For a child who struggles with sensory processing or regulation – whether it’s a diagnosed disorder or not – the world can be overwhelming and triggering. How do you support a child with sensory processing challenges?
We’ve come up with some tips to help your child cope with sensory overload to support you during family gatherings, holiday events, and other times that feel extra challenging for kids with sensory processing challenges.
Tips for Supporting Your Child with Sensory Processing Challenges
1. Educate Yourself
On a recent Creating a Family radio show about Connected Parenting, our guests talked about the impact of trauma and loss on a child’s developing brain, including how attachment issues can be confused with sensory struggles. We also have a guide to understanding the basics of trauma-informed parenting.
2. Exercise Empathy
When you’ve learned that your child’s behavior is not just willful acting out and that her nervous system struggles to organize all the additional sensory information around her, you can summon empathy for her challenges. Reframing your mindset from assuming willfulness to understanding her struggle helps you respond in compassion. It also forges connection and allows her to trust you more fully.
3. Educate Your Child
Use your compassion to invite her to learn together about the impacts her sensory processing challenges have on behavior. You can become her ally in learning what triggers sensory overwhelm or what pending dysregulation feels like inside her body. Working together to build understanding and equipping her to address her needs gives you both a taste of success to keep learning and growing together.
4. Prepare for Sensory Processing Challenges
By educating yourselves, you are learning what it takes to prevent your child’s body and brain from becoming overwhelmed. Make a habit of being prepared for overload. For some families, that might look like a “bag of tricks” that you keep in the car, full of sensory-soothing tools.
Activities outside of your routine present extra challenges for kids with sensory processing challenges, so think about things you can do to keep tantrums and dysregulation at bay:
- Keep your child well-hydrated and well-rested as much as you can.
- Carry a stash of healthy snacks. Proteins like yogurt, cheese, turkey, or crunchers like carrots, crackers, and nuts are sensory-rich helpers.
- Bring crayons and a travel-size coloring book for younger kids.
- Allow screen time judiciously and use it to your benefit to get through tough moments.
- Have a “back-up” of his favorite comfort toy or “lovie” blanket.
- Be willing to relax your rules about phone or video game use for older kids at events you know can trigger.
5. Empower Your Child’s Voice
When you are preparing in advance for potentially challenging activities, get your child’s input. Talk about what he is choosing and why. Offering him voice and choice in the preparations is empowering to identify his dysregulation and cope with it. If you plan for a specific event, ask him what he thinks the tough parts of this event might be and how he’d like to manage them. Then encourage him to include those tools in his preparations.
6. Teach Your Child To Recognize the Signs
Talk with your child about what she felt inside her brain or body just before a meltdown has happened in the past. You might hear things like:
- my tummy felt all jumpy
- my brain felt foggy, fuzzy, crazy
- my ears couldn’t hear right anymore
- my arms and legs couldn’t be still
- my chest hurt, felt tight
- my face felt hot, red, itchy
- my eyes burned, felt too bright
Help her understand that these are how her body lets her know that it needs a break. Some families find it helpful to work out a “secret signal” of rising stress, like the child tugging on her ear. Other kids might ask for a quick walk around the block as their sign.
7. Keep Your Eyes Open for the Signs, Too
Don’t lay the responsibility for knowing the signs of sensory overload solely on your child’s shoulders – even if she is older. Family events and holiday activities are supposed to be fun, connecting times. Your child should not feel anxious about managing her sensory challenges all by herself.
Keep your eyes peeled during holiday activities for signs that your child is struggling with sensory overload. Watch her facial expressions. Check on her energy level through the event. Listen to her tone of voice and her volume. Is she communicating with body language that she’s nearing her limit for new or different sensory input?
8. Do the Coping Strategies Together
When your child gets overwhelmed during family gatherings or social events, come alongside him by offering to do some coping strategies together.
- Find a quiet room and listen to soothing music on your phone while snuggling under a blanket.
- Take the crayons and coloring book out onto the porch and do some deep breathing while you color together.
- Go for a walk around the neighborhood.
- Compete for the highest bounce on the trampoline.
- Do lunges or jumping jacks in the driveway.
- For older kids, work out parameters for how and when it’s okay to retreat to re-regulate. Fifteen minutes on a video game or phone to hang with friends can be the re-set he needs.
Tell him you will be on the look-out for the signals that he’s struggling. For example, during a holiday activity with cousins, he might feel very anxious but be reluctant to leave the room to re=-regulate. Because of this, he can trust you to help him exit and then re-join the fun when he’s feeling more in control. Work together to find compromises in advance and at the moment so that he feels supported and can enjoy yourself.
9. Be Flexible and Realistic
No matter how well you plan, you might end up being the only one who can be flexible in those moments of big feelings. That’s okay – feel free to tweak the plans for the sake of your child’s needs. That could mean driving two cars to Aunt Nell’s weekly game night. This might be the year that you skip midnight mass. Be flexible with your preparations, plans, and expectations.
If you have to change the plan, remind yourself that it’s okay to feel disappointed but that this isn’t the family gathering this month. Tell yourself and your child that you will try again soon. In the end, if changing plans allow you to build trust, safety, and connection with your child, then your flexibility becomes a “double win!”
We Say This A Lot: Take Care Of Yourself!
Don’t forget that you also have sensory challenges and preferences. Be sure to schedule some downtime to do the things that bring joy and meaning to you. Obviously, your sensory regulation will look quite different from your child’s. However, it is no less important. When things are frantic and stressful, you are more equipped to handle it all if you engage in healthy self-care. Self-care is crucial all year round, but it should not be ignored during this “most wonderful time of the year!”
Originally published in 2017; updated in 2020 Image Credits: mazaletel; Nina Hale; Randy Robertson