Understanding sensory processing difficulties in our children

Many families discover Attachment Parenting in their quest for how to raise their “spirited” children.

All children, evident from birth on, have their own unique temperament. For some children, their temperament traits may be challenging for their parents or teachers. Common among these possible traits are sensory processing difficulties.

Children with difficulty in processing sensory experiences — sight, sound, touch, taste, or smell — connect to regions in their brain and/or nervous system that may be overly or under-sensitive to that particular sense. For example, my daughter has great difficulty with the feeling of water — her nervous system is hypersensitive to certain touch experiences. I even have sensory difficulties with certain sounds, touch experiences, and light brightness.

In my family’s case, our sensory processing difficulties have likely a genetic component. But children can also develop sensory processing difficulties from sensory deprivation experienced early in life, especially those in the foster care system, those who’ve been adopted, and those who’ve experienced a traumatic early childhood such as in cases of overt abuse or neglect.

However your “spirited” child came to develop sensory processing difficulties, this video from Empowered to Connect gives an excellent overview of what sensory processing is and how difficulties with sensory experiences can impact child behavior:


Photo source

Embracing persistence in children

flower-887443_1280 (2)When my son was younger, I wondered why he had to be so determined? Why couldn’t he be easygoing like most other kids I know? And why did he have to challenge me nearly all the time?

I vividly recall an incident when Ethan was about 2 years old. It made me realize how strong-willed and spirited he was.

He wanted to open a kitchen cabinet that was locked. I explained that it was unsafe and that he can play with all the other cabinets I kept unlocked. He wouldn’t have it. He sat next to the cabinet door sobbing and pleading for about an hour and a half. Nothing I said or did distracted him or changed his mind.

I understood I needed to meet his persistence with an abundance of love and patience as well as consistency to set limits and develop healthy boundaries.

With time, I have learned to gain an appreciation for his temperament, develop more patience, take a deep breath before responding, and try the best I can to see situations from his perspective.

A few months ago, at the age of 7, Ethan reminded me how his determination was effective and how important it was for me to learn from it.

We arrived at the playground with Ethan riding his scooter, scouring to see if any of his friends were around. He spotted a boy about his age, also scootering. He didn’t know him, but nonetheless, his eyes lit up — he wanted to play!

He zoomed in the boy’s direction and shouted, “Hey, do you want to race with our scooters?” The boy didn’t respond and scootered in the opposite direction. As Ethan followed him, the boy kept riding away. So they went, Ethan trying to get his attention and the boy ignoring him and scootering away from him — it was clear that he was avoiding Ethan.

I called Ethan over and explained to him that the boy didn’t seem interested in playing, and I asked that he respect his space. He protested, saying he just wants to race their scooters together. I stressed that we need to respect the boy’s wishes.

For the next 30 minutes, the boys played away from each other. Then the boy was playing with a soccer ball, and when he threw the ball, it landed in Ethan’s hands. Without any verbal exchange, they started to play ball together.

I shook my head and chuckled. I thought, he sure found a way to get to this boy.

They continued to play for the next 30 minutes. They came over to me for a short break, and after they took a few sips of water, Ethan casually asked the boy, “Hey, do you want to race with our scooters?” “Sure!” the boy, said.

Ethan turned over to face me and with his victorious, glowing smile said, “See? Now he listens!” And with that, they went and joyfully raced on their scooters.

Game over. Persistence paid off!

Through my son, I have learned about the value of persistence and it has benefited me personally and professionally. Persistence is an important component in pushing through and achieving goals. Recent studies point out that perseverance and persistence in children are better predictors of success than IQ scores. I particularly like this 2013 article on the value of persistence.

Rather than wondering why or how our children have certain characteristics, we ought to wonder how we can best approach them and how we can nurture who they are.

I no longer view my son’s persistence as a shortcoming, but rather a strength. It presents a constant challenge for me, but it’s one I wholeheartedly embrace.

Additional API Resources on Embracing Our Child’s Temperament

laura markhamAPI Teleseminar: “How to Get Kids Cooperating Without Yelling, Bribes, Threats or Punishments” with Dr. Laura Markham — audio recording now only $9!



TAF2013lovinguniquelyAPI Publications: Attached Family special edition, “Loving Uniquely


Personal stories on APtly Said, API’s blog:

— “Liking my spirited child

— “Average big

— “He just wants to be held

— “Was Attachment Parenting worth it?

— “Nurturing touch restores security in adoptive families

— “Is he a good baby?

