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Some Tips for Friends and Family of Kids with Sensory Issues

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Friends and Family of Kids with Sensory Processing Issues,

We need your support! We know you love our kids, but sometimes they seem confusing to you or they respond to life in ways that don’t make sense. We know that’s tough. We live with them every day and we too struggle to know exactly how they might cope in a certain situation or how to best help them handle it. As we’re learning and working through these challenges, we’ve got some ideas for how you can help us:

It’s okay to admit what you don’t know. Even if you’ve successfully raised your own kids, we don’t expect you to be the expert on our child’s issues. Telling us you’re confused by a child’s particular sensory responses may actually be validating to us. We may be confused, too! When people tell us they know exactly how they’d handle that child’s issues, it’s a clue that they aren’t interested in understanding what we’re really dealing with. Admitting that you are confused by the mysteries of sensory processing issues is a great first step to letting us know you’re ready to learn.

Ask good questions. If you feel frustrated that this child is responding with tears to the meal you so lovingly prepared or wonder why they shrink away when you want to hug them, you can ask us! We’d love to help you know how to have positive interactions with him. Maybe they don’t do great with hugs, but they love high-fives. Maybe they cry when a meal is too hot, but they’ll be fine in a minute when it’s cooled down. And sometimes we have NO IDEA why they’re freaking out so maybe you can help us problem solve that. We are learning so much about our child and we want to include you in that circle of knowledge. Asking questions lets us know that you’re curious and you want to be a help.

Don’t tell us, “All kids do that.” or “He seems normal to me.” These phrases can communicate to us that you think we’re making this up or being hypersensitive. That tells us you are an unsafe person to talk about this. It feels incredibly invalidating. It’s great if our child seems to be a typical kid in public, but that doesn’t mean we aren’t doing a huge amount of work in private to make that happen or dealing with the meltdowns after the fact. When you tell us these issues aren’t real in your mind, we will stop talking to you about them. If you want to communicate that you think our child did a good job coping or you want to let us know our handwork is paying off, we’d love to hear, “He did great today!” rather than telling us he seems “normal” to you. 

Give our kids space. Sensory issues can send our kids into meltdowns. These are NOT tantrums meant to manipulate our behavior, they are over responses to sensory stimulation. We may know that the best thing for our child is a strong, firm hug until they feel calm. We may know they need a dark, quiet space to calm down. What works for a typical child to stop a tantrum may not work for a child in a sensory meltdown. You can ask us if we need help in that moment (we might need you to keep an eye on our other child while we handle this), but stepping in and trying to address our child may not be helpful. Our kids may also get overwhelmed at times when you’d most like to be interacting with them. Right when we arrive at your home or when we walk into the Sunday School classroom may not be the time they feel ready for intense eye contact or a big hug. They may need time to acclimate to their new environment before they’re ready to greet you. Allowing our kids the space they need to adjust can be a huge help in letting them feel comfortable.

Don’t equate sensory challenges with stupidity. Even though they may struggle with eye contact, it doesn’t mean they can’t hear you. And they especially hear you when you’re talking about them. What they do makes sense to them, even if it doesn’t make sense to us. We can really hurt them if we treat them like they’re stupid just because they process sensory information differently than we do. My child with sensory challenges is extremely bright– a fact we shamefully overlooked for too long because we judged his intellect by behaviors we didn’t understand. We had a rough experience with a church VBS program that (unbeknownst to us) lumped our chid in with kids who had intellectual disabilities because of his sensory processing issues. We are thankful that this church offered accommodations for kids with those needs, but it was not the right fit for our child and he definitely knew what their assumptions about him were.

Do the reading. Is this child a sensory seeker, a sensory avoider or both? What situations seem to kick off their issues? How can you interact with them in healthy ways? There are lots of resources out there that can help you learn about these kids and their needs. Ask us what books, articles, and websites we like and be willing to do a little reading if you really want to know how to help.

Don’t force the issue. Be willing to follow our lead if we aren’t forcing our child to do something you think they should do. This may be more than just a preference issue, even if it seems that way. We have to learn how to pick our battles carefully and today may not be the day we force them to wear shoes in the house or hug their aunt or eat those beans. There are so many times we HAVE to help them do things that stretch them, if we aren’t willing to do that in this particular circumstance, please trust us that there’s a reason behind it and don’t try to force our kids to do something we aren’t asking of them. No guilt trips, no telling them they are too big to behave this way, just let us handle it.

Don’t make excuses. If we ARE forcing/helping our child to do something that’s hard for them, please don’t make excuses for them or tell us why they don’t need to do that right now. We may be working on a particular set of behaviors and today it’s really important that they are able to deal with certain sensory experiences in a healthy way. And if our kid does something totally unacceptable (like bites you or your child), it’s great to know that you understand this may not be about aggression, but about a sensory seeking experience. And we still have to deal with that unacceptable behavior.

Respect privacy and boundaries. We may not be able to explain everything to you, especially as our kids get older. There may be times we are vague because we’re trying to help protect our child’s story. While you may be a totally safe person to know about their challenges, we may not want that information going to your kids who might not understand how sensitive our child is about their struggles. We don’t want to be shameful about this issue they have no control over, but we also want to allow them to have their own boundaries and sense of privacy about their diagnosis.

We are so thankful to have people in our lives who want to be a support to our family. We know there will be times we mess this up and times you struggle to know how to help us. That’s okay! We’re all learning and when we feel confident that you want what’s best for our family, we’re happy to bring you into the learning process along with us.

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One Comment

  1. This is helpful info for me as a Sunday school teacher.

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