Nurturing yourself so you can nurture your child

Finding Your Calm

Here at Twenty-One Senses, we follow the Attachment, Regulation, and Competency (ARC) framework. Over the next few months, we’ll take a high-level look at each of these concepts and discuss ways you can use the framework in your everyday parenting life. Check out arcframework.org for more information.

In short, the framework asserts that in order for children to learn or process information, they must first feel Attachment, which comes from feeling confident in that:

  1. They are in a safe physical environment.
  2. They are safe with the person teaching them.

As parents and caregivers, our job is to create this sense of safety for our children. Attachment is the process of strengthening and supporting caregivers so that they might be a consistent source of calm, safety, and support. You can’t be a source or calm, however, if you’re overloaded or stressed.

This month, we encourage you to spend some time thinking about your own sensory triggers and experiment with ways your senses can help you find your calm. Have a favorite coping tip? Let us know in the comments!

Step #1 – Know Your Triggers

Try to notice what kinds of sensory input make you feel stressed or deregulated, and be mindful of how your triggers can compound. A loud TV might not usually bother you, but it just might be the straw that breaks the camel’s back if you’re already feeling exhausted or overwhelmed by the mess in the kitchen. Some common sensory triggers include, but are not limited to, the following:

  • Auditory – Yelling or talking over each other; loud electronics
  • Visual – Messy or disorganized house; bright or poor lighting
  • Tactile – Constant touching or snuggling; feeling too hot or cold
  • Vestibular – Being bumped into or hung on; constantly stepping around messes
  • Olfactory – Poor or reduced ventilation; bathroom or diaper smells
  • Gustatory – Food fatigue or boredom; cravings
  • Proprioception – Not getting enough exercise or physical contact
  • Interoception – Not noticing when you’re hungry or exhausted

Step #2 – Know Your Fix

We all know self-care is important, but it’s not always as simple as pouring a glass of wine or taking a hot bath. If you are truly experiencing sensory deregulation, you might need to turn back to your senses to help find your calm. Maybe you’re crawling out of your skin due to being constantly touched, grabbed, or bumped into by your children, but wrapping up in a weighted blanket feels soothing. Maybe you can’t stand the sound of your children screaming or playing loud video games, but focusing on a podcast or calming music keeps you from losing it. Listen to your body and experiment with ways sensory input can help you stay regulated.

Finally, learn how to communicate when you’re feeling overwhelmed. Have a phrase (“My brain is scrambled”) or some nonverbal signal that lets others know you’re hitting your limit. Get the entire family in the habit of rating their level of stress or anxiety on a scale of 1 to 10, and check in with each other throughout the day.

Need some more tips on dealing with deregulation? Check out our previous articles on managing anxiety and building good transition habits.

Struggling with Pandemic Parenting? Time to Dust Off Your Sensory Toolkit.

As many states continue to pause their reopening plans due to a surge in COVID-19 cases, so many parents, particularly those with special needs children, are once again feeling like the world has been turned upside down. Routines are broken, resources are no longer available, the structure and social supports of school are gone. All the hard work you’ve done to set your child up for success in class, in enrichment activities, with peer groups and friends—it’s all out the window.

We all know that sensory regulation is key to your child’s ability to self-regulate and that tending proactively to sensory issues can be a game changer. Remember, the deregulation and processing issues you’re seeing now are not new—you’ve managed them before, pre-COVID, and you have the tools to tackle them now, even with diminished support from the outside world. How can you recreate those supports in your home, with your resources, in a way that is only dependent on you? It’s time to dust off your old set of tools, roll up your sleeves, and rebuild.

Take stock of what’s been lost due to COVID-related closures.

  • Your child may no longer be spending time in certain physical spaces—not just classrooms, but also gyms, swimming pools, and playgrounds. Because many families rely on school or public access to these spaces, some of your child’s favorite physical or stimulating activities might not be available to her.
  • Your child may no longer be experiencing clear, multi-sensory transitions from one space or activity to another, such as hearing a bell to start and end each class or having time to recenter on the walk home from school. This can have a negative effect on her ability to manage her own activities and perceive the passage of time.
  • Your child may not be receiving the same amount of “social practice” and real-time feedback from friends and classmates. Similarly, she may not be receiving the kinds of personalized coaching, behavioral reinforcement, and social guidance provided by highly trained teachers, coaches, and counselors.
  • Finally, everyone in the family may be experiencing frustration and confusion as they are forced to adapt to new tasks, roles, and responsibilities. Parents used to working full-time and managing mostly weekends and after school routines are now finding themselves solely responsible for round-the-clock childcare, teaching, and housekeeping. Siblings used to seeing each other for only a couple hours a day are now forced to be constant companions and playmates.