— “The clown is sometimes serious

— “Want your child to learn self-control? First, teach self-validation

Professional insight on The Attached Family, API’s online magazine:

— “Different, Not Disordered

— “Emotions, Limits and Spirited Kids

— “Parenting Without Punishment in a Punishing World

— “Creative Learning

— “When ‘D’ Meets ‘S,’ The Role of Personality in Parenting

— “Quiz: Are You a ‘Problem Parent?’

— “Diverting Anger in Toddlers

Want your child to learn self-control? First, teach self-validation

playing-1436907A child’s ability to form healthy self-validation is a vital goal of child development. In fact, a child’s capacity for self-validation has everything to do with the development of emotional safety — the overarching developmental goal of childhood.

To use the word “validate” in the context of relationships, we’re referring to the process by which a person values that which she (or he) knows and feels is true and right for herself, and then acts in accordance with her inner knowing in support of her own self and her own needs.

As we raise our children to be intimate with what they feel, sense and know, and to honor and support themselves in their knowing, we are providing them with this fundamentally valuable tool for successfully navigating their internal and external experiences throughout their life.

This is the foundation for a child’s capacity to acquire the more complex self-regulation skills he (or she) needs to actualize his potential. It’s the very important task we have of validating his unconditional goodness, and what he feels, thinks, desires and knows — which then tells him he is “right” in the world, that his experiences are important and that his dreams are valuable.

It’s we — the parents — who largely determine how a child comes to validate him- or herself. Let’s keep this in mind as I describe “Sarah.”

Sarah is 4 years old, joyful, full of life and wicked smart. I was called in to observe her and consult with her preschool teachers and parents due to her “impulsive, inattentive, non-compliant, emotional, potentially dangerous” behaviors of refusing to sit in circle time and constantly banging into objects: outside with her tricycle, and inside where she would run into and purposefully, though playfully, try to topple both other children and adults. Sarah could also be irritable and angry, displaying explosive behaviors when caregivers attempted to redirect her and minimize her complaints.

Sarah had a typical complaint of wanting to do what she wanted to do when she wanted to do it. She argued that she could in fact listen while doing other things during circle time; however, the teachers wanted all the kids sitting “criss-cross apple sauce” on the floor, eyes on them. Because of her complaints, fidgeting and refusal to cooperate, Sarah was made to sit in a chair at a table removed from the group, and to color while the rest of the class conducted their weather discussions, reviewed the alphabet and learned the letter of the day.

Although this decision to exclude Sarah from circle time appears to wrongly shame her, one of her teachers demonstrated both compassion and insight to see that this form of physical structure — sitting on the chair at the table — with an activity to calm her mind and busy her hands — coloring — in fact enabled Sarah to participate fully in their discussions and add to it with more intelligent, creative contributions than most of the other students.

It took some prompting in this rigid classroom, but the staff learned to tweak their expectations and appropriately loosen their requirements of the children, who were then given the choice to sit for circle time or not. Sarah was no longer shamed for being different, and she experienced validation from her teachers that her way of participating in circle time was best for her.

Her teachers’ validation of her translated into her own self-validation for speaking up about what she knew to be true for herself.

In the play yard, we reviewed Sarah’s sensory needs that were mistakenly seen as aggressive in intention. The plowing into objects and people instead suggested she was seeking physical gross-motor input in that she displayed no anger at these times but seemed to have a lot of fun doing the plowing. It served her.

In addition to creating safe places for Sarah to get this physical input — like jumping onto heavy mats from a not-too-high step during scheduled and play intervals throughout the day — we got her mom’s written permission for teachers to give Sarah frequent, deep-pressure hugs and squeezes as a preventative measure to the more impulsive plowing behaviors. I also made a referral for a physical therapy consult. We asked Sarah to let us know when she was feeling out of sorts and to seek the big, bear hugs that immediately calmed her, as soon as her body began to tell her that she needed them.

Her caregivers at school and home began listening to her more — and began seeing her more clearly as a child who needed their support to speak up about her experiences and needs.

I also recommended a nutritional consult, and as a treatment team, we began incorporating the foods into her diet — and eliminating others — that would prove to seem to balance her nervous system so that some of the impulsivity diminished.

Additionally, we built in the time, place and space for her to enjoy more creative, stimulating activities to express herself, learn and teach us about herself: how she thinks, feels, senses and relates to herself, others and the world.

What worked for Sarah is that we were able to see her through various lenses of her holistic health and well-being. By using protocols within the sensory, biology-physical expression, creative self-expression, nutrition and attachment-relationship lenses, we successfully learned to honor what Sarah knew to be true for herself, and we provided her with more knowledge and supports that she needed to further know and support herself.

