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.

Teaching Your Sensory-Sensitive Child to Ride a Bike

Spring has sprung, and it’s time to break out the bikes! Learning to ride a bike is a right of passage for many children, and it’s a skill they can take with them their entire lives.

While SPD and other sensory issues present some unique challenges, you can help your child feel safe and confident by breaking the process up into small, simple steps and allowing him to go at his own pace. Below is a method we’ve found successful with our own children–feel free to use it as a starting point and modify as needed.

Above all, stay positive and remember to celebrate the small victories. Good luck!

Sensory Challenges

The Issue: Sensory Overload

Becoming irritated or overwhelmed by physical sensations like the wind blowing in his face, uncomfortable safety gear, or the sight of objects whizzing by quickly

What to Do

Let your child pick out his own helmet and pads and add extra cloth or padding if needed. Introduce new textures and sensations slowly.

The Issue: Vestibular Processing

Problems with balance, motion, or spatial orientation, such as feeling out of control, unsteady, or too far away from the ground

What to Do

Consider getting a tricycle, scooter, or balance bike first. Practice balancing and moving with speed before making the leap to a regular bike.

The Issue: Motor-Based Problems

Difficulties maintaining stamina, determining the order in which to make certain movements, or coordinating different muscle groups

What to Do

Break new skills down into small, simple steps and use repetition to reinforce new concepts. Physically guide your child through the process.

The Issue: Sensory Discrimination

Inability to properly gauge the distance between objects, the different shapes of street signs, or how much force is being used to pedal or turn

What to Do

Practice telling the difference between the shapes of two signs, the distance between two toys, or whether  he’s going fast or slow. Make it a game and have him try to “trick” you.

The Issue: Fear

Meltdowns, anxiety, or refusal to practice caused by any of the above issues

What to Do

Be supportive and patient. Make sure your child is regulated before you begin, and allow him to go at his own pace.

Note

Learning to Ride

  1. Have your child sit on the bike and stand directly in front of him so he can see everything you’re doing and knows you’re in control. Slowly move the handlebars left to right, back and forth, so he can both see and feel the movement.
  2. Have him practice getting on and off the bike while you continue to hold it steady.
  3. Slightly tilt the bike in either direction, as if it’s going to fall, and have him practice “catching” himself by leaning and putting his foot down on the correct side.
  4. Continue to hold the handlebars and have him practice getting on and off as you tilt. Make sure to practice on both sides until he’s comfortable.
  5. Stand behind the bike and repeat step #3 using the balance bar. When he’s comfortable with his footing, start tipping the bike farther–just enough so that he must catch himself.
  6. Use the balance bar to push the bike slowly forward. Have him practice steering while you keep the bike upright and steady. Move on to pedaling and braking when he’s mastered steering.
  7. Continue to hold on, but encourage him to go faster. Make a game of seeing if he can “make Mommy/Daddy run.” Let him be completely in control of speed and stopping. 
  8. Tell him you can let go whenever he’s ready–and when he tells you to let go, do it! Practice pedaling and stopping over and over until he doesn’t fall and can confidently control the bike on his own.
  9. Start working on turns. Place cones or toys in a parking lot or other open space and have him weave around and through them. Focus on slowing down and making wide swings around objects, and move the objects closer together as he gets comfortable.

Have another suggestion? Let us know in the comments!

Sensory Spotlight: Auditory (Sound)

This is the second installment in our Sensory Spotlight series.

The auditory system is responsible for the body’s sense of hearing. It allows us to detect and locate sounds in our environment, to identify them, and to determine which sounds are important and which can be tuned out. Children with auditory processing issues may crave loud or repetitive noises, become overwhelmed or distracted by everyday sounds, or be unable to detect sounds in their environment. You can read more about how the auditory system works on the STAR Institute’s website.

See below for a quick guide on identifying auditory seeking, avoiding, and discrimination issues in children.

Auditory Seekers May:

  • Seek out loud or busy environments.
  • Seem to always be yelling or speaking too loudly.
  • Make repetitive sounds, such as clapping, tapping, or clicking.
  • Have difficulty focusing on a task without humming or making noise.
  • Prefer to have constant background noise, such as music, TV, or a fan.
  • Insist on listening to TV or music at a volume that is uncomfortable to others.

Auditory Avoiders May:

  • Seek out quiet or secluded environments.
  • Frequently cover their ears and react to loud or high-pitched noises as if in pain.
  • Become easily distracted by background noises others can’t detect.
  • Be bothered or extremely irritated by repetitive or specific sounds.
  • Be startled and extremely frightened by unexpected sounds.
  • Become overwhelmed and frustrated while working in loud, busy environments.
  • Engage in repetitive, self-soothing activities, such as rocking or chewing.

Those with Auditory Discrimination Disorder May:

  • Speak too loudly or too softly.
  • Appear unresponsive or confused when given verbal directions.
  • Take longer than usual to process and respond to verbal directions.
  • Be unable to distinguish between background and foreground noises.
  • Have difficulty distinguishing between similar sounding words (cat, rat, sat).

Spring Break Tips: Traveling with Sensory Needs

The holidays are just barely over, but Spring Break is already coming up fast! Whether you’re planning on relaxing at home or flying off to Disney World, accounting for your child’s sensory sensitivities can feel overwhelming–but, with a little extra thought and careful planning, it can be done!

See below for a few of our favorite tips on tackling spring break and traveling with sensory needs.

Tips for Traveling with Sensory Needs

  • Don’t stop at online research. Call up the resort, park, or club and talk about your child’s specific needs and available accommodations. (Disney, for example, has a wide variety of services for patrons with disabilities.)
  • Keep your routine as intact as possible. If you can, rent a house or Airbnb instead of getting a hotel room. This will give you more control over meal prep, baths, and sleeping arrangements.
  • Practice good transitions. Take the few minutes between activities to make sure your child has a bathroom break, a snack, or even just a few deep breaths.
  • Pack for your child’s sensory triggers. Helpful items might include noise-canceling headphones, sunglasses, smelling jars, or a picky eater’s favorite snack.
  • Plan your stops. If you’re driving, pack a cooler and eat at rest areas or parks instead of restaurants. Build in time to let your child run around and burn off excess energy.
  • Keep your own expectations in check. Leave plans open-ended whenever possible. Rather than trying to stick to a rigid schedule, try to do just one or two things each day.
  • Make sure your child knows what to expect. Print out maps, brochures, and photos from Google or Yelp and go over them together. Practice waiting in line and develop strategies for dealing with overwhelming situations.
  • Build in downtime. Each member of the family should have time to go for a walk, read a book, or do whatever calms and centers them. Remember, taking time for yourself will allow you to be more present and able to fully enjoy your time together.

Some Tips for Staying Home

  • Keep your routine as intact as possible. If you do need to change up your family’s schedule, talk to your child about how this week will be different than usual.
  • Take day trips. Shorter, focused outings are generally cheaper and allow you to maintain more control over meals, timing, etc.
  • Look for less trafficked alternatives to popular destinations. Check out smaller train or art museums, or go see your local minor league team instead of the Cubs.
  • Know when other schools are on break. Keep in mind that play places and other popular destinations will be much, much busier than usual.