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Simple Steps to Ease Anxiety in a Child with Sensory Processing Disorder

The fearful anticipation of a distressing sensory experience is actually wired into the sensory child's brain, forming a habit of anxiousness. It can be frustrating to witness a child meltdown or become aggressive at the mere thought of having to put on an unfamiliar article of clothing like an art smock, swim goggles, or a bike helmet--or at the mere suggestion of art class, a trip to the pool, or a bike ride. You may have no idea what it is she is afraid of, but you can see the fear is very real to her.  

Without judgment, acknowledge her anxiety and be accepting. She needs reassurance that her initial emotional response is okay before she can break out of it and move forward into the next step. If she learns it is okay to be afraid, and to feel that raw sensation of fear, she can begin to break the habit of compounding the fear with anxious thoughts. Let her take some time to experience her anxiety and, when you see it subside, point out to her that she seems to be less anxious. “I see you’re not breathing so hard now. Do you feel a little less afraid?...I’m so glad.” As her fear lessens, she can try again to face the challenge that is causing her to be anxious and withdraw or act aggressively.

Her next step may have to be as small as touching the item for a few seconds, dipping her toe in a pool, or sitting on the bike for a moment while an adult stabilizes it. Encourage her and praise her for being so brave. Ask her how the sensation felt and honor her response: “So, it feels icky to have the helmet on your head/the lotion on your skin?” or “I can imagine how it might be scary to go over and listen to the musicians playing and singing on stage. Are you afraid that the sounds will bother you?...That’s okay. You can always step away. You can stand in the doorway if you like and then if it gets too bad you can step back into the hallway. ” Step by step, with praise and rewards such as earning points toward TV time, you can help her to overcome “knee-jerk” anxiety.

Ask your child what he’s afraid of, but recognize that he may not be able articulate it at all, or may need hours or days to be able to explain it to you. Walk him through what will happen, step by step, and ask, “Does that sound okay to you, to open the jars of paint and have them on the table in front of us?” Then he can say, “Okay,” or “I hate the smell of paint” or “Okay, but not the red. I hate red. It’s creepy.” You may be surprised by what makes him fearful and anxious (yes, kids can have intense reactions to colors!). Fortunately, the more information you have, the easier it’ll be to help him. With sensory issues, anxiety tends to come and go. Anxiety that is persistent and occurs in most settings may indicate an underlying anxiety issue that should be further checked out by a professional.

Check it out!  

The Anxiety Disorders Association of America has information about various types of anxiety disorders and how they affect children:

Copyright © 2012 Nancy Peske  

Looking for practical solutions for everyday problems your child with sensory processing issue experiences? See the revised and updated edition of the award-winning book Raising a Sensory Smart Child: The Definitive Handbook for Helping Your Child with Sensory Processing Issues by Lindsey Biel, OTR/L and Nancy Peske, available from Penguin Books wherever books are sold.

The information contained in this article is provided as a public service. It is for informational and educational purposes only. This information should not be construed as personal medical advice. Because each person’s health needs are different, a health care professional should be consulted before acting on any information provided in these materials. Although every effort is made to ensure that this material is accurate and up-to-date, it is provided for the convenience of the user and should not be considered definitive.

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