Got a kid with a sensory sensitivity? Understand why they’re a hypersensitive child and how to help them day in and day out without the stress for you or them.
Have you ever seen that kid having an absolute meltdown in the middle of Target. Like a tantrum on steroids. They’re screaming-slash-crying, maybe even thrashing, and their poor mother is desperately trying to get them under control.
Your kids are staring and you’re trying to be polite, but it’s super loud. No worries though, because soon he’s being carried out as mom abandons her half-full cart in the middle of the store.
Or, maybe that mother is you.
It can be oh so tempting to think this child is simply being bad, or that the mother should get her son under control. But, what if something more was going on?
What if that child was so sensitive to the lights or sounds that he literally couldn’t take it?
While there are obviously lots of reasons a child, and especially, a toddler, may be having a total meltdown at the store, the very real reason of a sensory sensitivity is often overlooked.
So Many Miss Seeing or Understanding Sensory Sensitivity
I think this happens for three reasons.
First, a ton of parents and even doctors, teachers, developmental therapists and other professionals haven’t even heard of sensory. It’s a brand new concept for some, so the thought that a sensory sensitivity exists never even enters their mind. This is totally understandable.
Second, even when parents have a general idea of what sensory is, our kids can’t always articulate that they are sensitive to a particular sensation like the lights being on. We take it for granted and overlook it. I’ll fully admit that even I, as a pediatric OT that specializes in sensory, have done this at times with my own kid.
Third, sensory sensitivities and other sensory issues are often closely related to autism and ADHD. If we know our kid doesn’t have that diagnosis, than we dismiss the sensory connection. But, the truth is many kids that have a sensory sensitivity have or need no diagnosis, and that does include sensory processing disorder, as well.
Why Does My Child Have a Sensory Sensitivity?
Each of us has a unique sensory system that includes all 5 of our senses plus two more senses you likely didn’t learn about in kindergarten: proprioception and vestibular. We can either crave or avoid any of these senses. For kids with a general sensory sensitivity, they are often avoiding strong sensations from most or all of the senses.
This happens for a lot of different reasons, but honestly, we haven’t done enough research to understand definitively. Because I get that you want to understand why your child is hypersensitive, these are a few of the leading thoughts that cause sensory sensitivity:
- Babies not carried to 39-40 weeks – The sensory system is the last to develop in utero. It’s common for premature babies to often exhibit various sensory needs as they develop.
- Inherited – It’s extremely common for a child with sensory sensitivities to have a parent that is also sensory sensitive.
- Sensory deprivation – Uncommon for most children. But, if babies and toddlers don’t experience lots of touch, cuddling, and rocking, they can develop a sensory sensitivity. This is common in some orphanages in various parts of the world.
- Environmental – Some believe that environmental toxins in our homes and atmosphere are the cause of so many children with “sensory issues”.
It may be impossible to get to the bottom of, but we do know that children with a sensory sensitivity are often more cautious in nature. They can be described as withdrawn and known to cry easily. But, in other instances, sensory sensitive kids can be loud themselves, even though they don’t like other noises.
What a Sensory Sensitivity Looks Like
It’s important to keep in mind that your child can be hypersensitive to any one or more of these senses. Some kids are sensitive to one sense and love sensations from another sense. Other kids can have a sensory sensitivity across the board. Let’s look at some of the sensitivities for each sense so that you’re able to see some of these sensory red flags in your child, that you could be missing:
The Vision Sense: Children that have a sensory sensitivity with their vision often don’t like bright lights and/or fluorescent lights. For younger kids that can’t express this, it can show up in the way of a meltdown in the middle of the store. The lights are hurting their eyes and it’s so uncomfortable (think nails on the chalkboard) they lose it.
Older kids may get headaches, ask for sunglasses, or seem disinterested in playing outside on sunny days.
The Hearing Sense: A hypersensitive hearing sense will often cause children to scream, run, or hide when a fire trucks drives by the front of the house. The buzzing of the fluorescent lights can also be very initiating. Any unexpected or loud noise can cause a sensory overload and result in a meltdown, difficulty communicating, or following instructions.
