The Sensory Sensitive Child / by Laura Kett

“Is the fire alarm going to go off?  The lights are too bright!  It’s too noisy in here – it hurts my ears! My tummy hurts.  I want to leave!”

Do you have a sensitive child?  This is not an uncommon phenomenon and yet these children can feel alienated and misunderstood.  When I have had children referred for sensitivities, it’s usually because it is interfering with their concentration and even with social skills.

Noah came to me and could not get off the topic of the possibility of the fire alarm going off.  His mother said he also had a hard time entering public bathrooms because of the anticipated noise of the hand driers.  My nephew has extreme sensitivity to pain to the point where a hang nail can make him miss a piano lesson.  The other afternoon I was attending a child-friendly concert—or should I say friendly for most, as one child was brought out plugging his ears, screaming about the noise and his parent looked equally stressed saying, “just play outside then!”

It can be so frustrating for the adult, but even more anxiety producing for the child! When I try to explain to parents and teachers how real this is to a child, I ask them to imagine standing in front of a car and the person inside is poised to hit the horn.  You know it’s just a horn, but you would feel better if you were the one who was going to honk it.  Or, imagine that you are experiencing a nasty headache and you are stuck in traffic in a construction zone.  The point is, a child feels like there is no escape.  Or maybe they do escape and they bolt from the house or classroom or away from you in a crowd.  Or they just melt.

As discussed in past posts, it is good to think of your own sensitivities and try to think about how your child is experiencing the environment.  It is helpful to think of yourself on the same side as the child and honor their sensitivities.  Just take their word for it that it truly “hurts.”

If you were stuck in traffic, hearing someone say, “Get over it, there is nothing I can do!” would simply add to the frustration.  But it might help you to hear something like:  “Oh, getting stuck in traffic is the worst!  Can you find some good music to listen to? I heard the funniest story at work today.”

Similarly, a child might like to hear:  “Oh, I am so sorry that noise is bothering you and hurting your ears.  It does not bother me, but I know it bothers you.  What about putting your hands over your ears or using these ear plugs or these noise-blocking headphones?”  If they are not at the peak of anxiety, it may help to divert them with a story or song. I had one little guy who just needed to have the ear plugs in his pocket.  At first he used them, but eventially he would just finger them for reassurance.

Sometimes if you anticipate a “sensory event” it helps to talk it through, talk about ways to handle it and go through the time table for when it will be over.  Help them practice tolerating the noise.  Even have them imitate the noise.  In the case of pain, try to give the child some deep calming back rubs or find another calming event for them such as music on headphones.

*If you would like to go on an outing with your child who has sensitivities, there are venues which accommodate those needs.  Libraries offer smaller group times with less stimulation.  Also Seattle's Child Magazine has pulled together a list of possibilities you may want to check out.

**If your child is overwhelmed and you are overwhelmed, seek a professional to help you work through these very real challenges.  It can be an occupational therapist, or for babies you can contact the people at the FussyBabyNetwork: (Seattle area)

May 5, 2015