If you are a parent of a child that has difficulty processing sensory input, you may know all too well what a meltdown can look like and how difficult it can be to manage. Sensory meltdowns do not respond effectively to behavioral approaches. As parents, handling these meltdowns behaviorally may be the only strategy we know. If kids are having a sensory meltdown, they are likely not in control of their actions or words.
What can cause sensory meltdowns?
Some of the causes for kids to have a sensory meltdown could include the following:
• Difficulty processing sensory input in any area-visual, auditory, tactile, movement
• Inability to self-regulate
• Lack of sleep or over tired from the day
• Sleeping issues-snoring, sleep apnea, difficulty falling or staying asleep
• Routines that change or are disrupted
• Decreased water intake
• Limited nutrition or sensitivities to foods
• Coping difficulties
• Difficulty communicating wants and needs
• Difficulty transitioning
When sensory meltdowns occur, children are experiencing a “fight or flight” response which is a sympathetic nervous system response. This part of our nervous system is wired to keep us safe and react in dangerous situations. Rational thought and problem solving cannot occur at this time. Children that have difficulty processing sensory input can have “fight or flight” responses to stimuli that seems unnoticeable to others-a lost toy, shoes not feeling “right” or a push from a sibling.
Fight or Flight
Fight or Flight can look different for different kids, but some of the responses that may be observed are:
• Withdrawing from social situation-lack of eye contact, not responding to questions
• Covering eyes or ears
• Hitting, kicking, biting
• Crying or screaming
• Running away
• Repetitive yelling-“I hate you” or “leave me alone”
• Making unsafe choices so parents feel they have to hug or hold them
• Curling up into a ball and rocking
• Reddened cheeks
• Falling asleep
What do I do when my child is having a sensory meltdown?
When your child is exhibiting some of the above responses you may feel the need to tell them to “stop” or threaten to take things away. Disciplining a child at this point could exacerbate the meltdown and make the child feel bad about themselves. It is important to remember that your child does not want this meltdown to happen. The part of your child’s brain that uses thinking, judgement and rationale (cortical area) is not responding. Rather than talking to your child, you want to remove them from as much adverse stimuli as possible and provide them with sensory strategies that have been determined to be effective. Some of these might include: soft music, heavy blankets, pillows, fidgets, vibration etc. Children often feel remorseful and bad about themselves afterward. It is important to love them through it and give them reassurance that they are good people and you love them.