Inside you’ll find: Answers to the question, “What sensory needs are causing my child to meltdown?”
Baffling. Explosive. Irrational. Inconsistent.
Words often used by parents to describe their child’s sensory meltdowns.
Our kids sensory needs can leave us as parents feeling helpless. We want to understand and support our children, but without the tools, we’re usually left guessing as to how we can help our kids in their struggles.
(If you’re wanting to be a confident sensory parent, check out the Sensory Parenting 101 course and start forming your family’s sensory game plan today.)
The good news is, there ARE reasons for your child’s behavior and with a few simple questions, you can start to discover the root cause of every seemingly strange struggle your child is dealing with.
Ready to be a sensory sleuth?
Here are the Three Questions to Ask of Every Sensory Behavior:
What Combination of Senses Might Be Involved?
There are typical six senses that can cause sensory issues. They’re not exactly the five you learned about in grade school.
Description: This sense tells the body where it is in space without the use of vision or touch. It provides body awareness. Input for this sense comes through the joints and the ligaments.
How to Get It: To get proprioceptive input, people need to do what is often referred to as “heavy work”. Jumping, pulling, pushing and more compacts the joints and ligaments, building up the desired sensations.
Significance: Proprioception is the KING of the senses because if someone is receiving adequate proprioceptive input throughout the day, they will be better able to handle all the other sensory struggles that come their way. It’s also one of the most straightforward senses. I have yet to see a case of someone being a proprioceptive avoider (barring some interaction with other sensory input they avoid like a tactile or vestibular influence. See below) .
So, the more heavy work, the better.
Description: This sense is responsible for helping the body sense movement. It contributes to balance. Input for this sense comes from the inner ear.
How to Get It: To get vestibular input, people need to either move their head or be inverted (upside down). Keep in mind that there are multiple planes of movement, back and forth, side to side, up and down, spinning and inversion.
Significance: The vestibular system is the most finicky of the senses. The body can go from craving movement to despising it in the blink of an eye. Always be checking in with your child during vestibular input. When we use our sensory swing, I’m asking roughly every ten seconds how their feeling and if they want me to change the speed or direction. Often kids will prefer one plane of movement and hate another (ie, LOVE rocking back and forth, but despise spinning). Like I said, finicky!
Description: This sense is hearing. Input for this sense comes from the ear.
How to Get It: In general, auditory input is not a sensory need, though there are many sounds that can trigger avoidance.
Significance: While there typically aren’t auditory “seekers”, often times an auditory avoider will create noise to drown out other noises and maintain control of their environment
Description: This sense is anything to do with the mouth, from taste to touch. Input for this sense mouth and jaw.
How to Get It: Eating and drinking obviously comes to mind, but don’t forget chewing, sucking and blowing non food items.
Significance: The mouth is a place where a lot of sensory factors interact. A texture issue may cause a food avoidance, while a desire for proprioceptive input (heavy work in the joints and ligaments) may be secured through engaging the jaw by chewing on a non food item.
Description: This sense is has to do with touch, including pressure, texture and temperature. Input for this sense comes from the skin.
How to Get It: Anything that comes in contact with the skin. The possibilities are endless.
Significance: A child is likely to have seeking AND avoiding tendencies based on the various tactile sensations. For example, they may crave strong touch, enjoy silky things, hate cold things, and struggle with constricting things. It’s rare to find someone that is a seeker in every tactile situation or an avoid of all tactile input.
Description: This sense is has to do with internal sensation and awareness. Examples include awareness of hunger, thirst, sleep needs and toileting needs.
How to Get It: This sense is a bit different in the fact that mindfulness, curiosity and awareness are the best course of action to take if your child struggles in the interoception department.
Significance: Probably one of the most overlooked of the senses. But just consider your anxiety levels when you ignore your hunger needs or push off taking a bathroom break as a busy mom.
Is Their Sensory “Bank” Depleted?
Children often respond to sensory issues differently on different days.
Socks might not be a problem on Tuesday, but come Thursday, they cause a full blown meltdown.
Why do my child’s sensory needs change daily?
Think of your child’s sensory system as a bank.
Some days you’re making “deposits” that help your child respond well to sensory input. When you make a “withdrawal” (like having to put on those pesky socks) the body might not be thrilled, but it has enough “money” to spare.
Other days, a child’s circumstances may be requiring numerous “withdrawals” that deplete the body of its ability to tolerate certain sensory input. When it comes time to put socks on, it triggers the fight or flight response from the sensory system because it’s become “bankrupt”.
- What sensory demands were made upon your child leading up to the meltdown or incident?
Consider what “withdrawals” are being made and if you can prevent any of those. You might not be able to avoid socks in every circumstance, but you could turn off the TV that’s auditory drone is draining your child’s sensory reserves while you’re trying to get the socks on.
- How much beneficial sensory input (like proprioception) have they been getting?
If a child isn’t getting deposits into their bank, they’ll be perpetually running low. Or maybe they usually jump on the trampoline every day, but it’s been raining all week and haven’t been outside. This clues will help put the pieces together.
What Non-Sensory Factors Are At Play?
There are of course other non-sensory factors that can cause a sensory flare up.
- Pay Attention to Your Child’s Sleep Patterns.
Have you had a couple late nights in a row? Are they waking in the middle of the night?
One good indicator that tiredness may be a factor is if the sensory behavior occurs around the same time everyday. I know I personally have the hardest time coping with auditory issues in the afternoon when I’m having an energy slump.
If you’re recognizing that sleep may be an issue, here’s a great article with advice on helping sensory kids get the rest they need!
- Consider Their Nutritional Needs
Food plays a huge role in how the body handles sensory information. When inflammation is rampant, or the body is overloaded with artificial substances, the nervous system can get all out of whack.
When I find we are in a particular rough sensory season, I have to take a step back and evaluate our food intake. Often, I find I’ve got lacks in my standards and we’re paying for it.
If you’re realizing that nutritional may be an issue, here’s a great article geared towards improving nutrition even when your child has sensory related picky eating. It explains the underlying issues, the best way to break out of the cycle, and even has supplement recommendations.
- Acknowledge Emotional Turmoil
Sometimes the circumstances of life will bring sensory issues to a crisis point. Consider what has been going on in your child’s world that may be causing them distress or uncertainty.
Kids with sensory processing disorder often feel like their world is out of control, so they grasp for anyway to control the situation around them.
Obviously events like moving, divorce, death, bullying and more can cause serious distress. But don’t forget that happy events can also send your child into a tailspin. The birth of a sibling, going on a trip, or a birthday party, can also spell a sensory disaster.
Want to Become a Confident Sensory Parent?
Armed with these three questions, you will be able to start digging at the root of the sensory behavior you’re observing. Of course there is still more to learn that a simple blog post can’t hope to cover.
If you’re wanting to grow in your confidence as a sensory parent, I highly recommend taking Sensory Parenting 101.
In a few short hours, you’ll be equipped to be an active advocate for your child and their sensory needs.
5 Modules that cover everything a sensory parent needs to be confident, knowledgeable and empowered!
20+ Video lessons will help you understand sensory processing backwards and forwards. No more being baffled by behavior!