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coauthor of Raising a Sensory Smart Child
Discipline & Behavior
How to Explain Sensory Processing Disorder to Family and Friends
Over the years, as an advocate for children with sensory issues, I have heard thousands of parents share what does and doesn’t work for their kids. What does work is to teach children to be aware of their body's state of being (tense? agitated? low energy? etc.) and what to do to change it so they can behave appropriately.
Behavior comes from someplace. Start with curiosity about the behavior and meet the child where he is so you can take him where he needs to go. If you expect too much from him, he can become overwhelmed, shut down, and start to identify with failure: "I guess I'm just a bad kid. I'm a loser." That identification with failure is very difficult to peel back. Starting with curiosity and sensory smarts will help you to guide your child into developing self-regulation skills and sensory smarts.
If you ask your child, "What is happening in your body right now?" and "What do you need to do?" will your child have an answer? Whether it's "I feel jumpy and I need to move" or "I feel mad and I want to crawl behind the couch and rock," listen carefully. Do not dismiss your child's answer. Ask more questions if you don't understand.
Remember, your child's sensory processing of everyday sensations is quite different from most people's. What you think of as a mildly unpleasant sound may actually make him sick to his stomach, causing him to be grumpy and rude. The sensation of having her hair in a ponytail or cornrows may make her cry in pain or completely distracted and irritable. A child who is defiant may not feel able to meet social expectations given what's going on in her body. Address the physiological experience of anxiety, fear, anger, or grief first before assuming your child is deliberately being naughty. Much of the behavior of kids with sensory issues is rooted in a primitive fight-or-flight response to distressing sensory stimulation and confusing sensory processing activity in the brain.
You know you can't reason with a two-year-old in a tantrum, right? You also can't reason with a highly anxious, sensory defensive child until that anxiety subsides. Teach your child to use techniques such as slow breathing, deep pressure and heavy work, affirmations ("I am feeling calmer. I'm okay."), and visualizations to deal with the psychological response of fight-or-flight. (Heavy work is proprioceptive input that stimulates sensory receptors in the joints and ligaments: pushing, pulling, lifting, or carrying something with weight is a typical way to get heavy work/proprioceptive input.)
After your child is calm, acknowledge and praise your child for having calmed down. Then discuss why the behavior was not appropriate and what you expect of her. In this way, you teach your child self-regulation skills.
Separate out the child's emotional/physical experience from his behavior. Deal with the emotional/physical piece first, then the behavior.
“Discipline” comes from a Latin root meaning “teach.” Be wary of punishing children, or offering bribes or rewards when what they really need from you is to be taught self-regulation skills and appropriate social behaviors!
It takes time to develop self-regulation. But eventually, with practice, your child will get better at mastering this crucial life skill, especially if you are encouraging and you praise your child verbally. You might be surprised by just how hard kids will push themselves to self-regulate their moods, focus, and energy levels better. They don't want to be in trouble or out of control!
Self-regulation is so strongly influenced by sensory issues that you must also be sure to provide a sensory diet of activities throughout the day. Sensory processing disorder causes the parts of the brain associated with fear and instant reactions to be more active and switch more quickly into a “fight-or-flight” mode, also known as a panic response. In this state of mind, they are unable to “switch on” their brain’s executive function which is needed to be able to avoid impulsivity, tolerate frustration, and think clearly. After being in sensory overload, they may not recall what they did or what set them off!
Of course, sensory kids are still kids, who may want the candy at the checkout because they like candy, and may fuss and pout for reasons that have nothing to do with sensory issues. But when unaddressed sensory issues raise their irritability and anxiety, they are likely to be impatient and lack their usual impulse control. When it is plain old kid behavior and not rooted in sensory issues or poor self-regulation, it's still a good idea to get to the root of the problem. Is it the candy he wants, or attention, or a nap? Buying the candy or not buying the candy doesn't address the underlying need for a nap or nurturing!
Here are some keys for disciplining children with sensory processing issues:
OT and a sensory diet. Do the best you can to incorporate a sensory diet into his life every day. Work with an OT who uses SI therapy (sensory integration therapy) to help retrain your child's nervous system to function more typically. Make sensory diet activities part of everyday life.