 

Commit some time to re-learning your child’s sensory profile.

  • Identify the places, situations, and tasks where your child tends to struggle. Is she distracted by lights or loud noises? Does she panic when asked to give a friend or family member a hug? Does she gag when trying new foods? (Check out our ongoing Sensory Spotlight series for more on how to identify and support sensory sensitivities.)
  • Pay attention to how your child’s deregulation manifests. Is she constantly seeking your attention, even if it’s negative? Does she become withdrawn and anxious when overwhelmed? Is her bedtime routine a struggle every single night?
  • Get input from your child about what she needs and prefers throughout the day. When possible, give her choices about the way she performs certain tasks or the order in which she completes each step in a larger process. Let her decide whether she does her homework at the kitchen table or the desk in her room, the order in which she performs her bedtime routine, or the activities she does during quiet time.
  • Work on creating good transition habits and pay careful attention to how your child’s sensory processing can affect her ability to move smoothly from one activity to another. See our previous article on building good transitions for tips.
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Work on integrating more sensory experiences into your everyday life.

  • Have your child help with household chores that have a sensory component. Sweeping the floor and sorting laundry have a strong visual component. Cooking incorporates many different textures, smells, and tastes. Even something as simple as carrying in grocery bags can provide the pressure craved by proprioceptive and tactile seekers.
  • If you’re able and feel comfortable, take your child along on trips to the grocery store or other small errands. Bright lights, busy environments, and new sounds and smells can be great for visual, olfactory, and auditory seekers.
  • Get creative with your play. Matching, category, and “same or different” games with toys or other household items are great for children with discrimination issues. Take an afternoon and build forts, Lego cities, or even your own sensory table. Play soccer, catch, or frisbee to work on proprioception and hand/eye coordination.
  • If your child needs more help with regulation and stimulation, consider contacting an occupational therapist and asking about incorporating a Sensory Diet—a regimented, highly personalized set of physical activities that your child can do at home. (Learn more here.)

Getting Your Family Ready for Reopening

“This [Covid] feels like having a newborn: You don’t know anything, you have to do everything, but so much feels out of your control. Everything is scary. As soon as you figure something out, it changes. There’s a lot of pressure and judgement. I’m afraid I’m doing it wrong.”

As we enter the fourth month of lockdown, there’s a lot of excited talk about finally “opening up” and getting back to a “new normal.” Some states are opening businesses and public spaces quickly, while others are opening in slow, deliberate phases. There is no single roadmap for this, no one set of guidelines, and so many of us still feel confused, exhausted, and out of control in ways we might not have felt since we first became parents. 

But remember, having a newborn allowed you to develop some amazing strengths as a parent: you were able to live in the moment, adapt quickly to new situations, prioritize (sometimes ruthlessly), and accept what you could not control. Reconnect with those strengths and lean into them as the world starts to reopen. With a little planning and a lot of communication, your family can make this transition in a way that feels thoughtful and safe for everyone.

Things to consider:

  • Telehealth availability is high, but so is the demand. Start making appointments—both virtual and in-person—for healthcare, therapy, and other family services now, even if the actual appointment is a ways off.
  • Some places may be quieter or less crowded than usual. However, keep in mind that social distancing and more thorough cleaning procedures might mean some things take a lot longer than usual, and some areas may be restricted. Don’t hesitate to call ahead and let providers know about your child’s particular needs.

 

Talk about it.

  • Learn how to read your child and understand to what level he needs the situation explained to him. Be attentive to both verbal and nonverbal communication about his level of understanding and his feelings about what he’s hearing (this could be vastly different for every child). Put things in direct, black and white terms as much as possible.
  • A plan is the best antidote for anxiety, so talk to your child about what to expect when you leave your house. Prepare him for how people might look (masks and gloves) and how people might behave (anxious or standoffish). Make sure he knows what’s expected of him in regards to distancing, hand washing, and mask wearing.
  • Stress the importance of respecting others’ choices in regards to social distancing. For example, Grandma’s not crazy for continuing to quarantine—she’s older and therefore higher risk, plus she might have other risk factors that lead her to be more cautious or anxious. On the other hand, you might know someone who has to return to work or is choosing to engage in more social activity than your family’s comfortable with. This is a situation that makes people emotional and defensive, and it’s not helpful to argue with others or be confrontational.
  • Talk to your family about how to manage transitions—into summer, into reopening, etc. Develop good “transition habits” as a family. All the rules of transitions apply: stay regulated, ease yourself into it, try not to force too many “new” things at once. (More on this next week!)

Take it slow.

