Taking a Look at Touch Related Sensory Overload in Children By: Gabrielle Anderson
The five senses help make the world an interesting and intriguing place for children to explore, except for those who easily experience sensory overload. Children with sensory processing needs do not experience their surroundings at the same level as their peers or even parents.
Just as children with ADHD struggle to filter out distractions around them, a child with sensory processing needs finds it difficult to organize and appropriately quantify the amount of sensory input he receives. With some children, they seek out sensory input just to feel balanced, today we will look at the children who become overwhelmed by the touch related input they receive just by living in their environments. Winter months can help exasperate sensory problems; let’s look at a few trouble spots in winter and brainstorm suggestions.
Touch Sensory Input via a 1-10 Spectrum
As a fellow touch-sensory overload sufferer, winter is my least favorite season. If sensory input needs are on a 1-10 scale with 1 meaning I do not want anything to touch me and 10 meaning I need to be wrapped up like a mummy, my body tends to hover around the extreme numbers. If it is a “2 or 3” day, I may spend 15 minutes trying on different sweaters because the first few suffocated my arms too much. If I am at work and am experiencing a “3-4” day, I may take off my rings and bracelet and feel miserable in my boots. “2” days for me are NOT jean days. My dog loves “8 or 9” days because this is when I invite him to come lay across my chest.
I give these examples because I am a grown, accomplished professional adult and I have emotional regulation. I know what my body is experiencing and I understand how to accommodate it. I do not have another adult telling me I have to wear the tight jeans and if I did, I would not cry and scream, but instead would twist and squat and contort my legs into all sorts of pretzel like shapes until the jeans felt just right. You would never know I struggle with these issues unless you witnessed me wearing flip-flops inappropriately out of season…even then you would probably assume it was my fashion sense and not my sensory needs.
Our children need us to be their regulators. They need us to understand that gloves, hats, scarves and big fluffy coats restrict and constrict those who experience sensory input overload. Maybe your child is experiencing a “7” day on Monday and then melts down when he is told to put on his jeans on Thursday. Understanding that the numbers fluctuate day to day is important. Having a couple of go-to sensory safe pants, shirts and sweaters can be helpful.
Looking at Misbehavior in Children Through a Sensory Lens
Being open to look at defiance and stubborn behavior from a sensory perspective may give more information as well as potential solutions. Are the arguments often about the same topic? Sometimes behaviors such as putting on socks, washing hands, brushing hair for example, can be defiance due to shying away from sensory input. Being curious about potential reasons for the misbehavior may help point out something new.
Become a detective for more information. If your child wants to inappropriately wear summer attire in the winter, ask more questions. Is it just for fun or is there a sensation she is trying to avoid or achieve? Not all clothes are created equal. With older children, talk about what feels good with pants and tops and what does not. Take note if your child is describing the cut and tailor of clothing, the tags or the fabric itself.
Often children will become inconsolable and greatly upset if they are experiencing more touch input then their bodies know how to filter. Understanding and learning to avoid these situations can be huge, but helping calm their bodies after is important too.
Helpful Tips to Help Calm an Over-Stimulated Child
The first thing to look at when trying to calm a child who is over-stimulated, is to reduce, remove or shed the stimuli. I remember seeing a cutie a few years ago here at the office who experienced too much stimuli at school. She developed an after school ritual that helped her shed the extra stimuli she received all day at school and with peers. Each afternoon she removed any bothersome clothing, grabbed her favorite book and jumped into bed. The coolness of the sheets and lack of restriction helped calm and re-set her body rather quickly. This routine became such an important tool that her parents made sure not to schedule any activities directly after school.
Some children enjoy the refuge of a homemade fort. Forts allow the child to escape into an imaginative space that is disconnected from the stimuli of the real world. Allowing your child to eat an after school snack in his fort may create just enough space and calm to help re-set his body.
Epsom salt baths can also calm a child physically and emotionally. Putting a basket of fun imaginary toys next to the tub can help children play out the stress of the day by projecting it through the toys. Here you have a win-win by allowing the body to calm and giving his emotions an exit through play.
Be mindful of patterns to the sensory saturation. Some children struggle to hold it together all week at school and then melt down for mom and dad by Thursday and Friday. If your child becomes habitually fragile towards the end of the week, it may be important to look at a regular daily sensory shedding diet. Children whose sensory over-stimulation builds as the week progresses need down time to rest and unload and to not be required to frequent noisy restaurants and activities towards the end of the week.
When to Call a Professional to Help Your Child's Sensory Processing Needs
Brainstorm ideas with someone who knows your child. Understanding the philosophy behind your child’s needs will help you creatively tailor a successful approach. When these tips do not work, sometimes it is time to call a professional. A Play Therapist can help sensory needs if there is also an emotional component to it. If the outbursts feel truly sensory based, calling upon an Occupational Therapist, OT, can help. OTs are specifically trained to help re-wire the brain to accept input in a more balanced manner. These professionals can also teach parents techniques such as joint compressions and limb brushing that can help organize and calm the body physiologically.
Feel more empowered this winter as you learn more and more about your child’s sensory needs and in turn gain more tools to help her body get to that calm space.
Gabrielle Anderson is the Director and a Therapist at the Family Therapy Center of Northern Virginia, llc
She and the other team members can be contacted directly from the Center's Meet the Team page.
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