The basics: sleep, food, calmness/stress-relief techniques. Poor nutrition, poor sleep, and stress all worsen sensory issues and anxiety. Avoid junk foods and any foods that seem to affect your child's mood. If your child strongly favors foods that contain gluten (an ingredient in wheat and other grains), casein (a protein in milk), soy (which has a protein similar to that of milk), and corn, she may have a food intolerance that is affecting her behavior. Kids who will only eat bread or dairy products such as cheese may be craving the very foods that are bothering her system. Check with a nutritionist if this is the case.
Coping and self-regulation skills. Teach your child emotional coping skills and self-regulation skills. Mindfulness meditation and yoga are great ways to help kids become more aware of how they experience emotions and anxiety in their bodies--and these can help a child start to more slowly to stressors.
Sensory accommodations. Offer your child with SPD socially acceptable ways to get her needs met. If she has high oral sensory seeking needs, give her acceptable items to chew on and bite.
If your child with sensory issues tantrums, goes into a panic response, or experiences sensory overload despite all these efforts:
--Deal with safety issues first by keeping her and others safe.
--Remain calm. You want to help your child to be calm, and you need to think about how you can take her out of the situation (for example, carrying your small child to a less stimulating sensory environment).
--Don't try to reason with her or use a lot of words. Instead, use simple commands (not "We can't stay here, we've got a lot to do at home and you've already been here for an hour." but "Come. Now.")
--When your child is finally calm, make amends to others who may have been offended or inconvenienced. If it's not possible to do this right away, make sure to do it later.
--Wait until your child is able to use her executive function before talking to her about what happened. But always “process” the incident with her so that she can identify what she should do differently next time.
--Encourage your child to believe she can do better next time using the self-calming techniques she has been taught. Children with SPD can be embarrassed by their lack of self-control. They need compassion, guidance, and encouragement!
Learn more about discipline methods that work well with kids who have SPD in Raising a Sensory Smart Child.
Click Below for more information on sensory specific age groups
Who notices first?
Often, the parent who spends the most time with the child who has sensory issues is the first to recognize that something is off. It can be more difficult for the other parent, or for grandparents or babysitters, to accept that the child’s behavior is truly unusual. Also, many people have difficulty understanding that there can be biological reasons for behavior. They see behavior they don’t like and think, “bad child” and “bad parent.” This can be very emotionally painful for the primary caretaker who understands that what others are seeing are the symptoms of sensory processing disorder.
Not knowing what sensory processing disorder is or what to do about it can cause well-meaning family and friends who dearly love the child with SPD to be completely off track about how to help the child function and behavior better.
When a child’s behavior is due to sensory processing issues, punishment and reward do not work as motivators.
Let me say that again.
When a child’s behavior is due to sensory processing disorder, punishment and reward do not work as motivators.
The child does not have strong enough self-regulation skills to simply use willpower to conform to behavioral expectations.
An OT explained it this way: "If you drank four cups of coffee and an hour later were told you couldn't use the bathroom, how easy would it be to comply?"!
Sensory issues are a physical phenomenon. You need to separate out the child's emotional/physical experience from his behavior. Deal with the emotional/physical piece first, then the behavior.
We have to teach skills and support kids in developing them, and we have to have realistic expectations.
Educate Family and Friends
As you and your child develop sensory smarts, you’ll have opportunities to educate family and friends about sensory processing disorder. It can be difficult not to become frustrated or angry when people don’t “get” your child and tell you, “You’re too easy on her,” or “Send him to my house for a weekend and I’ll straighten him out.” It's okay to be angered by such comments, but it's empowering to remain calm and make the choice to ignore the comments or educate the person about sensory processing disorder. If you choose to educate this person, it will take patience, but you will be doing a favor to him or her, to your child, and to all the children in the world suffering from the hidden disability of sensory processing disorder. There is a lot of educating to be done.
Breathe. Educate. Be good to yourself.
And as a parent of a child with sensory issues, remember this advice:
“Please put on your own oxygen mask before you place one on your child.”
Take care of yourself so that you can better help your child!
Sensory overload is stressful.
Teens with sensory issues can be defensive about them.
Sensory kids can have poor regulation of mood.
Anxiety about transitions is a special challenge.