Kids are much better at ‘showing’ us than telling us with words.
When a child has a need for more sensory input, they’re better at showing you than telling you.
Many children are able to get their sensory needs met through what we think of as ‘typical’ or ‘normal’ activities. They run, jump, and play in the ways we expect children to. Sometimes a little too much, or a little too crazy (!) but as they’re kids, we accept that. Kids act silly, push limits, and do things that make no sense.
However, some children have needs that ‘normal’ or ‘typical’ play just won’t satisfy. They have a need for more. They need more active play than others, and they may need more or harder pressure – their muscles are craving it so much that they might be demonstrating ‘different’ behaviors, like:
- intentionally running into things (the fence in the backyard, for example) again and again
- trying to do a handstand over and over
- launching themselves at adults in the family when they want a hug or when giving a greeting (ouch!)
- performing ‘odd’ movements, like squeezing their eyes shut tightly for no apparent reason, clenching their fists/arms/other body parts, again for no apparent reason
- having frequent, long tantrums over seemingly small upsets
These kiddos can hurt you! Watching them at play may also make you worry that they’ll hurt themselves. But at least it’s pretty clear that they need activity and pressure, so you can start planning activities that will help feed that need. (More about that in a moment)
Some children with a need for more pressure are not as easy to read. They’ll give more subtle signals, and then ‘blow out’ and have major tantrums over seemingly unimportant things, and these tantrums will last a very long time and be difficult to soothe.
More subtle indicators can look like:
- trying to roll their eyes up as far as they will go, or crossing their eyes intentionally
- squeezing themselves into tight spaces (behind the couch, on a shelf near the floor) and staying there
You might notice your child starting to get ‘revved up’ just before having a major tantrum, and talking to them to try to avoid the tantrum won’t stop it from happening.
Recovering from a 45 minute tantrum is no fun for either you or your child, and can wreck outings, visits, or just nice days at home.
So, is there something you can do if your child has odd or different behaviors?
Can you stop some tantrums?
The answer to both of those questions is
When you help your child meet their sensory need for more pressure or activity, you help them regulate or manage their body. That helps keep them more on an even keel. They’ll be less likely to get over-stimulated or engage in behaviors that might hurt them or others.
Do you feel better when you’re rested, getting stuff done that needs to be done, and getting breaks throughout the day? All those things help you regulate yourself throughout the day. Your child needs the same things, but he or she also needs help learning how to regulate their body.
Since these children need more, give them more! Try a variety of activities that will satisfy the need, and be fun at the same time. Since all children are different, your child might not find all of the following fun, so drop those and only keep the ones that are fun!
- Give them bags of groceries to carry into the house for you
- Have gallon bottles of water in the house at all times – make a game of having them carry one or 2 bottles (depending on the age of your child) to a spot in the house that you designate (“Take the bottle to the bottom of the stairs”)
- With supervision, get some scrap wood and let them pound nails into it. Small children might need 2 hands on the hammer – a little safer alternative is to get a pumpkin and have them pound golf tees into the pumpkin with wooden or plastic hammers
- Have them commando crawl from one end of the room (or house) to the other – excellent for getting upper body feedback!
- Jumping on a trampoline or a small rebounder is great fun
- Get a blanket and roll them up in it ‘like a burrito’ – make sure to leave their heads outside the blanket
- Some children enjoy it if you ask them, “do you want some hot sauce on your burrito?” and if they say ‘yes,’ you can firmly rub their bodies in the blanket in a downward motion from shoulders to feet as they’re lying on their side (* always be respectful – only touch your child in a way they like)
- play dough and clay are wonderful ways to get sensory input – pound it, squeeze it, tear it!
At the same time as you’re teaching these activities, it’s important to also establish limits. Some behaviors are dangerous and your child needs to learn what’s safe and what isn’t.
- Launching yourself at Grandma for a big hug is not safe
- Jumping from the couch to the armchair is not safe
You may be able to add to this list (!) Behaviors that are unsafe can’t be tolerated, and your child will have to learn that. That’s why it’s so important to have activities that are okay to replace the unsafe ones! You’ll have to let your child know that, “It’s not okay to jump from the fifth stair to the landing, but you can ______________.”
What about those tantrums?
Children with sensory needs do best if they get opportunities to engage in deep pressure activities throughout the day. That way they’ll be releasing pressure and satisfying their needs all day long. They won’t have to release it all at once with a complete blow-out (tantrum). Still, tantrums are likely to happen because small children are just learning how to self-regulate and are often overstimulated by what’s happening around them (sights, sounds, new experiences).
You need to be on the lookout for subtle signs, because young children can’t tell you when they’re getting over-stimulated or when their need for deep pressure is more than they can deal with.
If your child looks like they’re starting to get revved up you can try one of these activities listed below. It would be a good idea to try these activities at a time when your child isn’t getting upset, so the two of you can practice at a calm time and the two of you can figure out what they like and don’t like.
Always ask first, and let them know what you’re going to try. You could say, “I’m going to push down on your shoulders – tell me if you like it,” for example)
- Firmly push down on your child’s shoulders, just for a second. Ask, “Is that okay?” They’ll let you know if they like it and if it’s okay to do it more. I like to stand behind the child. Always be gentle!
- Ask if you can give them a ‘big hug,’ and if they agree, give a very firm hug. They’ll let you know if it’s too hard or if they want a harder hug.
- For a hands-off approach, teach your child to tense all of their muscles for a few seconds, then release. Do this 2 or 3 times. You’ll have to demonstrate it for them, but it will feel great!
In time you’ll be able to do these activities as you see your child needs them, either when they’re exhibiting their subtle signs or when they’re revving up for a tantrum. You’ll help your child self-regulate (your main aim!) so that they can avoid having to have a tantrum.
With time, your child will learn to ask you for a shoulder push or a big hug as they feel themselves needing them. That will be a happy day, indeed!
Does your child need more sensory input than their friends?