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.

Back to School: Returning to Remote Learning

While many students are now starting to return to in-person classes, many more are gearing up to get back to remote classes. Parents, having learned from the pains of last spring’s abrupt shift to e-learning, are frantically working to create the best possible at-home learning environment. Setting up at home doesn’t have to be expensive, but it should be thoughtful. When it comes to children with special needs, a little monetary investment and a lot of creative thinking can make a big difference in terms of focus and regulation.

Over the course of the summer, we’ve been taking some deep dives into pandemic parenting tips, things to think about prior to reopening, and how to better care for yourself so that you can care for your child. Need a refresher? Take a look at our previous articles on how to advocate for your child’s special needsmanaging meltdownscreating good transitions, and setting flexible goals.

Set up your space for success.

  • Create a separate, dedicated workspace in your house for each child and, if at all possible, make sure they’re far enough apart to keep them from seeing, hearing, or otherwise distracting each other while working. Let each child personalize his space—within reason—using posters, stickers, fun lighting and seating options, etc.
  • Take care to recreate any sensory-specific accommodations the school has made for your child up to this point: flexible seating and lighting, fidget options, etc. Don’t hesitate to reach out to his old teachers or special ed teachers if you need help or ideas.
  • Recreate some more general classroom elements as well. Many stores are now selling laminated wall charts featuring the alphabet, days of the week, and the weather. You can also make your own and have them laminated at your local office supply store.
  • If you’re able, get your child pumped up by going “back to school” shopping—whether online or in-store—and let him pick out some school supplies he’s excited about. Think funny notebooks, new headphones/headsets, flash drives, pens with different colored inks, and anything with a favorite character.
  • Set aside a couple hours to make sure all your child’s technology is set up and working properly. Download apps, double-check passwords, pair Bluetooth devices, etc. A little bit of time working out the kinks now will save hours of frustration later.

Focus on creating good transitions.

  • Create a weekly schedule for each child and hang it in an obvious place. Include a list of each class or subject, preferably color-coded, and a brief description of what your child should be doing in the few minutes between subjects (“Do 10 jumping jacks and get a glass of water,” or “Use the bathroom and move to the desk for math time.”)
  • Consider single-use timekeeping devices such as digital watches, timers, or alarm clocks. Whether it’s an old-school egg timer or a multi-sensory alarm clock designed for children with special needs, having a dedicated way to track time will keep your child from picking up his phone and becoming distracted throughout the day.
  • Further avoid distractions by using dedicated apps rather than bookmarks in your browser whenever possible. (Here are some ways for Mac users to turn web pages into dedicated desktop applications.)
  • Develop some strategies to help your child transition between activities that have to be done in the same space. Consider using different devices for different subjects, changing the lighting for math, facing another direction for social studies, putting some desk items away for reading, or simply hanging a sticky note with the current subject name above the desk. If you color-coded your schedule, make sure folders (both physical and digital), notebooks, and pens for each subject align to those colors.
  • Remember to keep moving! Remote learning likely means your child will be sitting in one or two spots for the majority of the day therefore won’t have as many natural breaks to get up, go outside, move up and down stairs, etc. Start the day with a walk or some exercise, and remember to build in frequent movement breaks.
  • Try to keep your child’s routine as regular as possible. Studies have shown that roughly consistent sleep and waking times help children stay focused and more regulated throughout the day. You might let him sleep later than he would for in-person classes, but the basic routine should be intact (brushing teeth, getting dressed, etc.).
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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.)

Building Good Transition Habits

Think about a time when you took a few moments to move from one thing in your life to another. Maybe you had an important conference call or presentation, and you took ten minutes before it started to fold some laundry or walk around the block. Maybe you went for a run Friday after work to burn off some stress before settling in for a long weekend with the kids. Whether you were aware of it or not, you weren’t simply “clearing your head” before you moved into the next task—you were self-soothing, self-regulating, and engaging in good transition habits.

As we close the books on e-learning and start venturing out into reopening public spaces, we need to be extra conscious of how things have changed and how these changes are affecting our families. Sudden changes in environment or routine can leave some children, especially those with special needs, feeling overwhelmed, deregulated, and anxious. Below are some tips and suggestions for effectively managing transitions for your child. (See also: our previous post on managing deregulation.)

Talk about what’s changing.

  • Set your child’s expectations accordingly. Focus specifically on what tangible, practical things will be different for her and how her routine will need to adjust. What exactly is changing? What exactly will be different? What is staying the same? Having an idea of what to expect and what to count on can be hugely comforting.
  • Build your child’s confidence by talking with her about times things have changed in the past and how she was able to manage it successfully. (“I know starting fourth grade can feel hard and scary. It might feel like starting third grade last year. What did you do to help you get through it then? You sure learned a lot. Is there something you will do differently this time?”)
  • Give your child a manageable number of options and choices whenever possible. She shouldn’t necessarily be the primary decision maker, but she should know you value her input and want her to be happy. (“Would you like to have reading time before or after lunch today? Would you like to have apples or oranges with your snack?”)
  • When giving your child choices, focus on the desired outcome. For example, you might ask what she wants to accomplish with her e-learning program, and she might respond, “I want to be done by 3:00.” Instead of focusing on the narrow parameters of the goal, reframe it as an opportunity to work on a desirable outcome—in this instance, the desirable outcome would be developing good time management skills.

