Helping Kids with Sensory Issues When They Can’t Go Home
Kids and teens with sensory issues struggle more than neurotypical peers do when it comes to transitions, uncertainty, and unpredictability. As parents, we can support them by providing them with a sense of predictability and control, giving them choices but not so many that they feel overwhelmed and anxious. But what do we do when our lives are turned upside down and our home is lost—due to a natural disaster, war, eviction, or other circumstances?
A while back, my family was without a place to live for ten days due to a situation that I tried to avoid but could not. We are happy today in the best home we have ever had, but at the time, it was incredibly anxiety-provoking for all of us. To help my teen son who has sensory issues, I drew on what I had learned from years of listening to sensory smart parents and experts on managing and anxiety to keep him feeling a sense of emotional safety and security even as we faced issues like not knowing where we would sleep each night or when we would find a permanent residence in our school district. Here are ten sensory smart parenting tips I hope will help you if your child is in a situation of uncertainty and transition to who-knows-what, as so many children are after the trauma of losing their home and not knowing when they will be “home” again.
1. Maintain as much of the old routine as possible. If your child has certain routines for breakfast or bedtime, try to maintain some elements. If you can hold on to his usual pillow, or procure a box of his usual breakfast cereal, make that a priority. Sing songs together or tell favorite family jokes or stories that are familiar and comforting. If your child has memorized a comedy routine or a sequence of dialogue from a Disney film, engage her in going through it with you.
2. Stay in a familiar place if you can. Spending much of the day, or sleeping each night, at Grandma’s instead of a hotel, or your neighborhood rather than a place miles away, can help them feel more secure. We had relatives we could have stayed with when we were between homes, but my husband and I felt it was important for our son to be in our neighborhood and socializing with his friends.
3. Give your child a couple of choices. When your child with sensory issues is feeling overwhelmed by uncertainty, offer her just two or three choices about something—anything. Even a choice as simple as “Do you want to eat here or over there, by the tree, where it’s shady?”—can give her a sense of control that’s comforting.
4. Be creative with sensory diet activities. Find ways to give your child a sensory break, heavy work, and calming sensations. Shuffle races are a fun way to get input to the joints (stand next to each other and shuffle your feet forward). Stair climbing is often an option; make a game of it. Yoga poses, calisthenics, deep massage to the limbs, pushups (on a floor, against a wall, or while in a chair) through gentle squeezes are possibilities. Get to a playground if you can. Time away from bright lights and loud, unpredictable sounds and excess background noise can help a lot, too.
5. Don’t overestimate your child’s ability to cope. Teenagers and quiet kids who seem to be holding it all together need support too. They may need to feel a sense of safety before they let out their emotions of fear, grief, and anger. Anger can be released through strong, controlled physical activity such as throwing rocks into a lake or river, or punching a pillow.
6. Be patient and supportive and give them space to experience their emotions. Spend time next to your child, silent. Just be fully present in the moment, feeling your love and compassion for your child. Touch your child or teen’s hand if that’s okay with him. Say, “This is hard. It’s hard. It’s okay to be scared and angry.” Issue the invite to talk but don’t force it. You will probably find the tears and words come up when it’s quiet. It may take several sessions of simply sitting there, patiently, in support. Your child may not feel ready to release his emotions until he has more certainty and predictability in his everyday activities and environment, so read tip #1 again.
7. Remind your child that emotions can be intense but they do fade. The worst crying jag probably won’t last more than several minutes. If your child begins to cry, don’t try to stop the tears. Words such as, “I know,” and “Let it out—It’s good to cry” can be extremely helpful. After the tears, observe aloud that your child’s emotions are shifting. “I’m glad you let it out. Good for you. Feels good to let some of the sadness go, doesn’t it?” Meditation and prayer can be very comforting at this point, drawing your child’s attention to the fact that emotions ebb and flow, and that he has support. Expect your child to cry one minute and laugh five minutes later. That’s a normal grief response for a child.
8. Be honest but don’t tell your child everything. You might not know where you and your family will be sleeping tonight. You can say, “I’m not sure. We’re working on it. But I promise you this: I will be very close to you so if you wake up scared, I’ll be there. We’re doing everything we can to keep all of us safe. So you don’t have to be afraid.” If your child sees or senses that you are scared say, “I’m scared right now but I’ll be okay. I just need to feel my feelings for a bit.” Modeling to your children that you can go from scared to courageous helps them to have faith that they can do the same. Don’t give them more details than they can handle. Emphasize the security of your love and commitment over the security of knowing where you will stay, what you will eat, when you will have a home again, and so on.
9. Practice self-care. Being strong for your kids means connecting with your own resources for replenishing your strength and limiting the expectations you have for yourself. You can’t solve all the problems before nightfall. Focus on bonding with your kids, getting the support you need, and doing the little rituals that help you feel supported, courageous, and optimistic. Self-care at these times is vital! Meditate or pray. Laugh, because laughter feels empowering. Laugh at something silly and small. It will actually reduce stress hormones and cue your parasympathetic nervous system to calm your stress response.
10. Remember, this too shall pass. This experience, difficult though it is, is also an opportunity to feel your loving connection to those you care about most. Model to your child that what’s most important is life and love. You are alive, you have love in your lives, and that is an incredible foundation for starting anew. Better times are ahead.