When my youngest son was 18 months old, we were living in crisis mode. Our family of four, including my almost three-year-old son, was struggling big time. Our little guy would regularly “hulk out,” as we called it, in severe emotional and physical meltdowns. He would hit, kick, scratch, knock over furniture, and throw things — completely overcome with frustration — and we often had no idea what triggered his meltdown.
Sometimes it was a transition, like leaving the park; other times, we were completely stumped. We tried all the things you’re told to do during a tantrum — redirection, reasoning, joking him out of it — but nothing worked. These outbursts would often happen at bedtime, lasting 2–3 hours, until we were all exhausted and at a loss as to what to do. We wouldn’t find out for a few more months, but it turned out he was struggling with Sensory Processing Disorder.
Sensory Processing Disorder, or SPD, is a condition where the brain inappropriately responds to sensory stimuli such as sights, sounds, smells, touch, and other sensory input related to balance and movement. Children with SPD may either over- or underreact to these stimuli, causing meltdowns like we were seeing in our son. But unlike during a normal tantrum, a child with SPD cannot be redirected in a meltdown. Until the body is regulated, the brain cannot calm down. And all the tricks of the trade were actually making the situation worse for him.
A pediatrician or a pediatric occupational therapist (OT) can assess and diagnose a child struggling with sensory input. Thankfully, a resource we had at the time pointed us in the right direction, and we reached out to an OT who assessed our little and confirmed we were experiencing SPD. With this diagnosis, we started down the path of proactively managing his behaviors, rather than constantly reacting to them. He still regularly goes to occupational therapy, and it has empowered him to respond to sensory input more effectively.
Fast forward to today, our youngest is almost 7, and we are no longer living in crisis mode. He has since also been diagnosed with ADHD, something that often goes hand-in-hand with SPD, and our decision to medicate him for his ADHD has enabled him to better regulate his emotions. Does he still have sensory meltdowns? He sure does. And do we always get it right? Heck no! But we’ve learned valuable skills that get him back on track. And as he’s gotten older, he’s started to recognize what he needs when his body starts to feel out of control — which is huge.
The life of a child with SPD can be difficult, especially if you don’t realize what you’re dealing with, and this is particularly true for kiddos from hard places, like those we work with at Foster Village. Research shows that trauma traps the brain in a hypervigilant state of arousal, and approximately 80 percent of children who have experienced trauma will develop a sensory sensitivity. So what looks like behavior may actually be sensory based.
If you feel you may be struggling with sensory processing challenges, reach out to me at Project SOOTHe, and I’ll help you figure it out! I may not have all the answers, but I can offer insight and tools for your parenting toolbox. And if nothing else, it’s nice to talk to someone who simply gets it and to know you're not alone with the challenges your family is facing.