Follow these techniques rooted in neuroscience to best support both you and your child during their sensory meltdowns.
If you are the parent of a child with Sensory Processing Disorder you know how extremely draining and heartbreaking it is to observe a sensory meltdown.
Witnessing and supporting your child through a sensory meltdown is one of the most difficult things a parent can go through.
If you’ve done your research and are familiar with Sensory Processing Disorder you know that meltdowns are not behavioral. That is – they are not a means to an end for the child, despite the fact that they are often misinterpreted as such.
Sensory meltdowns are completely out of the child’s control and are a result of a very overwhelmed nervous system.
When our children have difficulty modulating sensory input, their sympathetic nervous system is triggered and sets of a ‘fight or flight’ response. When your child is in fight or flight the best thing you can do for them (aside from containing them to a safe environment) is STAYING CALM.
The importance of staying calm can’t be reiterated enough. During a sensory meltdown, a child feels internally out of control. We need to be the source of control, calm and quiet for them.
To say that this is easier said than done is a major understatement. Even when we know these behaviors are unintentional and uncontrollable they are still EXTREMELY FRUSTRATING to deal with. The child is most likely engaging in some combination of screaming, crying, running, flailing, banging, hitting, kicking, biting ect… which may or may not be directed at you.
These behaviors illicit a strong response from adults – remaining neutral and calm takes forethought and strategizing.
These are the techniques that work to survive a sensory meltdown.
1. Talk to Yourself
Remind yourself of the basic premise of sensory meltdowns: your child is in fight or flight and no longer has the ability to use reason or logic. Your child is now operating out of the emotion center of the brain (amygdala) and most likely can not understand you. The best thing you can do is to KEEP THEM SAFE and STAY CALM. You don’t have the ability to control what is happening with your child. Save the discussion on how to let our feelings safely for after they’ve calmed. The only thing you have the ability to control at this point is yourself.
2. Let it go
Your breath that is. The behaviors your child is engaging in are very frustrating and are going to cause your blood pressure to rise and your frustration level to shorten as a result. Taking repetitive deep breaths is the quickest way to physiologically calm your body down, and decrease the release of stress hormones.
Slow calm breaths will allow YOU to continue thinking from the logical part of your brain (pre-frontal cortex) and not from the emotion center of the brain (amygdala) where your child is functioning out of currently. A good quality breath is drawn in from your nose and exhaled through your mouth, optimally to the count of at least 3 seconds for each.
3. Get in the zone
As a parent, it is heartbreaking that there is very little you can do to help your child in their discomfort. It is very apparent how uncomfortable the child is and we’d do anything to help relieve some of their pain. When I find myself staying fully present for a lengthy and intense meltdown, it is inevitable I will get emotional.
This usually tends to derail my intended response (to stay calm and quiet) and doesn’t help demonstrate for my child that I am in control. The only full proof way to not get emotionally invested is to ZONE OUT. Check out. Disengage mentally and emotionally. Let your mind go elsewhere (as long as your child is safe and contained) for a while and you’ll be much more likely to remain in control.
4. Give Yourself a Break
When all else fails and you feel your tension rising too high- give yourself permission to take a break. If you are lucky your child will be ok with this (in my case my child always wants in her proximity but of course each child is different), but they very well may not be. Regardless of their initial reaction, leaving to gather yourself and calm down is a much better alternative than staying and losing your temper verbally or physically.
Learning to respond to a sensory meltdown in a helpful and productive way takes effort and practice. Be patient with yourself, and make sure you can unwind in some way afterward as seeing your child this way can be downright traumatic.
It is possible to take care of both you and your child during a sensory meltdown.
Don’t forget to give yourself a pat on the back and a thumbs up for working hard to do what’s best for your sensory kiddo. Having a kid with sensory issues is not easy, and you are a great parent.