Sensory processing disorder is one in which children experience extreme physical discomfort from everyday sensory input. A sound you may find mildly annoying can make your child sick to the stomach, they may not want to eat food because of the way it feels in their mouth, ponytails may cause pain and lights can cause headaches.
Not only do children who suffer from sensory processing disorder experience physical discomfort from sensory stimulation, their brains are also wired to go straight to an intense ‘flight-or-fight’ response. This means that they react with an emotional intensity that they don’t even understand. Tantrums, screaming and extreme behaviors mean that these children are not able to self-regulate their responses.
These extreme behaviors are traditionally dealt with through punishment and reward, but these will not work on children who suffer from sensory processing disorder. The parents feel judged for the bad behavior of their child and the child’s confidence is undermined.
This disorder can be diagnosed by a professional and, once parents are aware of their child’s triggers, they can help to educate others and teach their children how to identify what is setting them off and regulate their behavior.
The first step is to get the child out of their ‘fight-or-flight’ response. You can’t reason with a tantrumming child, so start by getting them to breathe deeply. You can also teach them other calming techniques like mantras where they repeat comforting phrases like ‘I’m ok’ or ‘everything is alright.’
Don’t try to reason with them. Instead ensure that they are safe, then offer simple commands that they can understand in their panicked state; “Come. Now.” Is better than “If you don’t stop right now I’m going to punish you. I have to get home and make dinner so you had better come here now.”
Visualization is also a wonderful way to get your child to calm down when they are feeling emotional. You can work with your medical professional to find techniques that help your child.
When they are feeling calm, ask them what set them off. Finding the root of the problem can help you to understand your child’s triggers. Because of the extreme emotional response, your child may not remember what set them off, so be patient.
Talk with your child about how they can regulate their behavior. Helping them to identify their triggers and the physical responses will enable them to recognize when they are uncomfortable and regulate their behavior while they still have control of the situation.
Offer praise for any steps in the right direction, but recognize that self-regulation will take a long time; there are no shortcuts. Work with your medical professionals, teachers, students and in-home tutors to support your child in learning to self-regulate their behavior and sensory responses to stimuli.
Remember that you need to take care of yourself too. Ensuring that you can remain calm and fend off frustration means that you have to find ways to relieve your own stress. It can also be tricky for parents to separate the sensory processing disorder from normal kid tantrums, but always trying to find the root of the problem will help you to create healthier and happier children.