There’s a range of developmental challenges that young kids can face, and sensory sensitivity is just one of them.
Sensory sensitivity can include any one (or several) of the following: hyper- or hypo-sensitivity to sound, light, pain, touch, pressure, texture, temperature, taste, and smell.
I’m often asked about behaviour management in these kids, and whether we need to take different approaches to managing behaviour.
In one word: No.
Dealing with inappropriate behaviour is always about recognising the underlying need and supporting it appropriately.
While superficially, the tactics used with various kids may seem vastly different – after all, no two kids are the same – fundamentally, most behavioural outbursts are due to a psychological need that is not being met. It could be the need to feel loved, the need to feel comfortable (eg hydrated, warm, and satiated), or the need to feel worthy.
And indeed, this is from where much of my own philosophy around parenting stems. Recognising that our kids are individuals who are worthy of respect, kindness, and empathy – when when they’re “in meltdown”.
We face a unique set of challenges with kids who have developmental issues, whether they are sensory sensitivities, communication difficulties, delays in motor skills, or something else.
Young kids – all of them – experience strong emotions on a regular basis. Their young minds, coupled with their lack of insight into their own feelings, can lead to some pretty intense experiences.
Strong emotions lead to strong physical sensations. Think about a small child who is experiencing extreme anger. His little heart is pumping, his breathing is rapid and shallow, and he’s feeling the energy coursing through his veins.
It’s actually quite a frightening experience.
Young kids don’t necessarily understand what is happening to them, because they haven’t yet developed the conceptual thinking skills to recognise that THIS experience is similar to the LAST time they felt anger.
Strong emotions make kids feel out of control, and they don’t know why.
They don’t know when it will go away.
And, they often feel like they’re the only ones in the whole world having this experience.
This is why it’s so vital to help kids work through emotions by recognising the way they’re feeling, being accepting of the feelings themselves (even if we don’t agree with their response to those feelings), and reassuring them that they will get though this, with our guidance if necessary.
Kids with sensory sensitivities experience all of this, but more intensely.
Everyday sensations can feel unbearable, like being being in noisy, crowded areas, or certain fabrics touching their skin, or even the feeling of having their hair cut or washed.
Their everyday lives are filled with an extraordinary number of triggers that cause stress and distress, and leave them vulnerable to meltdowns.
Furthermore. to a child with sensory sensitivities, the physical sensations that accompany emotions can also feel extremely uncomfortable. To a child who is sensitive to temperature, feeling flushed may be unbearable.
So, what can we do to help reduce meltdowns in kids with sensory sensitivities? Here are some tips:
This means getting clear on the specific circumstances that overwhelm kids and leave them susceptible to meltdowns. It could be certain situations or events, like excessive levels of noise, or specific tastes and textures.
Knowing triggers doesn’t necessarily mean avoiding them altogether. It may simply mean being discerning about when our kids are in these situations, and being prepared.
Get to know kids’ signs of sensory overload – which may herald a meltdown. Signs of sensory overload include increased restlessness or agitation, covering eyes and ears, withdrawal, or engaging in self-soothing behaviour. This is the time to act – to ward off a meltdown.
Once you know your child’s triggers and the signs of an impending meltdown, it’s crucial to develop an arsenal of strategies for helping de-escalate sensory overload, such as: removing your child into a quiet area, allowing him to wear dark glasses to filter sunlight, humming or singing, allowing the use of headphones to drown out external sounds, or physical movement such as rocking or bear hugs.
Every child is different, so it may initially take some trial and error to find the most effective coping strategies.
The good news is, once you know the most effective strategies, it becomes easier to spot and fend off an impending meltdown.
This is quite possibly the most important, and yet most challenging step.
If a meltdown should occur, it’s important for caregivers to maintain an aura of calm leadership. Remember that meltdowns are a crisis point for kids, where they are no longer able to contain their feelings of powerlessness, fear, anger, annoyance, frustration, or worry. It’s a time when they feel alone and misunderstood, and need our empathy the most.
Meltdowns are the time to let our kids know that their feelings are ok (even if their behavioural response may not be). During meltdowns, our kids are like a wayward boat, at the mercy of the wind and the waves. We need to be their anchor in the storm, providing safety and stability in their time of need.
We need to let our kids know that we love and accept them, that we see their emotions, that we are here for them if and when they need us, and that they are not alone.
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