We’ve gotten into the habit of prepping Isis whenever there is some big external thing happening such as the 4th of July and fireworks. In case she’s woken up by a loud noise and feels scared, at least she has some context. However there is always the unforseen consequence.
This time it was that a 3.5 year old brain has no concept of what a year is, nevermind a holiday that only occurs only once a year, nevermind what fireworks even mean. She knows: they happen in the sky, they’re colorful, they’re big, they’re loud, they’re scary and she has no control over them. Phobia is born. From that night forward for two months, every night before bed she’d ask “Mommy is tonight a fireworks night?” I’d then have to explain every night for 50 + nights, “No honey, there are no fireworks tonight. Fireworks only happen 2 times a year on special holidays.”
“But Mommy, when is the next firework night?” AND so I would explain 50+ times the next fireworks would be on New Years Eve, and it wasn’t until I explained that it would be after her birthday in December (she’s just starting to get that a birthday happens once a year) – and that it was 100 days (or so) away that she was able to let it go, and stop asking me every night.
Last week when I was at the Party Surplus store picking up balloons, I spotted some sparklers and thought, what a great way to introduce Isis to the idea that fireworks could be fun! So I picked up a box and put it in my purse. This evening, I finally remembered I had them, so I pulled them out and said to Isis, “Hey honey, I wanted to show you some little fireworks I got.”
“Fireworks!?” said a betrayed and bewildered voice, “I’m afraid of fireworks!” As she bolts to the bedroom and slams the door. *doh* I think to myself. Parenting fail. I should have eased into that a little more. I go to the bedroom and open the door to Isis huddled under the down comforter pinching the blanket under her head looking like a little red riding hood. “I’m scared mommy!”
I back peddle to a place I know she feels safe and enjoys. “Isis, I’m it going to do anything you’re scared of. I’ll put the fireworks away. But these are just little fireworks, like a candle. Would you like to blow out a candle instead?” (This is something she has done before, feels safe doing, and has positive memories about).
“Ya mama! Let’s blow out a candle instead. Put the fireworks away. ”
So I keep the fireworks close by, but put them down so I’m not holding them. I show her a lighter and how I light the candle and she happily blows out the candle. Now eyeing the fireworks I put down, she says “Now you do a firework mama!” As she bolts for the bedroom and slams the door behind her again. I light a sparkler hoping maybe she’ll pop her head out and see…. No such luck.
I go peek in on her again. “I want you to do a firework mama!” “I did, do you want to come see me do one? These ones are not loud. They sparkle like a star.” “Okay, mama, but I need a big blanket!” We get her all set with a blanket to hide in her playhouse outside so she can watch me through her “window.” I light a sparkler and she smiles at the star sparkling glow. I ask her if she wants to hold one and she says, “No! Daddy has to do one.”
After seeing daddy do it, she’s ready to try and as she gingerly holds the sparkler between her two pincher fingers (’cause she’s still a little scared it will burn her) she smiles and her eyes glow with excitement and sparkles, and I get tingly just knowing we’ve taken the first step towards relieving a phobia and helping her to experience beauty in the face of fear. Scary can be beautiful and fun too!
The Power of Naming It
Geared up and ready to swim in her bright pink Costco cute swimming skirt and rash guard Isis and I walked into the woman’s locker room toward the pool. Halfway in Isis froze – Deer in Headlights terrified. I’m puzzled for a split second until I register that there is a mother blow drying her daughter’s hair in a tiled, echoing locker room. I kneel down and look Isis in the eye.
“Oh, Is that too loud for you?” I ask Isis. She nods her head with her hands pressed hard over her ears. The sweet mother watching this happen, and seeing Isis frozen with her hands over her ears, so kindly immediately turns off the blow dryer and smiles at me.
“It’s okay honey, she turned it off, so we can walk by. Thank you so much!” I pick Isis up, and we walk through safely – and spend the next hour having a blast in the pool. Isis singing to herself “Swimmy swim swim swim. Swimmy, swim swim. Swimmy swim.”
Once your child has calmed enough to be able to hear you speak – help them give their experience a name. A sensory child views much of the world as unpredictable, overwhelming, and possibly painful or assaulting. Control is so important for a child that feels constantly assaulted by their environment, and giving something a name, a context, acknowledging it as real, gives your child power.
Some Examples of supportive language to give your child power:
It looks like you were feeling overwhelmed. There were too many moving people in that room. Would you like to ride on my shoulders? Or go somewhere else?
Oh, I see you were feeling scared. That noise was too loud for you. You can cover your ears. We can go get your ear protection. Do you want to ask them to turn it down, go outside or go somewhere else?
You didn’t like the water that hot or cold. Would you like to pick the temperature? Here is the cold, and here is the hot. Is that better?
