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What Is Sensory Smart Parenting?


"What did you eat for lunch?"

"Green pepper slices."

"And—?"

"Milk."

No, my son wasn't on a restrictive diet. He is a selective eater who would rather go hungry than eat something with a "disgusting" texture. If the only acceptable food in the school cafeteria was green pepper slices from the salad bar, that was lunch.

Welcome to sensory smart parenting.

Sensory smart parenting means recognizing that your child has sensory issues.

It means understanding that they need help managing and even overcoming them.

It means guiding them to understand their unique experience of sensory issues and what to do about them.

My son would fill up on green pepper slices but come home famished, and I wanted him to have protein at lunchtime. We would talk about how important it was for him to fill up on milk and vegetables if that's all there was to eat and he couldn't remember to bring some snack items to the cafeteria.

Oh yes, we worked on the remembering piece, too.

If your child has sensory processing disorder, they are having a different internal experience than a neurotypical child who doesn't have sensory processing differences. They're probably very disorganized. They might eat very slowly, trying to make sense of the food in their mouths as they're taking in all that noise in the cafeteria that makes them want to run away to a quiet place.

Sensory smarts means knowing how your child’s sensory issues are affecting them and knowing to ask questions when you're not sure what they are experiencing and why they're acting a certain way. Giving your child the benefit of the doubt when their behavior isn't what you want it to be is very important for becoming a sensory smart parent. Sometimes, your child's explanations for why she did something might seem strange, but if you reserve judgment, avoid responding with "That makes no sense!" and ask more questions, you can develop sensory smarts.

"Why didn't you eat lunch?"

"The food was green."

"All of it? Every piece of food was green?" "Yeah, it's St. Patrick's Day. They dyed all the phone green and it freaked me out."

Yes, that's a true story that a sensory smart parent discovered when she remained calm and asked more questions of her son. He knows he has to eat lunch to self-regulate his focus, mood, and activity level for the rest of the afternoon, but green chicken nuggets? "Quarter past not happening!" as the kids say.

When you practice sensory smart parenting, your child will function better. What's more, you'll be able to develop a good communication pattern with her that will help her trust you enough to tell you something she is ashamed of, embarrassed about, or scared to tell you for some reason.

Sensory smart parents say things like:

"Help me understand. Your hair hurts?"

"So FIRST the teacher asked you to come and sit in a circle and THEN what happened next?" (Getting your child to start at the beginning of a story and tell you the events in sequence can be really helpful for understanding what happened and why.)

"What are you feeling in your body right now?"

"What do you need to do right now to feel calm?"

As a sensory smart parent working with your child to develop his own sensory smarts, you help him become a strong self-advocate and learn to meet his sensory needs in socially acceptable ways.

You develop his trust in you and help him discover that he can stretch himself out of his comfort zone to try a new food or activity.

You teach your child to accept herself as she is, without shame, which gives her the confidence to look at what she needs to work on and find ways to do better when it comes to her challenges.

In short, through sensory smart parenting, you can begin to instill sensory smarts in your child.

As to getting him to eat the green chicken nuggets, well, choose your challenges!

Interested in more sensory smart parenting strategies? Check out the award-winning book Raising a Sensory Smart Child.

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