  • Choose your family’s “safe” social circle and expand it slowly. Think of it like concentric rings, with the core/innermost circle being your household. The next innermost ring might include grandparents or your next door neighbors, and the ring beyond that might include cousins, friends, or coworkers. Make sure everyone in each ring agrees to the same “rules” about social distancing. Be explicit with your child about how you choose the members of your circle and what the rules are.
  • When you’re ready to start going out, apply this same idea to stores, offices, and establishments. In this instance, the innermost circle would be grocery stores, doctors, and other truly essential businesses. The second ring might be department stores and barbershops, and the ring beyond that might be restaurants.
  • Go on the first few outings alone if possible. This will let you get a lay of the land, acclimate yourself to the new way of doing things, and be better prepared to set your child’s expectations. Don’t be embarrassed to reach out to friends, neighbors, or the establishment itself and ask what to expect.
  • Check in frequently when you’re out with your child, and have an exit plan ready in case he needs a break or is misbehaving. If he does start to become frightened or overwhelmed, remind him you can both leave right away, with no consequences or punishment for him, and try again later. 
Shift Expectations

Shifting Expectations and Redefining Success

In our last post, we talked about some ways to manage your stress and get ahead of your anxiety during COVID-19. This week, we’re focusing on another way to prevent anxiety: getting rid of unrealistically high expectations and releasing yourself (and your child) from pre-COVID standards.

It’s important to remember that “lowering” your expectations doesn’t mean you’re expecting less from yourself or that you’re dropping the ball. To the contrary, giving yourself permission to redefine and reorder your priorities allows you to make room for things that allow your family the flexibility, regulation, and resiliency to be truly successful.

Adjust your expectations.

  • Learn to recognize symptoms of anxiety in yourself, physical and otherwise. Get in the habit of rating your anxiety on a scale of 1 to 10 throughout the day, and let your family know when you start feeling overwhelmed.
  • This is a hard, scary time, and you are one person who cannot do everything you’re used to doing in a given day or week. Give yourself permission to let some things go.
  • Accept that you can’t predict or control what the next few months will bring. Take things one day at a time and don’t spend valuable energy worrying about when schools will reopen or whether you’ll be able to travel for your summer vacation.
  • Forgive yourself for “falling off the wagon” with homework, to-do lists, or fitness routines. Focus instead on how quickly you can get back on track, and let the getting back be your marker of success. Expect curveballs and disruptions—they will come.
  • Give yourself and your child permission to say no to socially distanced activities that feel stressful or draining on a given day. You don’t have to attend every Zoom playdate, birthday drive-by, or virtual happy hour.
  • Say all of this out loud—your child needs to hear it. Be explicit about what tangibles are changing, such as how we do our work, how much work gets done, and how we connect with friends and family. Let him know it’s okay to let some things go for now and that you don’t expect him to be perfect.

 

Check your own baggage.

  • Let go of the idea of the “super parent.” Parenting during quarantine means you’re a lot more than just Mom or Dad: you’re also a teacher, coach, therapist, housekeeper, chef, nurse, and play date. Learn to be okay with dropping the housekeeper today so you can be a better teacheror giving the teacher a day off so you can be a better play date.
  • Don’t get hung up on your idea of what your child’s experience should be. Maybe you have great memories of your childhood birthdays, full of expensive gifts and parties with all your friends, but social distancing means your child’s birthday can’t have those things. Instead of getting upset about what’s missing, try to find a new, creative way to make him feel celebrated.
  • Be proactive in managing your stress and anxiety. (Last week’s post has some great tips!) Keep in mind that blow-ups and lashing out are usually the result of feeling overwhelmed and are rarely about whatever’s happening in this exact moment.

Redefine success for your family.

  • You can’t perfectly recreate pre-COVID routines, but you can still craft successful days that focus on family and whole-child development. Pre-COVID goals might have been getting to school on time, completing homework, and going to bed without a meltdown. Shift your focus from specific tasks to things like staying regulated, keep learning, staying sane as a family, and having some fun together.
  • Likewise, think about redefining academic success for your child. A successful day might not mean following the pre-set curriculum and getting 100% on every assignment—it might not even mean completing every assignment. A modified COVID curriculum might include things like self-regulation, independence, and self-directed learning.
  • Remember, no child has 100% successful days, even when things are normal. Distraction, irritability, and overstimulation happen at school, too, but these may seem amplified now that you’re responsible for their “school day.”
  • Instead of focusing on what COVID has disrupted, look at what this experience can offer: more time together as a family and more time for self-led interest activities.
  • Keep experimenting! As long as you’re still figuring out what works, dropping what doesn’t, and adapting to new challenges, you are successful.