Sarah learned how to validate herself by internalizing 2 concepts:

  1. “I am someone who needs, seeks and gets big hugs and squeezes, special play activities and the best foods to make me feel calm, balanced and safe.” She knows that these are the right things for her. And because Sarah taught her caregivers that they need to listen to her and to fully see her and learn from her, Sarah was able to internalize an aspect of her identity as a person of value in the world.
  2. “I am valued. What I think, feel, want, experience and express matters to others. I am worthy of being heard and seen and respected.” She needed us to validate her so that she could further validate her own self and know that she is doing the right things to keep herself in balance and feel safe.

You can substitute just about any example of a child’s life situation here. The experiences and lessons will likely be the same: We want our child to know what it is that she (or he) knows, to honor what it is that she knows and, when old enough, to seek the supporting knowledge to inform her decisions further.

The thing is, we need to really see our child and listen to him (or her). We cannot try to make him fit into an old ideal of how he “should” behave, act or be. We must meet him “where he’s at” and start there. Our goal is that we use and teach skills sets containing “ways of thinking and doing” to support children in being themselves throughout the trajectory of their lives.

Children can and do fall through the cracks. If we had continued to ignore what Sarah was telling us, she may likely have developed increased shame, anger, rebellion and, over time, an attitude of “Forget you, you’re not listening to me. I’ll do what I want and feel good about it.”

She might have someday came to validate herself in other ways that create rage, division and resentment. She very well could have tied in with peers who not only validate these emotions but — worse — use them to fuel deeper discord, judgment, intolerance, hatred, retaliation and violence.

To some, Sarah’s classroom experiences may seem small. It may seem like the negative outcomes I postulated are a stretch to what actually happened in the classroom. I am telling you, this is so not a stretch. This is how it begins: We do not see our children, so we do not listen to our children and then we try to put them under our thumb. This is not holistic child care. This is not the way we promote secure attachment at home or at school.

In another scenario, Sarah may have other tendencies. Perhaps instead, she withdraws — becoming depressed and later numbing out with drugs, food and dysfunctional relationships. Are those fates any less happy for her? With another who validates her anger and aggression, at least she feels like she’s accepted and belongs somewhere. In all cases, she’s only simply seeking to keep herself safe.

Feeling balanced on the inside by people and circumstances who support her and provide balance “on the outside” do this. We do this. Our child’s emotional safety, her (or his) happiness and her success depend on us. The level of peace in the world depends on us.

I’ve seen the outcomes of ignoring kids’ true needs before, and so have you — in the variations of the same tragic stories that we hear about in the media so often we are becoming numb to them. Do you see that this is an epidemic?

Do you see that we can stop violence, and all that goes with it, in our children if we pay more attention to how we see them and relate to them? It is a simple concept — though a complex process that requires work and perhaps new paradigms for teaching teachers, supporting parents and addressing mental health.

We’ve got to fully wake up and act on how this dynamic works for the sake of helping our children grow up happily, confidently and peacefully. We have no one to blame if we do not target this now.

Editor’s note: Photo source

He just wants to be held

By Julinda Adams

I am the mother of two boys ages 15 and 9.

Earlier this year, when I read the APtly Said post, “Using presence to raise independent children,” it reminded me of my own experience, and I left the following comment:

julinda adams baby“I, too, had a grocery store experience with a stranger’s advice, but mine was the opposite of yours and had a major impact on my life. My firstborn, as a newborn, needed to be held a lot and nursed a lot — almost constantly. At home, I held him constantly, but when I was out, I thought he would just lie in his car seat or carrier like other babies I’d seen. (I also thought he would sleep peacefully alone in a crib, but that’s a different story!)

So I was in the store, he was in the carrier in the child seat area of the cart, and he was wailing. I was trying to console him, but he didn’t stop. Two older ladies came upon us, and one of them said, “I think he just wants to be held.”

He just wants to be held. In that moment, I realized that it didn’t matter where we were or what other babies did or how other parents acted: My baby wanted to be held. From that time on, he was only in the seat if we were in the car, he was asleep, he was content or I couldn’t hold him for some reason. Many times, I walked through a store holding him — or later his brother — sometimes attempting to nurse, while trying to push a cart.”

The images we see in the media often show a detached form of parenting. Babies only appear when needed for the story line, or even as props. On the screen, they are quiet and require minimal interaction, unless the script calls for something else. When they are not in a scene, they are out of sight and no thought is given to them. So the baby lying quietly until the parents are ready to interact seems normal.

