Kids with sensory issues can be quirky, frustrating, and even delightful—and for sure, their behaviors can sometimes confuse us parents. By opening up conversations that are characterized by curiosity and a genuine desire to connect with our kids, we can better understand the "why" behind behaviors and come up with alternative ways for our kids to meet their sensory needs. In fact, many quirky behaviors can be helpful for self-regulation, making it easier for them to focus and attend at school, tolerate uncomfortable situations, or pay attention when their parent or another authority figure is talking to them.
"Help me understand" conversations can be productive. However, they can also put a child on the defensive if they've been scolded or ridiculed for their behaviors in the past. The child who chews on their shirt, long hair, or pencils might not want to talk about that habit they can't seem to break. We can help them recognize that their seemingly quirky behaviors can be purposeful—a topic Lindsey Biel, MA, OTR/L, coauthor of Raising a Sensory Smart Child, spoke about in an article in Parents magazine. And we can help them recognize that they might not need to break the habit but instead perhaps make a conscious choice to substitute another behavior that could serve the same purpose but be less problematic.
The truth is that behaviors that we don't like or find problematic—maybe they're considered socially unacceptable or they create unsanitary conditions or they might lead to an item breaking or something else—can have a purpose. Knowing more can help.
A conversation with your child who has sensory processing issues might start with you saying, "I notice you're (chewing your shirt/zipping and unzipping your zipper/rocking from your toes to your heels)..." Simply observing and noting the behavior can make them less defensive and more likely to explain what they're feeling and experiencing. If they say nothing or you want to know more, you can ask, "Help me understand why." You can add other observations—"I notice you tend to do it when I'm explaining something to you" or "You seem to do that a lot when you're reading." The idea is to keep the conversation neutral as you retain your curiosity.
If your child does become defensive, you can say, "I'm just wondering, because if you're having a hard time understanding all that I'm saying (or, what you're reading), maybe I can help." If you tend to be frustrated or annoyed at your child's quirky behavior, you can take several breaths, closing your eyes perhaps as you focus on the sensation of inhaling and exhaling, before starting your "help me understand" conversation. Or, use another technique for self-calming that can help you to feel calm and curious instead of irritated and even anxious or frustrated. Your child might sense your mood, pick up on your body language, or simply be defensive about your questions because the two of you have had a lot of uncomfortable conversations in the past about her behaviors. By self-calming, you can set yourself up for a productive conversation that can help you determine why your child is exhibiting certain quirky, possibly sensory behaviors. Then it's a matter of deciding, how important is it to change this behavior, really?
If you decide it IS important to change your child's behavior, you're now set up to work with them to figure out alternative behaviors that can help them meet the same need. Remain curious, and encourage your child to think of other options. Would it help your child who is oral sensory seeking and chewing his shirt to have sour gum to chew while doing homework or reading? Would changing the lighting in the room make it easier for her to concentrate, making your child less likely to doing chewing that helps her focus? Would having you slow down as you explain something complicated to her make it easier for her not to fidget while trying to listen?
By remaining calm and curious, you might help your child find more than one way to meet their sensory needs, giving them options that might be more socially acceptable or convenient. And as always, if you find these sensory smart parenting strategies helpful, be sure to check out the book Raising a Sensory Smart Child.