Action Parenting for Sensitive Kids
Encouraging parents with sensory sensitive kids deal with the environment, activities and stress.
By Ines Lawlor, OTR
It took me a few years to realize that parenting was a verb. I mean, I think it was not until I had children myself, that I really realized that parenting is an action word - something you have to do. Then I thought back to all the amazing parents who I have met in my work as an Occupational Therapist who are parenting children with additional needs. Parenting a child with additional needs, takes additional parenting skills. In addition to all the other 'doing' that parents of children with additional needs are likely to have to do (attend appointments, therapy home programs, extra learning support, extra meetings with teachers and professionals etc), parents of children with additional needs also need to constantly plan and evaluate how to parent particular events or situations. I will explain...
I currently work with children with emotional and behavioral and mental health conditions. Much of my work as an Occupational Therapist is with children with sensory processing difficulties, predominantly children who are sensitive to sensation/sensory input. This may be due to a neurological developmental condition such as Autism or ADHD or in some cases trauma or other social stress. A child who is sensitive to sensation may be sensitive to everyday noises (such as the classroom environment, shopping centers), everyday touch (such as tags on their clothes or seams on their socks), smells and tastes (causing them to eat a very limited range of foods), and movement (making them fearful of playgrounds, escalators, etc.). This means that every day events can cause them distress and overwhelm the chid, often resulting in what other parents may perceive as 'behavior' difficulties. So, these parents are faced with additional daily parenting challenges (for example getting teeth brushed and hair combed and socks on, could take 1 hour of negotiations and tears before the child even gets out of the front door!). This can often leave them feeling exhausted and all too often like their parenting skills are inadequate or to blame for their child’s behavior. I want to reassure all parents of sensitive children that sensory processing difficulties are absolutely NOT caused by poor parenting. However, skilled parenting strategies used alongside sensory strategies are essential in anticipating, managing and de-escalating difficult situations.
When a child is sensitive to sensation, their body perceives everyday sensation as if it were threatening. This can generate a 'flight or fight' response. In turn, it can lead to what might be described as a 'behavior difficulty or meltdown' but more accurately as sensory overload.
When analyzing what happened and how to prevent it happening again, I usually recommend considering the following areas:
What are the possible sensory triggers? Consider visual, touch, auditory, taste, smell and movement. Then consider, how you can reduce the sensory stress. For example, if the child struggles with the volume of noise in shopping centers, one idea is to try ear defenders/sound blocking headphones to reduce the sensory input to the ears.
Consider if there is any way to adapt the environment to provide a better match between the person’s sensory needs and the environment. For example, some supermarkets provide quieter shopping times for people with Autism where they dim the lights and switch off music.
If an activity is causing a child particular distress – for example wearing socks with seams, consider if there is a way to adapt the activity e.g. buying seamless socks or allowing the child to take their socks off when at home. In some cases it might be worth considering if the activity is worth persisting with- for example if it is a hobby or after school optional activity that the child is having difficulty with, it may be better to drop it and try and find something more suitable.
What is the child communicating with their behavior? If the child has limited language abilities they might struggle to communicate their needs clearly which can lead to stress (see below) . Consider that they may be trying to communicate something to you. A useful acronym I learned on my own parenting journey was HALT (Hungry, Anxious, Lonely or Tired) and have found it very useful to consider before reacting to a difficult behavior.
Stress and sensory sensitivity go hand in hand. When a child is sensitive to sensation, this causes a higher level of arousal (the stress response) in the body. Likewise, when a child is stressed, they become more sensitive to sensation. Therefore, reducing stress of any kind (not just sensory) will help the child become less sensitive. Think about what is happening in the child’s life. Children who are sensitive, tend not to like change (as it challenges their sensory system)- did something change? Was there any other stressful event in the child’s life? This is where a general parenting program can be helpful to give you strategies to maintain a calm and consistent parenting approach and reduce external stress where possible.
So, in summary, parenting a child with additional needs, requires additional parenting skills. It is important for parents (all parents, but especially those parenting a child with additional needs) to use any support systems they have available (family, friends, health service professionals, voluntary agencies, books, support groups etc) to maintain their own mental and physical health throughout their parenting journey.