You Don’t Just Have to Ride It Out – 3 Tools for Reaching Your Child While In a Sensory Meltdown
I’ve been troubled lately by a few articles and blog posts I’ve read on “Riding Out the Sensory Meltdown.” The general idea of these posts is that there is nothing we can do for a child in a Sensory Meltdown other than be there for them and waiting for it to end. Now granted, being there counts for a lot, and I commend every parent who is there for their child through a Sensory Meltdown. In those moments our children no longer have control of themselves and need any and all comfort and help we have to give them. I’ve learned over the past 4 years that there’s a lot more I can do for my daughter than just be there, and these three tools have helped tremendously in reducing the frequency and duration of meltdowns.
A Sensory Meltdown is a form of panic, a form of purely instinctual, animal brain response to something the system has registered as a life or death threat. Fight or flight. And so, we need to reach the instinct, the nervous system, to calm a child in this state.
Tool 1: Take a Deep Breath!
If you can, catch your child before the meltdown hits with full force. Interrupt their emotional trajectory with a strong but gentle “Take a Deep Breath!” And then do it yourself, audibly so they can hear, with your hands on your stomach so they can see and feel you fill your stomach with air, and then let it out slowly by either blowing it out (like blowing bubbles) or sighing it out saying “Ahhhhhhhh.” If you’re not able to get to them before they’ve “checked out” into non responsiveness you can still do this breathing yourself to model it, even if they don’t participate. It will help keep you calm, which in turn helps keep them calm.
How this works: Deep breathing allows more oxygen to travel to the brain, and activates the parasympathetic nervous system which helps the body to calm down.
Tool 2: Look Around You!
If you can, help draw your child’s attention to something up high (above their eyeline) and then gradually all around. Some times I’ll shout or whisper excitedly “Look!” And point. A painting, the moon, a light, a fly, a bug, anything to get them to move their eyes around. Once you’ve got their attention keep drawing their eyes to new things at a measured pace (not too fast) or ask them to help you visually find something. If they become calm enough begin a game of “I spy.”
How this works: The ocular nerve has an impact on the hypothalamus which is responsible for triggering the fight or flight response. Moving the eyes to look all around helps a child’s nervous system to register there is no immediate life or death threat and helps their brains conceptualize that they are safe.
Tool 3: Rhythm
We are fundamentally beings of rhythm. Our heart beat is our life rhythm. Rhythm helps to sooth us. We find rhythm in physical movement, sound, vibration, or other sensation (use trial and error to discover what is most soothing for your child). Rocking back and forth, bouncing, drumming, tapping, listening to your heart beat on your chest, feeling your chest rise and fall with your deep breaths, poetry, a rhyme, a chant, a song, a story, a visual pattern. Once our family was on a long road trip and our sensory kid started to loose it (she couldn’t take being in her car seat a second longer!). I turned on the “Llama Llama Red Pajama” audio book by Anna Dudney, and our daughter immediately went quiet and listened to the rhythmic story… “llama llama red pajama…” I’ve used this several times since with lots of success.
How it works: Our bodies, including our brain and nervous system specialize in rhythm. It is programmed into who we are and it can have very soothing effects on our bodies and minds.