish the cooking, do a quieter activity near you, or even be ready to help you with the meal prep.
Expressing sensory overwhelm in an emotional way
As wonderful and proactive as connection through play is for our children, we will still run into loud and messy emotions. And if you’re parenting a “sensory kid” these upsets, or sensory episodes, may be longer, more frequent, and more intense than children with more typical sensory processing.
When a child is overwhelmed by the intensity of an activity, sensations, excitement, and noise around them, Hill says, they often can’t express it in words so instead they may start to cry, yell, and/or fall to the ground.
It’s easy for parents to feel anything from irritation to powerlessness in the face of their child's upset. It’s important to remember that these outpourings of emotion are not intentional and are not meant to manipulate you. It is a physiological response the child does not have control over.
For a child in sensory overwhelm especially, it may be impossible for them to just stop their body’s natural response to the distress.
Staylistening supports your child through the overwhelming emotions and sensations they experience. You come close and offer your warm, loving presence while your child is upset.
It’s like being the safe harbor for your child during their emotional storm. For children with sensory processing differences however even attempts to provide support, comfort, and reassurance can add more sensory input that they may not be able to process in the moment.
Beth Ohanneson, a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist and certified Hand in Hand Instructor who specializes in working with parents of children with sensory processing differences says, “For neuro-typical children, and often for sensory children, it is helpful to receive the input of gentle touch, eye contact, warmth, and confidence during emotional upset. We are reassuring them that we are ready to listen, that we want to know them just as they are, and that we feel confident that their body knows just what to do when they have big feelings.”
Adding more sensory input can send your child’s senses into overdrive
Children with sensory processing differences may, however, feel further overwhelmed if we come too close, too soon, or add additional sensations like touch, eye contact, or gentle verbal reassurances.
“Rather than helping them release feelings,” she adds, “we’re adding more sensory stimulation they have to fight against. Their body is producing a heightened response to ordinary, non-threatening sensations from both outside and inside their bodies. This response is out of their control and often frightening for them,” she says.
Adding more sensory input may not be useful to your child in the way you intend or hope for in that moment.
“Many parents find it helpful to simply slow down the sequence of actions during Staylistening, aiming to not be too close and not too far away,” Ohanneson says. “We still offer confidence that this flood of sensory overwhelm will come to an end, that releasing the big feelings that come along with it is survivable, that they do not have to suffer this hard time alone, and that how they feel matters to us.”
Checklist for listening your child’s upsets
As you experiment with Staylistening to your child, take time to notice what best supports them.
- Always check your own emotional “temperature” first. Are you calm and able to offer support?
- Is it better to keep a little distance and convey your love to them with open arms when they’re ready, or do they feel safer with your arms firmly around them?
- Does it help to turn the lights down or close the shades?
- Does eye contact feel like “too much” for them at these times?
- What tone and volume of voice is best?
Make space for the feelings and adjust what you need so your child can more easily find their way back to calm.
Focus on fun as well as the fix
When your child has extra challenges, a lot of your time and energy can go toward researching and trying to understand what’s happening. It’s easy to get caught up in trying to help your child. Don't forget the hugely beneficial role you can play when you focus on your relationship and having fun.
Take time to play on your child’s terms without trying to teach or advise.
Having “Special Time” with your child, where you devote a set amount of time to follow your child’s lead, can help you both feel closer and allows your child to show you what’s on their mind.
Children sometimes use Special Time to show you where they struggle.
If your child is a picky eater for example and has an aversion to certain textures and smells, they may take the opportunity to have you try new and different “concoctions” they create.
Your child will be delighted and full of giggles as you playfully resist trying the food while they “force” you to eat it. This type of role reversal play can be deeply healing for children. They get a chance to experience the more powerful role and laugh off some of the tension they feel.
Providing useful sensory input and connection through play
As a parent, it gives you more insight into your child’s world which helps you understand and better support them.
A great way for a child to get sensory input AND connection is through rough and tumble play. Some kids may ask you to roll them up in a blanket, like a burrito, or swing them around, over and over. “Classics” like horse rides on your back, or flying like an airplane on your knees are other favorites and help parent and child feel closer.
You might also try games where you let your child take on the more powerful role. Sock wrestling matches where you try to pull each other’s socks off while keeping yours on and challenges like, “I bet you can’t knock me over” where your child tries to push you over while you’re sitting on the floor are good examples.
Whatever you try, allow yourself to take the less powerful role. Be silly. Just follow your child’s laughter and adjust your intensity to match your child’s needs.
So much of life can feel outside a child’s power. Taking the less powerful role in these games and allowing your child to be the strongest, smartest, and most capable in their play is a huge boon to their confidence.
For more ideas on integrating play in everyday life, read how one mom supported her child in getting dressed in the morning using play and how our family used play and Staylistening to help our son with his daily vision exercises.
Support for your emotional work in parenting
Supporting a child with sensory issues through the moment of sensory overwhelm can be challenging when they’re having their third big upset of the morning, or you watch them withdraw away from you.
Sometimes you may feel like your compassionate listening and efforts to convey safety seem to make your child’s distress worse. You can’t understand why your attempts at fixing the situation or applying logic fail.
You're working hard to understand your child’s needs, to support them well, and accommodate the best you can. Yet, you may feel your own anger rise or your heart break in these challenging moments.
It’s not your fault.
While there is growing understanding for the social-emotional needs of children, we still have a long way to go in supporting both children and their parents well.
Find a place to express your fears and frustrations
Seek support for yourself. A safe place to express your fears, frustrations, and joys with another trusted adult is really helpful. When we have a chance to offload our own challenging emotions around parenting, and life, we can better access our best thinking on how to support our children. You can build this type of support for yourself through a Listening Partnership.
A Listening Partnership is a Hand in Hand listening tool meant to support the adults caring for children. This type of partnership is where two adults agree to trade equal amounts of time listening to each other. It’s an excellent way to get support for the emotional work of parenting. When we feel heard, supported, and respected for the work we do as parents we are less likely to yell or get reactive. [For more on this tool, read What is Listening Partnership and Why Do I Need One here]
Next steps: The Hand in Hand framework and beyond
While all children have sensory needs, preferences, and dislikes, strong reactions to certain stimuli do not necessarily mean your child has Sensory Processing Disorder (SPD). Sometimes children (and adults!) can become more sensory sensitive when stressed, anxious, or ill.
The Hand in Hand listening tools offer a framework for supporting both you and your child. If you feel your child’s issues go beyond everyday parenting challenges, talk to your child’s pediatrician, an occupational therapist, or developmental psychologist about getting additional support.
You can also learn more about SPD and sensory issues in autism and ADHD at the STAR Institute for SPD.