How to Help a Child Struggling With Sensory Issues and Self-Control

When a child is having a tantrum or meltdown, we tend to say, “That child is struggling with self-control.” This description doesn’t quite capture what is really going on: poor self-regulation.

How to Help a Child Struggling With Sensory Issues and Self-Control

A child might be able to control certain actions, such as hitting one’s self or others, even when upset, but what if the child can’t? If he/she is unable to do anything but experience distress and lash out, then the child has poor self-regulation of emotions. No amount of bribery or threats of punishment can get the child to stop because he/she simply can’t.

Kids with sensory issues have an especially hard time developing self-regulation skills when it comes to their emotions, focus, and activity level. Self-regulation and sensory issues commonly go together because kids with sensory processing disorder have brains that don’t process sensory information reliably.

Children can quickly go into a fight-or-flight response when they are being bombarded with confusing sensations and disoriented. Stack on top of that the pressure of people are asking them questions or making demands of them and it’s all too much.

It’s not always obvious how much kids with sensory issues are struggling. When they want to control their state of being, and it’s hard, they’re not available for learning, socializing, and taking on extra pressures. They have excess energy when we want them to be calm or are too relaxed when we want them to be energized.

They have trouble with transitioning from one state of being to another: asleep to awake, active to quiet and calm, and so on. Fortunately, by working on their self-regulation skills, we can help them to have an easier time functioning well during everyday activities and situations at home, at school, and away.

How can a child develop self-regulation skills?

By practicing mindfulness

By practicing mindful breathing, walking, listening, or eating, a child develops the part of the brain associated with self-awareness and with focus. It’s easier to stay focused on a task at hand when your thoughts aren’t running away from you and turning into anxious ones: “If I try to eat an egg, it’ll feel disgusting in my mouth. If I don’t eat it, Grandma will get mad.” A child needs to be able to control his/her emotional response of anxiety to be a good self-advocate, find his/her words, and choose the right tone of voice in which to say, “Grandma, my sensory issues make it super hard to eat eggs. Would it be okay if I eat something else?”

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By using self-regulation tools

At you can access materials to help a child recognize and communicate his/her state of regulation: The Blue Zone is when a child does not feel very alert and perhaps feels tired, bored, sad, or sick. The Green Zone is what he/she is in when feeling peaceful, in a good mood, and is focused—and there are other zones as well.  The Alert Program and the Incredible 5-Point Scale are similar programs you can use as tools for helping kids to identify what state of being they are in and what they can do to shift into another zone. Having a picture to go with the abstract idea of feeling sad or overly excited can help both nonverbal and verbal kids to better identify and understand their state of being.

By developing emotional intelligence and words around emotions, activity levels, and focus

It’s easier for a child to learn to regulate emotions when he/she has words to express them. Labels for emotions, such as “frustrated” and scared,” can help a child feel a sense of control over feelings. Offer your child language that can help him/her identify and express what emotions he/she is experiencing.

Watch movies or videos together and point out where you see characters feeling and expressing themselves. You might say to your child who is watching Frozen, “Elsa looks anxious. She’s stepping back a little like she wants to get away from everyone. People do that sometimes when they’re afraid. What else do people do when they are afraid?” And you might say, “What could you do if you felt you were getting scared?” This way, you can help your child recognize what he/she is experiencing and self-reflect. That, in turn, helps the child plan for what to do the next time he/she gets in a situation where challenged to regulate emotions.

Words around activity level and focus can help your child, too. The Alert Program talks about kids whose engines are running too fast or too slow or just right. This car engine metaphor can be very helpful for kids trying to understand why it’s hard for them to sit still and participate in an activity at school when their body is telling them to run in circles.

For focus, you might want to encourage your child to talk about his/her focus level and even about the brain needing more time to process information. What helps your child concentrate? What does concentration look like? Books and movies can be helpful in these discussions.

The more self-awareness and the more tools for regulating his emotions, activity level, and focus kids have, the easier it will be for them to avoid meltdowns, tantrums, and other behaviors that can embarrass and upset them and others.

Our kids are trying so hard to manage challenging situations. Knowing more about self-regulation and how to help your son or daughter develop self-regulation skills can help make your family life more harmonious.

This article was featured in Issue 90 – Practical Ways to Build Skills for a Lifetime

Nancy Peske

Nancy Peske, the Sensory Smart Parent, began learning about sensory issues when her son was a toddler and diagnosed with sensory processing disorder and multiple developmental delays. With her son’s occupational therapist, Lindsey Biel, OTR/L, she co-wrote the award-winning Raising a Sensory Smart Child: The Definitive Handbook for Helping Your Child with Sensory Issues. Nancy speaks to parents and professionals about practical ways to help kids with sensory issues. For more, see @SensorySmartMom1 on Twitter, or Nancy Peske on YouTube. Member of the American Society of Journalists and Authors Follow Nancy on Facebook,  Twitter, Pinterest NEW! Subscribe to her YouTube channel.