The Taste Sense: Kids that are hypersensitive to taste often prefer very bland foods and dislike anything spicy or flavorful. It’s common for them to be picky eaters.
The Smell Sense: A sensory sensitivity with smells will look like a child that can’t stand to smell anything. They complain about other’s food at the table, may refuse to wear items that have a “smell”, and want little or no smell in their soap. If your child actually gags at the smell of food, it can literally be making them sick to their stomach.
The Touch Sense: Children that are sensitive to touch, are often called tactile defensive. They do not like to get messy. They may not like to walk barefoot, especially in grass or sand. These children are also often picky eaters because if you don’t like to touch something with your hands, you likely aren’t going to want to feel it in your mouth.
The Vestibular Sense: This is our sense of movement and kids that have a sensory sensitivity with the vestibular system, are often afraid to climb the slide at the playground, get on a swing, or maybe even to walk down the steps, depending on how hypersensitive they are.
The Proprioceptive Sense: Proprioception is our sense of body awareness, how we know where our body is going as we move across the room, it’s activated through deep pressure, like a hug or when we jump. Children aren’t typically sensitive to proprioceptive input, but they may not like to have other’s sit too close to them or to have a child or animal unexpectedly come at them.
How to Help Kids with a Sensory Sensitivity
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There are two primary and important ways to help our kids with their sometimes life-interrupting sensory sensitivity.
1. Support – It can be incredibly frustrating to have a hypersensitive child. But, once you know what they’re sensory sensitivities are you can support them. This could mean carrying noise-canceling headphones (like these ones) when going to loud places, having a child’s pair of sunglasses in your purse, or not forcing your child to ride the swing because you know they’re going to “love it” – I say that with no judgement.
Often times, once you’re aware of the sensitivity, you can see the warning signs earlier on, support your child, and divert a meltdown. Once our kids know that we get it, they will lean into us because they trust that we’ll help them. (It’s actually pretty extraordinary when this happens, you’re relationship will get stronger).
Here are some other ideas for supporting a sensory sensitivity:
- Offer a paintbrush for fingerpainting
- Have a brimmed hat in the car for sunny days
- Don’t force kids to eat certain flavors or textures. (I know this one is hard, but I think its the most important picky eater strategy).
- Use dim lights at home
- Open a window when cooking strong smells
- Teach your child how to cover their ears tight when they hear a loud noise
- Avoid roughhousing if your child is sensitive to movement.
- Have an essential oil roll on hand in case you encounter a strong smell. Roll it on their wrist. (I use this blend).
The key is to think about your child’s sensory sensitivity and how you can make it more bearable for them?
2. Slowly Desensitize – With the tactile and vestibular senses it’s quite possible to slowly desensitize kids to the senses that are so irritating. But, it does take time and consistency. For it to work, baby steps and following your child’s lead as you gently push them out of their comfort zone are essential. We know that when we force sensations like bare hands in fingerpaint, it can be aversive, as it causes them to recoil and become even more sensitive and guarded.
Let me give you an example, to help a child that’s tactile defensive (that’s a tactile sensitivity), I’d begin regularly bringing out sensory bins for them to play in. I’d start with the least irritating texture, something like dry beans. My first goal would be for the child just to play by the bin. Then, to pull things out without touching the bean, then to grab hidden items right under the surface, and so on.
Once they were able to completely play in the dry beans, I’d move onto another texture that’s a little more challenging (meaning messier).
Learn More About Your Child with a Sensory Sensitivity
We’ve talked about some important strategies for hypersensitive kids and toddlers, but to tell you the truth, this is just the tip of the iceberg. There are lots more eye-opening sensory secrets that can change your child’s life. It’s more than I cover in a blog post!
To help you, come join the free workshop that teaches you how to help your child with their sensory needs. You pick what day and time work for you.
More on Sensory Sensitivity
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Alisha Grogan is a licensed occupational therapist and founder of Your Kid’s Table. She has over 14 years experience with expertise in sensory processing and feeding development in babies, toddlers, and children. Alisha also has 3 boys of her own at home. Learn more about her here.