Managing Anxiety in Lockdown

COVID-19 continues to dominate the news, and even the luckiest among us—those who continue to have income, flexibility, and health—are feeling stretched and stressed in ways we haven’t before.

Like most parents, the vast majority of your energy over these past few weeks has probably gone to helping your children cope with changing schedules, e-learning protocol, and anxiety about the “new normal.” Making time to focus on your own emotional health is likely at the very bottom of your list, but it’s far from a selfish or frivolous act—it’s actually one of the best things you can do to care for your family. Think of this time like being on a turbulent airplane: it’s rough and scary, but you have to pause and put on your own mask before you can be any help to others. Only by learning to manage your own anxiety—by taking the time to put on your own mask—can you truly show up for your children as a model of safety, generosity, and resiliency.

Get ahead of your anxiety.

  • Learn to recognize symptoms of anxiety in yourself, physical and otherwise. Get in the habit of rating your anxiety on a scale of 1 to 10 throughout the day, and let your family know when you start feeling overwhelmed.
  • Practice mindfulness or another form of meditation. If you don’t want to meditate, try running, swimming, playing guitar, or drawing—anything that keeps you focused and physically engaged while allowing your brain to “turn off” for a while.
  • Make it a priority to take care of your body. Try to go to bed at a reasonable hour, eat a varied diet, exercise frequently, and try to get outside for a few minutes each day.
  • Be mindful of your media consumption. Try to limit checking news apps to once or twice per day, and don’t have cable news constantly going in the background.
  • Allow yourself to engage in some “silly” self-soothing behavior, as long as it’s safe and within reason. If it makes you feel better to make a family budget in Excel, reorganize the bookshelf, or alphabetize your spice rack—do it.
  • Take some time each day to sit down as a family to focus on what is good, certain, and predictable. (“Today we are safe, we are loved and able to be together, and we have plenty of good food to eat.”)

 

Learn to cope with panic attacks.

  • If your anxiety does lead to a panic attack, verbally acknowledge what is happening and recognize that you’re not in physical danger. (“I am anxious and am having a panic attack. I am safe. This will pass.”)
  • Focus on getting control of your breath. Inhale slowly and deeply through your nose, so that your belly expands, and exhale through your mouth. Repeat until you start to feel better.
  • Make a conscious effort to relax your body. Starting at your head, focus on alternately tensing and relaxing each successive muscle group until you’ve worked all the way down to your toes.
  • Don’t let fear scramble your brain. Remind yourself that you are in control and think about other times you were able to overcome difficult or stressful situations.
  • Every few minutes, rate your level of anxiety on the 1 to 10 scale. This will force you to come back to the present moment and see that your anxiety is slowly getting better.

Be generous with the ones you love.

  • Check in with friends and family members, especially those prone to anxiety or depression. Ask them to rate their own feelings using the 1 to 10 scale, and focus on being present and empathetic.
  • Be aware of what produces anxiety in others, and don’t let your coping become someone else’s trigger. Don’t insist on a two-hour family budget meeting, for example, if it will soothe you but leave your spouse even more stressed.
  • Try to have a kind, generous interpretation of others’ actions. For example, your kids are probably interrupting your conference call because they need your help, not because they’re trying to annoy you and make your day difficult.
  • Keep in mind that children process stress differently, and acting out may be a sign of fear or anxiety. Work on helping your children name their feelings, and avoid punishing them when you’re stressed or anxious.
  • Try to find comfort and meaning in the ways you can help others. Organizing a food donation, writing letters to quarantined grandparents, caring for a pet, even just warming up some coffee for your spouse—serving others is a great way to get out of your own head and see the positive impact you have on others.

Pandemics Are Hard. We Can Help.

We all know these past few months have been hard on everyone, and it’s been a particularly stressful time for families struggling to adapt to this new way of life.


Our mission remains true: to empower families like ours and to help them navigate typical childhood experiences, even in these very unusual and uncertain times.


To that end, Twenty-One Senses is thrilled to announce we’ll soon be launching a new service to provide parents with personalized coaching, empowering them to rise to the challenges presented by COVID-19. Working together, we’ll build strong coach-parent-child teams focused on learning, self-regulation, empathy, resilience, mindful communication, problem-solving, and self-care.

As of April 16, 26 states have either recommended or ordered schools to remain closed for the remainder of the 2019 school year. We all knew this might happen, but it still hurts. Millions of parents and children alike are feeling overwhelmed by the new schedules, roles, and responsibilities thrust upon them by shelter-in-place living and distance learning. With a lot of patience, tenacity, and deep breaths, we can emerge from this stronger and more resilient.

Stay tuned for more information on this exciting new service. And stay safe, everyone.