Emotions run HIGH in a sensory household.
Long after the “terrible twos” and long before hitting the teen years, the drama is still intense.
What is it about sensory processing disorder that causes big emotions, like anxiety or impulse control issues like rage?
Every brain, in order to function properly needs sensory input. A typically functioning brain can identify, organize, and appropriately respond to the world of senses around them. Someone with a sensory issues like SPD, however has a brain that either over reacts or under-reacts to sensory input.
If they overreact to certain input, they are an avoider, in that area. If they under react to certain sensory input, they are missing that vital sensory needs and they become seekers, in that area.
(PLEASE don’t forget that you can have a mix of seeker and avoider tendencies across the various senses. You may have an auditory avoider and a tactile seeker. You may have a vestibular avoider (heights, spinning ect) and a proprioceptive seeker (heavy work, strong touch, weight). And just to keep things interesting, those needs can flip flop daily! It all depends on if the brain is ready to identify, organize, and respond.)
Avoiders are Vulnerable
If your child is over-responsive to certain sensory input, they may deal with anxiety. If the tactile input of a sock seam is going to being tormenting their brain all day long, they understandably may have the flight response.
They feel nervous, the world is a scary place. Keep in mind that avoiders like to have control of their environment. This makes any place away from home tough.
The extra tricky part comes in when their anxiety seems to be about one thing (going to school) but it’s actually about a particular sensory thing (itchy waistband of their uniform, loud public toilets, hate sitting still.)
Ask questions, make suggestions, and do your best to pinpoint if the anxiety is stemming from a sensory issue. Help them recognize their anxiety is related to their sensory needs, as they might not figure that out until you discuss it. Help brainstorm ways to get their sensory needs met or protected. (A long comfy undershirt, ear phones, fidget in the pocket etc.)
Seekers are Desperate
If your child is under responsive to certain sensory input, they will do whatever it takes to get those needs met. These are the impulsive ones. Kids will often seek out that need in an explosive, “fighting” manor.
There are two main ways to help a child with sensory related impulse control issues.
# 1 Sensory Input: It seems pretty obvious, but if a child is seeking certain sensory input, give it to them in appropriate ways.
Let’s give an example: your child is a vestibular seeker. They crave input in their inner ear. All things balance, heights, spinning, inversion.
But your child seeks this out in dangerous ways (hello, preschooler on top of the refrigerator!). You could make the rule that they don’t climb on top of appliances (which I strongly suggest) BUT they’ll probably just create new methods of giving you a heart attack.
Instead, purposefully give them vestibular input throughout the day. Jump on trampolines, get an indoor swing, have a dance party, climb on a playground.
#2 Behavior Modification Techniques: beyond meeting sensory needs, you want to train your kids to have self-control. This is probably parenting at it’s hardest, but it WILL be worth it.
One key is to give your child an outlet for their need.
Let’s say you have a screamer. You can have a rule that you can scream outside, but not inside. If they do scream outside, take them outside and remind them of the rule and invite them to scream once outside before you continue with your inside activity.
I love how that example forces the child to remove themselves from intense situations and delay their gratification. But it takes extreme consistency!
Basically you want to encourage a “this, not that” type strategy, instead of just saying “No!” or “Stop!” all the time. Show them how to get their needs meet.
If impulse control is a big issue for you, especially if safety is a factor, look into ABA therapy (applied behavior analysis). Many parents swear by it!
The blog “The OT Toolbox” has a lot of EASY ways to improve your child’s impulse control. Check it out HERE.