Updated: Mar 24
I’ve been concerned by a few articles and blog posts on “Riding Out the Sensory Meltdown.” The general idea of these posts is there is nothing to do for a child in a Sensory Meltdown other than be there for them and to wait for it to end. Granted being there counts for a lot, and I commend every parent who stays present for their child’s Sensory Meltdown. In those moments our children have lost control of themselves and need our comforting helpful presence. I’ve learned over the past 5 years there’s a lot more I can do for my child than just be there. These 3 tools have helped tremendously in reducing the frequency and duration of meltdowns.
Fight, flight or freeze? A Sensory Meltdown is a form of panic, purely instinctual, animal brain response to something the system has registered as a life or death threat. What has really defined Sensory Processing Disorder for our family has been this panic response to every day stimulus we encounter in suburban life. In a word it is being OVERWHELMED. Here are some key tools to reach the instinctual brain, the nervous system, and open doors to learning new options. Your role is a benevolent guardian and guide towards a more balanced and regulated response.
As with all tools, they are optimally effective when used regularly, prepared during ‘good’ times and thenready for action when intensity is turned up to full volume. Practice and familiarity help integrate the tools into one’s neural networks.
Tool 1: Take a Deep Breath! Big sigh, ahhhhh….
If you can, catch your child before fully engaged in a meltdown. Interrupt their emotional trajectory with a strong but gentle “Take a Deep Breath!” Lead by example, as you then do it yourself. A slightly exaggerated breath: audible so they can hear, with one hand on your stomach and the other either on your chest or on the child’s stomach (if that’s comfortable for her/him.) As much as possible engaging sensory awareness as they see, hear and feel stomachs moving to fill with air. Then let it out slowly by sighing out loud “Ahhhhhhhh.” If you’re not able to get to them before they’ve “checked out” you can still do this breathing to model it. It can 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. Emotional states are associated with specific breathing patterns, so when you change your breathing you alter your feeling state.
Tool 2: Look Around You!
If you can, help draw your child’s attention to something up high (above their eye line) and then gradually all around. Sometimes I’ll shout or whisper excitedly “Look!” You can point, slightly exaggerated, or even move both arms or your whole body. 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, flight or freeze response. Moving the eyes to look all around helps a child’s nervous system to register there is no immediate life or death threat. This helps their brains conceptualize, they are safe! Alternating one’s facial expression and one’s body posture changes the neural input. Happy, relaxed, at ease and safe, reflect whatever engenders these feelings for your child.
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 sensations. Experiment to discover what rhythmic sensory input is most soothing for your child. For instance: 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, or a visual pattern.
Once our family was on a long road trip and our sensory kid started to lose it (they 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 kiddo immediately went quiet and listened to the rhythmic story… “llama llama red pajama…” I’ve used this several times since with much success.
How this 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.
Optimally, you want practice these tools ahead of a meltdown. By reinforcing positive patterns, the result is a more regulated or balanced response. However, these tools are good to use at any time. Sometimes they work magic, sometimes it will be too little too late. As we always chant the mantra to our children,when something doesn’t work, “oh, that’s tricky, let’s try again (later).” We’re all human, meltdowns happen, the calmer we are and the more we support each other in healthy habits, the shorter and less frequent meltdowns can be.