As a parent there are always those moments you question your parenting ability, followed by questioning your sanity. And as a Sensory Parent if you don’t have someone to bounce thoughts and ideas off of you start to think that maybe it really is all your fault your child goes “crazy” sometimes (or in our case – can’t sooth herself to sleep).
A dear friend we were once visiting said more serious than joking, though it was delivered in a way that sounded a touch like humor to soften it I think: “I don’t know why you guys make sleep such a big deal, driving her around for naps (2 times a day when she was 18 months old!). You just let kids run around until they’re tired and let them fall asleep under the dinner table. That’s what we did with our kids.” And I found myself thinking “God, really? Some kids will do that? Maybe my approach has been all wrong.” But then I remembered the 3 hours of bouncing her to sleep as a baby, the completely failed attempts at some kind of sleep training ending up with the whole family in a puddle of stress, exhaustion and tears on the floor after hours of screaming (didn’t those cursed sleep training books say no more than an hour and as little as 10 min!? – thankfully a few of the books mentioned the technique wouldn’t work on a very small percentage of especially alert babies – ’cause we clearly had an outlyer).
But these idiosyncrasies are the dark side of the moon of parenting. The negative space that defines the shape of your child, but most people don’t see. Our dear friend had no context to know that what works for 95 percent of children wouldn’t work for my child ever. And while I knew this at the time he said these words to me, I didn’t yet know my child had a disability. A disability is defined as something that interferes with one’s ability to perform or complete daily tasks. And it feels wierd to me to label my child with a disorder when she may look totally normal to you. But the reality is that she cannot physiologically do things that others can because her brain is wired differently.
I sometimes get funny looks when I tell people Isis has sensory processing disorder. People see a snap shot of a typical Bay area kid running around bare foot, going potty on her training toilet, and spinning on the tire swing.
But I see a child who can’t wear shoes because her feet are overly reactive to touch and will grip endlessly, a child terrified of any bathroom that isn’t her own because of the echoing and uncontrollable noise, and a child seeking the calming sensory input of extreem physical motion because her vestibular system under registers movement.
While she is an extremely capable girl she is limited in her daily activities by her condition.
Execute Calming Checklist
I have a mental checklist of things that work to calm my daughter. If you’re not sure what calms your child, start experimenting with sensory input or deprivation and see what works. Each child is unique and will have different things that soothe them. (Try not to use food as a reward or calming technique – it is a pattern we fall into too easily, but it doesn’t establish healthy eating habits and can contribute to future problems with food and diet).
Calming things can include: rocking, spinning, brushing with a medical brush, sensory play with the hands (water, sand, dirt, cornstarch and water, dough, etc), sensory play with the feet (walking on rocks, sand, soft grass, stomping on tapioca balls, grapes, etc), music, silence, water running, swinging, spinning, jumping, hiding in a sleeping bag or sensory sock, etc. Please share in the comments what’s worked for you!
Write down what works for your child (even better if you can draw pictures, and help your child understand what they can do to calm themselves when they feel scared or overwhelmed), and afix your Calm Down List on the refrigerator or another visible place in your house to help remind the family how you can help.
The Sensory Lens Part 2
Sensory Meltdown or Age Appropriate Tantrum?
First, establish if the meltdown is sensory related (fight or flight panic) or a more typical behavioral tantrum.
- Is there any direct sensory stimulation that is clearly over or under whelming them?
- Use your sensory lens. Look for something you’ve tuned out, or wouldn’t normally notice. ( IE: The bathroom fan humming in the background, a square tile room that causes echos, fast moving objects or videos, a new smell from new hand soap or perfume, etc.)
- What is the status of their basic body needs?
- Food (blood sugar low? Allergy or food sensitivity – what did they just eat?)
- Sleep / Rest / Quiet Time
- Elimination (last time peed or pooped?)
- Health (feeling ill or body otherwise uncomfortable)
- Are they panicked or emotional? Medical definition of Panic as defined by Merriam Webster is “a sudden unreasoning terror…” http://www.merriam-webster.com/medical/panic What I look for in a small child that tells me their panicked.
- A sudden onset and a fight or flight response.
- Sudden physical aggression
- Sudden running away, hiding, trying to crawl into a small space
- Sudden emotion: crying, screaming, etc.
- Sudden physiological symptoms: rapid breathing, sweating, trembling, nausea or vomiting.
- The inability to communicate their needs.
- A facial expression of terror or anger.
- A sudden onset and a fight or flight response.
Once you’ve established it is a sensory meltdown – your response should be one of calm support and assistance. Remember your child is in a state of panic, and needs your help to guide them back to equilibrium.
