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Sensory Kids, Obedience, and Defiance

Do you want your child or teen with sensory issues to be more obedient? Less defiant? Or do you want your child to know how and when to stand up for herself?

A social worker friend sent me a link to a recent Washington Post article on “Why It’s Good to Have a Strong-Willed Child and Why You Shouldn’t Let Up On Them.” It reminded me of my mother’s wise words to me years ago, when I was still a teenager: “It’s harder to raise a thinking child than it is to raise an obedient one, but the results are SO worth it.” Mom had ADHD and sensory issues, was strong-willed, and was very quick to question, express displeasure, or give her opinion. As her daughter, I too had sensory issues, but I didn’t have ADHD and wasn’t nearly as impulsive, and I had a much more obedient temperament. Sure, I questioned things, but when I was a kid, I was so sensitive I couldn’t bring myself to question an adult. My mother wanted me to learn to speak up for myself and negotiate with adults to get my needs met, without being defiant or rude. At the same time, she knew that if she taught me these skills, I would use them on her!

Sensory kids very often fall into an extreme of behavior. They might be so sensitive that they can’t bear to confront an adult with information or an opinion that adult might find disturbing. Many are very empathetic and what researcher Elaine Aron calls “highly sensitive persons”: They not only anticipate how uncomfortable they will be asking a teacher to please let them do the assignment a little differently because the task is very challenging for them, they will also anticipate the teacher being angry and harshly cutting them off. They’ll actually create the imaginary, highly emotional scenario inside their little mind and their anxiety will be whipped up to such an intensity that they feel paralyzed. Meanwhile, their teacher is completely clueless that the child has any problem whatsoever with the assignment! “Ellie, what’s wrong?” the teacher asks. Ellie squirms in her seat, unable to answer. She doesn’t know where she, and her emotions, end and where her teacher, and her teacher’s emotions, begin. Ellie has a terrible time trying to carry off the task the teacher assigned and fights back tears as she obediently tries her best. If only her teacher knew what was going on inside Ellie’s mind, she could accommodate her very real needs!

Meanwhile, Ellie’s sensory friend Matthias might have no problem speaking up for himself and expressing his opinion. He is so rigid and uncomfortable with things not going the way he wants or expects that he’ll issue a loud protest when his teacher says, “I want you to write your answer in the space provided on the worksheet.” Matthias hates trying to figure out how to get all the thoughts in his head onto that little lined space on a form or worksheet. His fine motor delays make it hard enough to write, and his hand cramps up because he holds the pencil too tightly, and when he has to manage all of that AND figure out what to say AND fit it all into that tiny space and make it legible, well, that’s one tall order. “I’m not doing that! It’s stupid!” he says as he folds his arms across his chest and glowers at his teacher.

Imagine your sensory child neither dissolving into tears and remaining silent about her dilemma nor defiantly refusing to cooperate. Imagine your child has sensory smarts: the ability to understand her sensory needs and how to accommodate them, and to advocate for herself in a socially acceptable way.

Negotiating with adults, and expressing one’s opinion in a way that invites others to engage in a positive and productive dialogue, are crucial life skills. For the child or teen with sensory issues, learning to balance obedience and defiance is especially challenging because they have a hidden disability. It’s difficult to muster the courage to ask to be accommodated for your differences when your experience is that people think your differences aren’t real. The other day, my teen son wouldn’t answer a question I asked him. He was lying on the couch, and I said, “Are you going to answer me?” Silence. “Is something wrong that you can’t answer me?” Silence. “OK, I’m going to assume that when you CAN answer me, you will.” Ten minutes later, he told me that the sound of my using my new paper shredder in the living room while he was sitting there watching TV had made him so dizzy and nauseated he couldn’t even speak! Only because I know how very real his unusual sensory responses are did I assume 1) he wasn’t being defiant–he really couldn’t answer me! and 2) he wasn’t kidding that a sound had so distressed his vestibular system that it made him sick to his stomach and unable to focus on answering my question!

Think back to a time when your child didn’t tell you something he should have. What could you have done differently to get him to speak up? Could you have said, “Is something wrong? Talk to me”? What might have happened? Try it next time.

Think about a time when your child was defiant. What could you have said to express that while you weren’t pleased with his disrespectful tone and words, you wanted to get to the bottom of what was going on? Could you have said, “I want to hear what you have to say but I need you to take a long, slow breath and start again.” My mother used to pause, look at me in silence for a moment, and then say, “Excuse me? I think you want to reword that.” Or “Try again,” and I knew to take a breath, say, “I’m sorry, Mom. I’m just so upset!’ and then continue. (Yes, I went from an oversensitive child who would dissolve into tears before speaking up for myself to a teenager whose moods were so strong I sometimes got disrespectful with my mother–it happens!)

You don’t want your child to be blindly obedient. You don’t want her to be defiant when he can simply state his objections and needs in a respectful way.

What sort of language or response has worked for you in helping your child find a balance between obedience and defiance and develop sensory smarts?

Remember, you can learn more about sensory smart parenting in the award-winning book, Raising A Sensory Smart Child, on sale at bookstores everywhere. It has an entire chapter on sensory issues and teens!

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