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When the Tantrums Won’t Stop: Understanding the Impact of Sensory Triggers

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“Alicia” was an active, talkative four-year-old, but even the smallest change in her morning routine could throw her into fits of whining, crying, and hitting. If her mother tried to put her in a top other than one of two soft, light-blue t-shirts she preferred, Alicia screamed and sobbed wildly. Just being in  crowded restaurants or stores caused the girl such distress that she frequently experienced public meltdowns, forcing one of her parents to carry her outside.

Her loving parents found it nearly impossible to provide the extra attention Alicia needed each morning while they got her and her brother ready for school. Exhausted and frustrated, they had consulted two therapists and dozens of parenting books without success, and their marriage was suffering under the strain. “She’s so controlling,” her mother told me on their first visit to my office, “she practically runs the family.”

Indeed, tantrums are among the most common and perplexing challenges all parents of young children face. Often, parents feel a child is simply being inflexible, strong-willed, or controlling. But sometimes tantrums are an indication of more serious problems. When a toddler’s tantrums become extreme and repetitive, happening daily and triggered by seemingly ordinary things, this may signal that your child is in a stress response, a state of anxiety that she can’t understand or explain.

Alicia’s tantrums, for instance, were not simply an emotional problem, as her parents initially suspected, but rather her response to an extreme sense of unease she felt in her body. After they described their daughter’s challenges and I observed her over several consultations, we discovered some telling patterns. For one, Alicia was highly sensitive to the feel of certain textures on her skin, so that when she felt compelled to wear an unfamiliar fabric, she panicked. She was also overly sensitive to certain sound frequencies—which explained why the din of conversation at restaurants and malls caused her such anxiety. Her tantrums weren’t an assertion of her will; they were fight or flight reactions to anxiety triggered by these intense (and invisible) physical reactions.

Alicia and her parents began working with an occupational therapist, who helped her learn to cope with the sensory experiences that had previously triggered her tantrums. After a few months of play- based occupational therapy, Alicia became more comfortable with textures she had always avoided: the soft, squishy feel of whipped cream, and the rough texture of sand, and a wide range of fabrics on her skin. She also began utilizing headphones to help her adjust to noisy environments. Listening to soothing sounds or favorites songs while strolling through the mall with her mother dramatically lessened the public tantrums.

The lesson for all parents is that extreme tantrums with recognizable patterns may signal unease in your child’s body, which influences the child’s emotions. Yet many adults who work with young children—including pediatricians, preschool teachers, and even psychologists neglect to pay attention to these sensory reactions. Why? Most training for professionals assumes a split between the mind and body, a division that separates the children’s emotional life from their physical reactions—including how they process sensory information.

If your child is experiencing predictable and persistent tantrums, consider that he may be feeling unease in his body, which is intimately connected to the mind and to emotions. If your child is experiencing anxiety and ensuing tantrums because of sensory issues, then you may observe the following:

Ÿ* A consistent pattern linked to daily activities, such as having hair washed, touching particular textures, hearing certain noises, or eating or smelling certain foods.

Ÿ *An excessive need to exert control that goes beyond simply asserting independence.

Ÿ *Neither discipline nor positive reinforcement helps to curb the behaviors.

Ÿ *Your child appears confused or angry when reprimanded for the tantrum or resulting behaviors.

Ÿ *Your child cannot explain why he is upset or reacts strongly to seemingly innocuous requests.

In many cases, an evaluation by an occupational therapist can be useful—particularly a therapist who has additional training in mental health. Tantrums have numerous meanings and causes, however, as each child is unique and different.  It is important to consult a licensed specialist in early childhood mental health and development if you have questions about your child’s emotional well-being. No matter what the reason for the tantrum, it’s always beneficial to offer an empathic, patient and loving presence, which will help your child find the way back to a calm state.

My new book explains how all childhood providers can support children’s social and emotional development.

I invite you to comment, join my newsletter and visit my Facebook page, where I post resources for parents and professionals.

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