How to understand and positively approach a sensory meltdown
Flashing back to a year ago, I had my hunches that my daughter had some unique challenges – I had just picked up the book Raising a Sensory Smart Child by Lindsey Biel and was reading it while the water was running for bath time. Oufff… And Isis jumped into my lap. Done reading.
“Bath time, honey.”
“No mama, no bath.”
“Yes, you’ve got sand in your hair, you need a bath tonight.”
“No, no, no, no.”
“Let’s go play the sink or float game.” Sweeping her up lovingly and carrying her into the bathroom. My stomach sinking like the Titanic… This is going to be a traumatic disaster. What am I going to do? I set her down on the bathroom rug, and immediately she turns from obstinate into a panicking, terrified, trapped animal. I reach over to take off her shirt for bath time and my screaming little girl morphs into that Raccoon that once got into our house – a panicked and terrified animal in flight mode.
The raw terror in her eyes hit my loving mommy core – my heart hurt for her – this wasn’t normal. What do I do? Then Lindsey Biel’s book I had just been reading banana cream pied me in the face. *Wake up*
My body language shifted and Isis paused in her panic for a moment. She knew something had just changed in the room.
“Hey honey – I’m not going to make you get in the bath – I have an idea!”
“What, mama?” her curiosity breaking through the tears. “What is it?”
“I’m going to go get your blue bath (baby bath – much smaller than the bathtub – almost too tight for her 2.5 year old body). And we can put it in the bath tub, and you can choose what temperature you want the water in it, okay?”
Panic vanished. “Yes, mama! I want my blue bath!”
“Okay, you stay right here – I’ll be right back with your blue bath.”
I run outside and grab her old baby bath, clean it with a quick rinse, and then put it in the bath tub – empty. She leaps into it – smiling and happy (Weren’t you just a panicked raccoon? What just happened?). She breathes a daddy sized sigh of relief, and looks at me with the biggest brown pools of eyes I have ever seen and says, “Oh thank you mommy! Thank you so much. I needed my blue bath.”
I hold on tight to my tears trying not to let them out. Something was desperately wrong with the bath to her senses – her experience of that bath – so terrifying that she couldn’t function. Her entire system had short circuited and she had panicked.
At that moment I knew my daughter had sensory processing disorder – and a total change in perspective came over me. I now saw the entire world through a sensory lens – a constant flood of sound, movement, sights, touch, proprioception, taste, and smells. And so I started to develop the skills to help her navigate this stimulating modern world we live in. To follow in my next entry will be my approach to a Sensory Meltdown after a year of trial and error, reading, and learning – In hopes that it might help some of you parents out there!
We went to the annual Berkeley Kite festival a couple of weeks ago. Isis (3.5 yrs.) loves kites (in addition to finding them romantic I think she loves the proprioceptive input – the feel of the kite tugging on her arm and the wind blowing her body). I was worried about the crowds but I knew she’d handle it for the sake of kites and bouncy houses. It was an added bonus our “shuttle” from the parking lot was a bonefied full size yellow school bus! If there is anything cooler than a kite, it’s a school bus, and this was her and her younger sister Kali’s very first school bus ride. “Oh, is it going to take us to school, mama!?” She asked me in wonder. “Nope,” said daddy “it’s going to take us to the Kite Festival!” “Oh great! ” She burst out.
After our bus adventure, our next mission as decreed by our daughter was to fly her kite. Since we totally failed as parents and didn’t bring her kite, we had to avail ourselves of one of the free paper kites she got to color on before attempting to fly. Then it was on to the next thing, and she again was walking in the crowds in the opposite direction of her family. “Isis, this way!” my husband shouts after her. But I know she doesn’t hear him even though she’s still less than 6 feet away… My consciousness slips into hers and for a brief second my vision tunnels and I hear what she hears… Everything – all at once – at full volume – with no filters – The beat of the pop music blaring for the kite competition: “boom chuk, boom chuk, boom chuk” , all the conversations happening above her head in the truly diverse fashion of the east Bay “hoa bu hao” “va manos” “taiko”, the wind “whoooooosh” the vibrating kites “wawawawa” and then I flash back to my own body. I give my husband the “it’s sensory” look (ya you develop one of those as a parent with a kid with SI challenges) and say “She can’t hear you.” He knows just what to do, he launches after her, sweeps her up in his arm, and physical reorients her in the direction we were headed. Now physically and visually on track – our family happily carries on.
Sensory Snippet – Put yourself in your child’s shoe’s and experience the world through your raw senses. If you’re in a place with a lot of different sounds / noises or a particular type of sound you know they’re sensitive to and they’re not listening it’s not because they’re being obstinate. Literally, “She can’t hear you”.
Sensory Solution: Get their attention and communicate in a non-auditory way. Gently pull them out of their sensory state by physically lifting, pointing, turning, etc as needed. Or find a less stimulating place to talk.