Do you have a child with sensory processing disorder? SPD can make life more challenging for both your sensory kid and your parenting. I have two children who have different sensory challenges, so I have some tried and true tips to share with you. Today I am going to focus on ages 3-7. Many children this age struggle with being in control of themselves. They aren’t really in charge of their environment, but we expect them to behave as well as an adult. That isn’t fair with a typical child and a path to meltdowns with SPD kids.
As a parent, it is always your job to manage your child’s environment. You are in charge of making sure they have healthy snacks, rest breaks, and appropriate expectations. Let’s break down each of those for what it means with a child with SPD and how you can be the most out of each.
Food as a Problem
In my experience, children with SPD are often sensitive to foods. It is very important to watch your child’s diet as a possible source of meltdowns and behavior problems.
Artificial colors, flavors, and chemical additives are often triggers for these kids. My oldest child turned into a raging, screaming nightmare if given red food coloring or artificial sweeteners. Before she turned 3, I had to ban from our home: kool-aid, candy, and several varieties of cereal because they were the source of so many meltdowns and out-of-control tantrums. My normally sweet, calm child became violent and her personality would change when given anything from the banned list. Sometimes, even foods that are typically thought of as “healthy” were triggers, as artificial ingredients can sneak into anything.
Switching to an all-organic diet helped. I found candy made with honey and juice—NEVER having candy felt too extreme for me. Eventually, we also had IgE food allergy testing done and removed several more foods from her diet. Getting her on a diet that didn’t trigger bad behavior was important. You can’t “time out” a child into good behavior when their brain and body are having a reaction outside of their control.
I raised my younger kids on this healthier diet. Recently, my teens told me what it feels like if they eat artificially colored candy. It sounds much like what I’ve read it feels like to drop acid or do other mind-altering chemicals. So, I’ve encouraged my teens to do Skittles and never try drugs. But I’m glad I didn’t try to hold my kids accountable for controlling themselves as toddlers when they were melting down. It was not their fault they were allergic to this typical American food.
Snacks as a Solution
Just as bad foods can cause meltdowns, good ones can prevent them. Many kids with SPD don’t experience hunger as the gradual process we think it should be. Sensory kids go from “fine” to “starving” in 3 seconds flat. This is because their body doesn’t sense hunger cues, not because they are ignoring them. This means that as the parent, you need to make sure you feed your kids when you feel hungry. You also need to have snacks on hand at all times. There are many kinds of snack bars and those can go in your purse or a snack bag in the car very easily. In my family, we actually call it “purse food.” As in, “If you feel hungry we can see what kind of purse food I have with me.” Yes, even teens sometimes need purse food. But the younger your kids are, the more purse food you need. Little kids need to eat often to keep their energy up.
If your kids are prone to running around like crazy, you can also use snacks to help them sit still. Crunchy foods like carrot sticks or pretzels give nice feedback to the jaw that lets kids feel like they are moving. Chewy foods like beef jerky can have the same effect. If your child needs to sit for a performance or storytime, figure out how to bring snacks that can help them sit still. Frequent snacks also keep them from turning into the hungry, meltdown child. Remember, they didn’t even feel hungry, just went straight to meltdown! So, frequent snacks keep that problem at bay. Those hard-to-chew snacks can also help a child be more alert, listen better and focus longer. So, instead of just expecting your child to sit still for something, bring a snack!
Taking a Break
Sensory kids can go from happy to overwhelmed quickly. Their sensory system is registering far more than is obvious. Is the grass they are sitting on prickly? Are there noises from other kids, animals, and cars driving by on a road? Are their shoes a little tight? Are there many things to look at? All of those components can make even a trip to a park overwhelming. If you frequent a park day event, you may find bringing a small tent for your child to hide in to be helpful. However, kids are often good at finding their own hiding spots, under tables, behind trees, or otherwise alone, away from the excitement. While it is important to make sure your child’s choice is safe, it is good to let them learn to self-regulate by separating themselves from others when they feel overwhelmed. I’ve had to quit classes or activities that didn’t respect that my child sometimes needed these breaks and couldn’t always stay on task.
It is important that you be an advocate who can help your child take breaks when they need them. Learn to read the signs your child is feeling overwhelmed and help them step away before they meltdown. Give them an option that is appropriate for them to use when they need it. For some kids, being able to move away from the group to look at a book is a good solution for feeling overwhelmed. Others may need to talk a walk, go have a snack or play with a fidget toy.
Fun Fact: All my sensory kids are allergic to fabric softeners and many detergents. Washing their clothes in regular Tide, or using a Downy ball would break them out in a rash and also trigger a meltdown. This sounds like a “me” problem, right? Well, not as much as I thought. Realizing this was an allergy wasn’t all that hard. However, figuring out that it was a major source of problems if the preschool gave my child the wrong blanket and nap mat, was. It was also challenging to deal with the fact my child couldn’t just borrow a jacket from a friend, because the pleasant ‘fresh breeze” scent would trigger a meltdown.
It is important to realize that your sensitive child may be triggered by a wide variety of things that other people enjoy. Smells, sounds, tastes, and sights that you’ve never thought about, can be a nightmare for your child. In some ways, I was lucky my sensitive child came first, so I found triggers, like the laundry soap, and changed to a Free and Clear long before my second child came along. My second, when exposed to such things, will also break out in a rash, but presents with different behaviors. For him, it could even result in him playing too rough or being violent, as he reacted to the challenge.
It is important to realize that meltdowns aren’t the only way your child may react to a problem in their environment that they can’t handle. Any change of behavior, especially negative ones, can be happening because of an allergy or sensory overload. Watching for what is new or different, can be challenging. I recently realized I have an allergy to wood smoke that makes me feel anxious and sick when I’m around a fire. I thought I hated camping, turns out, I was just having an allergic reaction. There is no way to know what will be a problem for your sensory child before they are around it but look for clues like a detective. Always look for what could be causing your child to feel bad, instead of just focusing on their behavior as the problem.
If you are in charge of a group activity, preschool group, storytime, or co-op, there are some choices you can make to help your child. Keep focused activities, like the story or craft time, short. Those activities that require kids to sit still longer are harder. Most kids that are 3-7 can focus at most for 20 minutes before they need to move around. Make sure there are breaks for the kids to free play and breaks for snacks and lunch if your group will meet for several hours. My Wonderful World program has many lessons I used with co-op classes when my kids were this age. We’d alternate a story with the more physical activities for class time, and then take play breaks so children could process what we had done. Providing toys that go with the theme you are teaching, allows kids to play with ideas and seek what they need to self-regulate.
While you may realize your child needs a special diet, breaks, and help managing themselves, not everyone has developmentally appropriate expectations of kids. It is too much to ask a child this age to advocate for themselves. So, you will need to do it. This can be heartbreaking as you may realize your child needs to quit a class or activity that doesn’t respect your child’s needs. I pulled my firstborn out of preschool because the school couldn’t follow my instructions about my child’s needs. It was a bad fit, and the best choice we could make was to quit.
Parenting a sensory kid is challenging. I hope some of my tips today help you!
What are your tips for parenting a sensory child? Put them in the comments!
About the Author
Laura Sowdon, OTR/L is an occupational therapist, writer, speaker, educator and creator of the Five Senses Literature Lessons homeschool curriculum. She has worked as an occupational therapist with children in public and private schools, as well as private practice. Laura has taught and managed homeschool co-ops as well as homeschooling her own three children. Laura is dedicated to the idea of educating children at a pace that aligns with brain and physical development milestones and respects neurodiversity in all its forms.