Most people won’t be able to tell if a child is having a tantrum or a sensory meltdown simply by looking at her actions.
But if junior is trying to get your attention or is unable to express her emotions, she is likely throwing a tantrum. However, children whose senses are overwhelmed, such as by too much noise, respond to these “fight-or-flight” situations by overreacting or acting out. Most times, these kids cannot control their behaviour.
Occupational therapist Sara Yeow explains a sensory meltdown, “Where they yell or scream ― they are choosing to fight. Flight is when they run away from the task or situation.” Yeow points out that a child who throws a tantrum is able to control her behaviour but prefers to throw a hissy fit as her way of getting her point across.
Adds Eugenia Koh, who co-founded parent support group, Sensory Processing Awareness Group Singapore, “Tantrums are usually a means to an end ― the child may want something and thinks [throwing] a tantrum will get her what she wants and she will stop the tantrum once she gets her way.”
“Tantrums are usually a means to an end ― the child may want something and thinks [throwing] a tantrum will get her what she wants and she will stop the tantrum once she gets her way.”
You can spot warning signs that a sensory meltdown is about to take place by observing changes in your preschooler’s behaviour or body language. Actions that suggest increased anxiety include:
*Clenching of fist/s.
*Tensing up of the body.
*Asking repeatedly to leave a situation or location.
*Pacing up and down or appears fidgety.
Of course, apart from dealing with your distressed child, you’ll probably also find yourself the cynosure of disapproving glares from bystanders. It’s a common situation for parents and Koh advises that you should tend to your kid and disregard the public reaction.
She says, “Instead of focussing on managing the stares from people whom we don’t know, it is more critical and meaningful for us as parents to focus on our child instead! [The bystanders] will manage.” Don’t forget, if you’re feeling bothered, your child will only get more anxious.
Next, learn how to handle your child’s sensory outburst in public…
Here are steps to deal with your child’s public sensory meltdowns:
1. Always have an escape plan Yeow says the escape can be in the form of access to a quiet room or area where your child will be able to calm down. If a quiet area isn’t available, try taking her out of the shopping mall to your car ― you want to remove her from the loud sounds or crowds to an area of lower sensory stimulation.
2. Bring along “fidget” toys These toys can range from stress balls or resistance bands. Distracting your child or relieving any tension helps them calm down and avoid a public outburst. If these toys aren’t available, Yeow suggests that “firm hugs or firm squeezes on the hands can also help them calm down”.
3. Keep calm, always Remember that your negative energy will easily rub off on your child. Yeow points out, “The more flustered or frustrated you are, the more your child will find it challenging to calm down when having a sensory meltdown.” What your kiddo needs most from you is an assurance that she is safe. So, reassure your kids that you’re there for them and that you understand that she may feel scared or out of control.
“The more flustered or frustrated you are, the more your child will find it challenging to calm down when having a sensory meltdown.”
4. Give her time to recover or adjust Don’t aggravate her anxiety by saying things like “your friends are waiting” or “the whole family is waiting”. Yeow notes that your child needs time to calm down and adjust, so don’t be in a hurry to return to an overwhelming situation, which caused the meltdown in the first place.
5. Recognise the triggers If your kiddo has repeated sensory meltdowns, Koh advises that you speak to an occupational or educational therapist, so as to determine what sensory processing difficulty your child is suffering from. This way, you’re aware of the triggering factors and steer clear of them.
6. Plan what to do next This depends on what triggered the outburst in the first place ― if it was the crowded shopping mall, you may want to scratch your shopping expedition. If it is an emotional conversation, approach the topic from another angle or find another time to talk.
Broach the subject of her outburst only when your child is calm and relaxed. Talking about her meltdown can cause her to feel guilt, so stay on point and avoid assigning blame. You should also tell her to alert you if she is feeling uncomfortable in a certain situation, so as to prevent future outbursts.
Most importantly, know that managing your child’s public outbursts will take a lot of effort and practice. Over time, however, you’ll be able to recognise the signs and impart vital coping skills.
Sara Yeow is an occupational therapist with KIDZ Pediatric Occupational Theraphy Consultants Pte Ltd and Eugenia Koh is co-founder of Sensory Processing Awareness Group Singapore.
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