When Sensory Strategies Fail; 3 Tips

imagesI know this may be a surprise coming from me, a sensory OT and it may disappoint but,…sensory strategies do not fix all behaviors. Sensory strategies may not work every time, and the same strategies don’t work for all children. There, I said it. So often I encounter parents in my occupational therapy practice, who are desperate for relief (for themselves and their child) and they have lived with chaos or the challenges of sensory processing disorder for so long, that they want things better, now. Of course they do! Unfortunately though, when a child and family have lived for years with the dys-regulation brought on by sensory challenges, it may take more than strategies used in the moment to improve their lives. It may take many strategies, used over a period of time, before glimmers of a different life can emerge. It also often takes a period of trial and error about which strategies are the most helpful at which times, coupled with occupational therapy, in order to make lasting changes. There are some basic things that parents can try however, that will help when faced with those moments, hours, or days when sensory diet strategies, just don’t seem to be working.

  1. Practice self-compassion. Talk to yourself and your child like you would your best friend (assuming you are kind to your best friend). You are doing the best you can and no-one intends for you (or your child) to be perfect. The reality is that truly, sometimes no matter how hard you try and no matter what you do, your child will do their own thing. Let go of the effort-ing and allow yourself and them to be imperfect. Often our anxiety in the moment comes from fear…fear of failing our child, fear that things won’t get better, and fear that we’ve already made so many mistakes our child’s struggles are somehow our fault. I am here to tell you, this is not the case. We can influence our child and we should try, but going easier on ourselves is the first step to taking the next best step in the moment when nothing seems to be working (See my “Easy-er Parenting” post here).
  2. After being kind to yourself, take note:
    • What was your child doing before the concerning behaviors took place. The demands of a situation or activity can trigger upset?
    • What or who was around your child before the concerning behaviors took place? Environment and context can be key for people with sensory challenges.
    • Observe the concerning behaviors. Angie Voss OTR/L offers many resources about becoming a sensory detective and helping parents to understand their child’s sensory signals.
    • Video record your child in the midst of the concerning behaviors. Share it with your child’s occupational therapist or a trusted friend. Sometimes all we can do in the moment is learn from the moment. Watching and observing allows us to breathe and pause yet still feel like we are doing something. It gives us time to think more clearly vs. act out of fear or emotion, and it gives us information that we can use, sometimes with a therapist, to understand what our children need for next time. Sensory strategies can stop working, because children change and we change and that’s a good thing; that is the point of therapy and the goal of using sensory strategies. By continuing to monitor and communicate those changes we continue to make informed decisions about how to intervene and interact with our child as they develop.

3. Use a cozy space. When sensory strategies don’t work, crawling up into a ball or hiding under the covers may be the first thing a parent wants to do. That’s o.k. sometimes, assuming the children are safe. Practicing your own self-care in the way of creating space, is a positive thing. When our children see us create and use a space that helps us feel better, they are more likely to do the same thing.  As mentioned above, environment is key in managing sensory symptoms, and creating a space that helps you to feel regulated and thus offers your child some regulating input, is a great step toward managing sensory meltdowns. (See my “Helping Kids Calm” post here).

Sensory strategies are not a one-size-fits all approach to managing sensory symptoms and they will not work every time. They are sure to fail at some point BUT, the failure of sensory strategies is not your failure. When strategies do fail, you still have yourself as a tool. By managing your own responses and practicing kindness toward yourself in these moments, you are strengthening your capacity and thus your child’s capacity to heal . Moment by moment, and day by day you are building a better life for yourself and your family. And that my friend, is something to be proud of, not whether or not you gave your child the right fidget!

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“If someone had told me our lives could be like this, I wouldn’t have believed them. I see a 180 degree difference in our daughter, since we started therapy. I can’t thank Kelly enough for what she has given our family.” — Christopher Howell —
“If someone had told me our lives could be like this, I wouldn’t have believed them. I see a 180 degree difference in our daughter, since we started therapy. I can’t thank Kelly enough for what she has given our family.” — Christopher Howell —

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