Some babies may do OK with that. My firstborn made it known from birth that he expected to be physically attached, and we complied most of the time. When we were out, though, I expected him to act like those media babies and lie quietly. When he didn’t, I didn’t know what to do. The comment of the older lady in the grocery store surprised me, and then I thought, Oh, of course. He always wants to be held.

And far beyond realizing it was fine to hold him whenever he wanted, I realized I could listen to him — and my instincts.

I wish I could say I never again worried about what people thought about my parenting, but of course I did. I still do. And while many people find responsive parenting in infancy produces socially independent kids, that didn’t happen for us. Our son remained “clingy.” He needed us by his side as he ventured out. We supported him by being there when we could and “weaning” him from our presence gently.

He’s 15 now, and honestly, new situations still throw him off balance. And we still support him when he needs us.

Editor’s note: Some children are more likely to be “clingy,” or slow to warm to new situations. This is due to temperament, an inborn personality difference. Attachment Parenting works for these and other “spirited” children, because this parenting approach can more easily adapt to each child’s unique abilities. Learn more on “Different, Not Disordered” and “Emotions, Limits and Spirited Kids” on The Attached Family, the online magazine of Attachment Parenting International (API). Or read a collection of API’s articles for parents of spirited children in the “Loving Uniquely” issue of the print magazine.

The Clown is Sometimes Serious

bubliny-1207473-mThe clown, the astronaut, the chatterbox, the complainer, the “slob” and many more stereotypes all appear in our families and in our classrooms.

These are the characters that can disturb, annoy, frustrate and anger us, because they interrupt and spoil our agendas. We are convinced that this is how they always are. They make us worry. We wonder if they were born this way and if they are destined to stay this way.

But sometimes “the clown” is serious, and sometimes he is sad. Sometimes the “astronaut” is attentive and focused. Sometimes the “chatterbox” is pensive and quiet. Sometimes the “complainer” is appreciative. Sometimes the “slob” is orderly.

But their stereotyped behavior seems so dominant and convincing, that we can’t see anything else. In fact, we’re not even looking for anything else.

When we think of a child in a certain way, we lock him right into the way we perceive him. Without intending to do so, we imprison children into patterns of behaving. Sometimes when others stigmatize a child, we continue enforcing the pattern, even though we don’t mean to.

Johanne Wolfgang Von Goete, a German philosopher in the late 1700s and early 1800s, is quoted as saying, “If you relate to a person as if he is already capable of what he can be, he will be what he is capable of being.”

What children really want and need from us is to be understood and known. Instead of identifying the child with his behavior, we want to convey an attitude of:

  1. belief in the child, knowing that as he grows up, the character traits we long to see in him will come to fruition;
  2. trust in the child’s good intentions and his desire to be “good” before you try to influence;
  3. desire to truly understand who he is and what he needs from us.

Reb Nachman of Breslav, a Jewish leader also in the late 1700s and early 1800s, taught that every person should be favorably judged, and if we do so, we elevate that person to a level of favorable judgment. We may apply this to adults but forget to do so with children. Are our hearts soft enough to see our children in a favorable light?

A change in the child’s behavior will result from a change in our own perception of the child. When we realize we are seeing only one aspect of the child and that there is so much more that we are not yet seeing, we can begin to appreciate this child for who he really is. Instead of trying to cut out a behavior that might irritate us, we can help bring out other intentions and qualities that we do not as easily see in the child. It’s not “this or that,” but that “this and this” co-exist together.

I remember a story of a boy who was labeled “careless and irresponsible.” He “broke everything he touched.” Fortunately, even though his teacher was “warned” about his behavior, she did not see him as careless and irresponsible. She knew he had the potential to take responsibility. She gave him small jobs — and then bigger jobs — that would help this potential grow.

When a child feels confident within the relationship with his parent or teacher, he can rest in this relationship. This rest frees him to take responsibility, venture forth into new experiences and feel confident. The parent or teacher conveys:

“I am here for you. I care about you. I believe in you. Your very presence is a source of delight. I am your answer, and you can always count on me. When things don’t go the way you would like, I am here to offer you comfort. I do not want to shape you but to accompany you on your journey of discovering your many abilities.”

This is the nourishment that a relationship of secure attachment provides.

We all have the capacity to be a clown, to be forgetful, to be irresponsible, to complain sometimes, and we all have the capacity to be the opposite of all these things sometimes. We are all human. Surely if we can see this in ourselves, we can accept this in our children and students, and develop the necessary patience to support their development and wait for the qualities of maturity to develop in their right season.