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Transitions, Strategies, Patience, and Masks When Kids Have Sensory Issues

All of us are living in a new reality that has been quite unexpected and trying to figure out how best to keep our kids and ourselves functioning well and adjust to transitions. Transitions aren’t exactly a strong suit for kids (or adults!) with sensory processing issues. That's why I'd like to offer some transition strategies and resources for masks for kids with sensory issues that I think you’ll find helpful—and an idea for relieving the stress that you’re under as a parent.

Transitions. If you don’t understand why challenges to transitions are so very difficult for your child, as Lindsey and I wrote in Raising a Sensory Smart Child, kids with sensory issues have brains that don’t adjust to changes and all the new sensations that come with them. Habituation can be poor, meaning that they get used to, say, wearing a face mask inside and then walk outdoors when it’s windy or humid—yikes! It’s a new sensation to adjust to. Suddenly, all that practice with mask-wearing turns out not to be enough. The trick is not to get demoralized when you realize that once again, you’re against a challenge.

As we wrote in the book, practicing new behaviors does help. And offering praise and small rewards may encourage your child to practice doing something difficult and continue practicing until she gets through a tough transition to establish a new habit.

Also, celebrating small victories can be a really good idea. Take time out to acknowledge not just the big successes but the small yet important milestones and the effort it took to get through the transition to it. You may well find it’s easier to exercise patience if you stop to assess and say, “Wow, look at how far we’ve come compared to where we were with this last week!” or “Wow, at last, she actually ate a small piece of steamed carrot!”

And if you’re frustrated by how long it’s taking to get through a transition to reach a goal, give yourself and your child credit for the hard work it took to reach another goal in the past—and then reflect on the process. What worked to keep the two of you going despite the frustration? What helped? Remembering what worked in the past can give you clues as to what will work now.

I’ll never forget my son finally agreeing to put on a new pair of shoes which normally brought on a screaming tantrum. I looked at them and realized they were red, his favorite color. I was able to use his color sensitivities and preferences to get him to do other things after that. What a helpful bit of info from a kiddo who was too young to be able to explain how important color was to him!

Strategies to Solve Problems. What is the secret to getting your child to sit and watch his teacher online without running away from the screen? Could it be a combination of patience, practice, and:

—heavy work beforehand

—an inflatable bumpy cushion to sit on

—understanding that he needs to look away from the screen if the complex visual field with many faces is too intense and overstimulating?

You’ll find many strategies in Raising a Sensory Smart Child that can better help you understand what the obstacles are to your child transitioning to a new habit or behavior. But one of the big ones is asking questions of your child and listening patiently to the answer, and then following up with clarifying questions. Our kids can say some seemingly strange things we don’t understand at first. However, more questioning can bring to the surface an important clue to what their challenges are and how you might address them. Resist the temptation to respond with a confused look and a judgment such as, “That doesn’t make sense.” Try to be patient and make more inquiries. You might be surprised by what you discover through dialoguing with your child. Maybe together, you can come up with a creative solution to your challenge.

Patience. As parents, we are dealing with a lot of stress during this unprecedented back-to-school time. If I could offer you a link for downloading massive amounts of patience, I would! I will offer that even short breaks meditating, especially if you do it in nature or surrounded by natural sounds, sights, and smells, it can be helpful.

Put a beautiful natural image on your phone or laptop screen and just gaze at it for two minutes, drinking in the beauty. If your mind starts to wander, take a nice, big, slow breath, and keep drinking in the beautiful colors and soothing images. Keep doing it, a few times a day perhaps, practicing the meditation. Pay attention to how you feel while doing it and afterward. If it helps, do it more often and for longer stretches. Keep in mind that heavy work and exercise before sitting meditations can make it easier to reduce any antsy feeling.

We know that mindfulness practice retrains the brain so that you are less emotionally reactive: Your emotional responses to stressors become less intense and arise more slowly. Know what helps to relax you and build your patience (avoiding substances that can be addictive) and use them regularly, even if you think you’re doing fine. You might be surprised at how much stress you’re holding onto without realizing it.

And why not talk with your child about what builds your patience and helps you relax? You can help each other to remember to practice self-care and build your stress tolerance.

So when dealing with change and transitions and uncertainty, be gentle with yourself as you work to exercise patience. Take the time to practice, even in small increments, building up to being able to handle the new reality for longer stretches. Discuss with your children about how hard it can be to remember to practice new skills, how helpful it can be to schedule practice time, and how practice builds up our ability to reach our goals.

Masks. If wearing a mask is a struggle for you and/or your child, please check out Lindsey’s tips on this topic, which include social stories.

Science, as always, moves forward with new information that will change public health guidelines and help all of us better understand how to protect ourselves and our kids. We know that masks may protect the wearer, prevent spreading the virus through the air indoors and outdoors, and do not reduce oxygen intake. That’s why masks plus physical distancing (social distancing) and frequent proper handwashing are protective for all of us. We are in this together!

Finally, check out these teacher-tested masks for kids and teachers who need clear masks or clear panels on masks better communication.

May you and your family and community be safe at this time. I wish you wellness, emotional well-being, and access to the resources you need to make it through these tough times.

Seeking guidance, resources, strategies, and support for parenting a child with sensory processing issues? The paperback and eBook versions of the award-winning, best-selling Raising a Sensory Smart Child by Lindsey Biel, OTR/L, MA, and Nancy Peske are available from Penguin Books and online and brick-and-mortar bookstores as well as other sources for buying books.

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