Self-Regulation and Sensory Issues
When we look at a child who is deeply upset and having a tantrum or meltdown, we tend to say, "That child is struggling with self-control." The problem with the term self-control is that it doesn't quite capture what is really going on: The child is struggling with poor self-regulation. A child might be able to control certain actions (like hitting herself or others) even when upset, but what if she can't? If she's unable to do anything but be fully present in her distress and lashing out, she has poor self-regulation of her emotions. She might also have poor self-regulation of her moods, focus, and activity level.
And she needs help because a child with sensory issues is likely to have a harder time than other kids developing self-regulation skills.
Self-regulation and sensory issues commonly go together because our kids with sensory processing disorder struggle with unreliable sensory processing going on in their brains. It's easy for them to go into a fight-or-flight panic mode when they are being bombarded with confusing sensations and disoriented—while people are asking them questions or making demands of them. As parents, we might not realize how much they are holding it together emotionally while working to focus on what we're asking them to do and maintaining the activity level we want them to have. They often have too much energy when we want them to be calm or are too relaxed when we want them to be alert and attentive. They have trouble with transitioning from one state of being to another: asleep to awake, active to quiet and calm, and so on. Fortunately, by working on their self-regulation skills, we can help them to not have to struggle so much with everyday activities and situations at home and elsewhere.
How does a child develop self-regulation skills? Here are three ways.
By practicing mindfulness. By practicing mindful breathing, walking, listening, or eating, a child develops the part of his brain associated with self-awareness and with focus. It's easier to stay focused on a task at hand when your thoughts aren't running away from you and turning into anxious ones, like, "If I try to eat an egg, it'll feel disgusting in my mouth. If I don't eat it, Grandma will get mad at me." A child who is anxious needs to be able to control her emotional response of anxiety if she's going to be a good self-advocate: "Grandma, my sensory issues make it super hard to eat eggs. Would it be okay if I eat something else?" (Psychology Today has a good set of 12 tips for teaching mindfulness to a child.)
By using self-regulation tools. At www.ZonesofRegulation.com you can access materials to help a child recognize and communicate his state of regulation: For example, the Blue Zone is when a child is not feeling very alert and perhaps feels tired, bored, sad, or sick. The Green Zone is what he's in when he's feeling peaceful, is in a good mood, and is focused—and there are other zones as well. (In Raising a Sensory Smart Child, you can learn more about Zones of Regulation as well as the Alert Program and the Incredible 5-Point Scale, which are similar programs, as tools for helping kids to identify what state of being they are in and what they can do to get into another zone.
By developing emotional intelligence and words around emotions, activity levels, and focus. It's easier for a child to learn to regulate her emotions when she has words to express them. That’s because having words to express her feelings can help her to feel a sense of control over her rising anger, fear, or sadness. Offer your child language that can help her identify and express what emotions she is experiencing. Watch movies or videos together and point out where you see characters feeling emotions. You might say to your child who is watching Frozen, "Elsa looks anxious. She's stepping back a little like she wants to get away from everyone. People do that sometimes when they're afraid. What else do people do when they are afraid?" And you might say, "What could you do if you felt you were getting scared?" (Psychotherapist Alisa Fulvio has written about how Elsa's relationship to her powers is similar to how people experience anxiety.)
In this way, you help your child monitor what she is experiencing and reflect on her experiences. That, in turn, helps her to plan for what to do the next time she gets in a situation where she is challenged to regulate her emotions. (You can learn more about planning, monitoring, and reflecting and self-regulation at PositivePsychology.com) And words around activity level and focus can help your child, too. The Alert Program talks about kids whose engines are running too fast or too slow or just right. This metaphor can be very helpful for kids trying to understand why it's hard for them to sit still when their body is telling them to run in circles. For focus, you might want to encourage her to talk about her focus level and even about her brain needing more time to process information.
The more self-awareness your child has and the more tools he has for regulating his emotions, activity level, and focus, the easier it will be for him to avoid meltdowns, tantrums, and other behaviors that can embarrass and upset him and others. Our kids are trying so hard to manage challenging situations. Knowing more about self-regulation, and how to help your son or daughter develop self-regulation skills, can help make your family life more harmonious.
Looking for a greater understanding of how to help your child who has sensory processing disorder? Check out the award-winning book Raising a Sensory Smart Child, published by Penguin Books, available in paperback and as an eBook.