 

Create a transition ritual.

  • Rituals are a great way for children to learn to manage daily transitions, self-regulate, and develop the flexibility to adapt to new situations. Reserve small blocks of time between activities for jumping jacks, deep breaths, a walk around the block, or any combination of things that allow your child to calm down and recenter.
  • Have your child incorporate some physical component into her ritual if possible. Think of a basketball player shooting free throws or a baseball player stepping up to the plate—a few small gestures can be a powerful signal to the brain that it’s time to shift focus.
  • Create family rituals and traditions to mark major life events, seasonal changes, and weekly milestones. Start the summer with barbecue in the backyard, have a “fashion show” before the first day of school, or kick off the weekend with a Friday night movie. Having the whole family participate can be comforting to your child, and it can help her understand that changes in routine are a normal part of life and can be fun.
  • Practice what you preach! Be conscious of what changes are affecting you and learn to cope with your anxiety. Create a transition ritual for yourself and model it for your child. Be vocal about what you’re doing to get yourself ready for the next thing in your day. (“I need a few minutes to get ready for my meeting. I’m going to take a walk around the block and get some of my energy out.”)
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Control your environment.

  • To the extent you can, organize the day in blocks that work well for your child. Pay close attention to her interests, frustrations, energy level, and attention span. Don’t try to force too many small activities back to back if her transitions tend to be long and difficult, and be sure to build in frequent movement breaks.
  • Talk to your child about what activity is coming up next and give her verbal warnings, such as five minutes until bedtime or ten minutes left to play outside. Keep in mind you’ll need to remind her more than once.
  • Take care to limit distractions and potential sensory triggers. Be mindful of light coming from windows or lamps. Make sure your child has earbuds or noise canceling headphones if she needs them, and teach her how to adjust both the volume and brightness on your laptop, tablet, or phone.
  • Arrange and rearrange your physical environment to best accommodate the task at hand. If possible, have different rooms for different activities, and move objects out of the area that aren’t needed. Put school computers and workbooks away on the weekend, for example, or put toys in a basket and take them out of the room during homework time.
  • Let your child acclimate to each space and activity in a way that makes sense for her. You might have a few Legos in the corner of her reading area to help her calm down from a busy morning, or she might need to run outside and burn off energy before settling down into dedicated reading time. Either way is perfectly fine—just be strategic.

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.

Managing Meltdowns and Deregulation in Lockdown (and Beyond)

Many states are now entering their second full month of lockdown, and we’re all struggling to adjust to this new way of life. Distance learning, working from home, sheltering in place with your family—it’s a lot to take in for anyone, and it can be especially disruptive and upsetting for children with sensory sensitivities or other developmental issues.

Below are some tips to identify when your child is deregulated and manage sensory-related meltdowns. While these strategies have worked well for our families, remember there is no single schedule or process that works for everyone, and no one knows your child better than you. Don’t be afraid to go with whatever works for your family.

Signs your child is deregulated:

  • Appears excessively energetic, manic, or slap-happy
  • Appears aloof or distracted; fidgets or spaces out constantly
  • Has a heightened sensitivity to sensory input, such as light or sound
  • Has disproportionate or extreme reactions to stimulation or stress
  • Regresses into past behaviors when stimulated (meltdowns, thumb sucking, etc.)

Deescalate tantrums and meltdowns.

  • Meet aggression with empathy and compassion. Start by validating your child’s feelings—not by telling her how she should be feeling or how you feel.
  • Create a “safe space” away from the rest of the family where your child can go to calm down until she’s ready to talk. Be clear that time in this space is not a punishment.
  • Allow time for the “fight or flight” response to work itself out of the body before trying to have a conversation (usually about 20 minutes).
  • Don’t expect your child to “fix” the issue right away. Discuss how you can work together to tackle this problem in the future, give her time to process, and allow her to try again.
  • Come up with a “safe word” or gesture your child can use to indicate she’s becoming frustrated or upset. When she does use it, make sure to step back and allow her to calm down before continuing the conversation.
  • If needed, use a social story to help your child identify her own feelings and understand the feelings of others. (Pop culture references, like the movie Inside Out, are also good.)

 

Look for triggers in your environment.

  • Monitor your child’s use of electronics, keeping in mind that signs of deregulation can manifest as late as 30-90 minutes after screen time has stopped.
  • Be mindful of how many activities your child’s doing each day, including Zoom calls. Even if she enjoys these activities, too many transitions can be stressful and exhausting.
  • Make sure your child is physically active. Sensory diets have been shown to help improve concentration, alertness, and calmness in children with sensory issues.
  • Avoid teasing, nagging, or other antagonistic behaviors that might result in an outsized reaction. Make sure siblings have time apart.
  • Children react to how parents manage stress. Make time to care for yourselfeven though it’s hardand demonstrate healthy ways to manage stress and talk about feeling deregulated. (“Mommy’s a little overwhelmed right now. My brain feels scrambled, and I need a break.”)

Create good transition habits.

  • Allow 10-20 minutes of transition time between each activity if at all possible. Avoid multitasking during this time.
  • Help your child come up with a transition ritual. This can include screen time, quiet time, or any number of activities that will help her regulate and ramp up to the next task.
  • Remember, too many transitions can be exhausting and lead to meltdowns. Be aware of how many activities your child’s doing in a given day and look for signs of deregulation.