Melting down, throwing a tantrum, having a fit... just a few ways to describe that bright and shiny moment in your day when your child transforms from a little angel into a tyrant at the drop of a hat. While we all knew going into this parenting thing that meltdowns and tantrums were par for the course, it's still a difficult scenario to manage- especially if you feel like you can't quite figure out what's setting your child off!
Over the last several years, the concept of sensory overload and resulting “sensory meltdowns" have spread like wild fire across parenting blogs. But what does sensory overload look like? Are we just "explaining away" our child's bad behavior? These are difficult questions to answer, and often times the answer is different for each child and each family. First, it is important to know that the feeling of being overloaded with sensory input doesn't only happen to individuals with sensory modulation disorders. In truth, we ALL succumb to sensory overload- you may even start to feel it during your child's meltdown!
Throughout the day we are bombarded with sensory input- from the digital screens we stare in to- to the sound of our children bickering over a favorite toy. And, thanks to a lifetime of experiences, we have learned when our patience is starting to wane and what helps us to decompress and reset. Unfortunately, our little ones don't have the benefit of a lifetime of past experiences, instead, they are currently in the process of learning their own unique preferences, tolerance levels, and ways to relax. So, don't panic if your 3, 4, 5, 6, or even 7-year-old hasn't fully mastered the art of self-regulation- as this is a skill that truly takes a lifetime to learn.
So, let's talk about sensory!
A HUGE part of our brain is constantly receiving, interpreting, and then responding to incoming visual, auditory, tactile, and movement input throughout every second of our day. With so much brain power devoted to processing sensory input, it isn't hard to understand that being immersed in sensory rich environments, like the movies, the grocery store, or a restaurant, takes a mental toll on a person! Now consider this, people have different sensitivity levels to various sensory input. Some people are more sensitive than others to touch, visual, movement, or sound input while others are seemingly unbothered by loud noises, funny textures, or busy environments.
People who are more sensitive to sensory input may appear withdrawn, pensive, or downright upset during transitions or when in busy environments. They may have trouble tolerating the sound of loud, every day noises (toilet flushing/vacuum cleaner running). They may have difficulties tolerating various textures of clothes, foods, or surfaces. Or, they may have difficulties tolerating different movement experiences (car rides, being pushed in grocery carts). For these individuals, everyday life experiences can be more difficult for them than their peers- over time lessening their frustration tolerance.
Most adults can find ways to regulate their behavioral responses to sensory overload. Children on the other hand haven't quite learned how to adapt to an overwhelming sensory environment, how to articulate that feeling, or what strategies they can use to help relax or calm themselves- creating the perfect recipe for a sensory related meltdown.
My child just doesn't like the sound of "No"
It is important to remember that many meltdowns are not sensory related. If meltdowns are triggered when you tell your child "no" or when you direct your child as to what you want them to do- then sensory overload is likely not your culprit. In these moments, your time will be best spent addressing your child's behavior with simple behavior modification techniques. Reward/consequence systems like token economies can work like a charm for most children. With this technique, your child earns a specific number of tokens, or stickers, that they can "trade in” to receive a pre-determined, motivating reward. Displaying appropriate behavior earns them a token and inappropriate behaviors will cost them a token- teaching your child how to regulate their reactions in moments of frustration.
Remember that with behavior modification techniques consistency and having realistic expectations are critically important. Always "say what you mean and mean what you say"! If you have set reasonable expectations, rewards, and consequences, then you must stick to your word- every time.
So, it's sensory... Now What?!
If your child's meltdowns seem related to underlying sensory sensitivities, don't resign yourself to accepting bad or inappropriate behavior! Instead try the following strategies to gain a better perspective of what is triggering your child's meltdowns and to lessen the frequency in which they occur.
1. Observe your child in different environments. Notice their reactions to different sensory experiences. Learn what sensory experiences they like and what sensory experiences cause them to become distressed or over aroused. Knowing your child's unique preferences paves the way for this next suggestion...
2. Be proactive. If you know your child is going to be exposed to a sensory experience that is likely to distress or over arouse them, then pay close attention to your child's mannerisms, face, body language, tone of voice, and rate of speech. Changes in these areas can help alert you that your child is feeling overloaded. When you start to see these signs plan an escape route or offer your child some calming sensory input. As a general rule of thumb- lower lighting, quiet spaces, deep pressure, and activities that require large muscle groups are calming.
3. Learn from past meltdowns! Analyze what happened, before, during, and after a meltdown to see if you can find a certain pattern or identify a consistent trigger. Is it always at the grocery store, loud environments, waiting in a line, during dinner time? This will allow you to better anticipate what experiences may cause your child to feel overloaded. Then you can plan to give your child a little extra support during these times by:
a. lessening the amount of time they are required to participate in that environment/activity before allowing/seeking out a break
b. offering specific, positive praise when in that environment
c. making sure your child is full, well-rested, and well-regulated before entering that environment
d. minimizing other demands and adjusting expectations while in that environment
4. Some behavior, like hitting, spitting, yelling, running away, is ALWAYS unacceptable regardless of the trigger! Have consistent conversations with your child about what you expect their behavior to be in given scenarios. Anticipate when your child may reach a level of frustration where inappropriate behaviors are likely to occur and intervene before they do. If necessary, establish and implement consistent consequences for these unacceptable behaviors.
But what if consistent discipline and sensory strategies aren't paying off, or the meltdowns seem to be worsening?
Then, it is time to schedule an appointment with your pediatrician! They can help guide you towards the right people that can help your family out! If an underlying sensory modulation disorder is suspected, then an occupational therapist may be the right person to help you. Or, if meltdowns appear to be due to emotional lability or opposition to authority- a psychiatrist, psychologist, counselor, or behavioral therapist may be better equipped to help you manage your child's behavioral regulation difficulties.