The that Role Sensory Input Plays in Meltdowns

We want to find out, how come it is that on some days your child is pretty regulated, but other days, they have meltdowns? It turns out that we all have a certain amount of sensory input from our environment that we can tolerate before we become dysregulated.  This difference can be based on time of day, whether hungry or thirsty, not enough sleep, stressed out about something, not feeling well.

Experts say that children from early trauma, abuse, or neglect backgrounds experience sensitivities in the way they process sensory information, and these sensitivities can decrease their ability to tolerate stress. Please know that even in a loving and attentive home, some children are just born wired for some sensory differences. It doesn’t mean you as a parent did anything wrong. But in our population of hurt kids, we do often see sensory differences. So, I am suggesting that you become a detective and notice your child’s environment to see how you can make an adjustment, if necessary.

Just like learning about the brain can help children understand what is happening to them during a meltdown, also, learning a little about sensory processing can help them understand themselves better too. So the way I explain sensory processing is in a really simplified version; how you might teach your child. I am making this really simplified.

Image result for different size cups

We can easily think if sensory process as if we have a ‘cup’ which will hold the amount of sensory input in our environment. You can have a big cup or a little cup for sensory information. If you have a big cup it takes a lot of sensory input to fill your cup. If you have a little cup it doesn’t take much sensory input and your cup is full or overflowing. You can have a big cup for some senses and a little cup for others.

If the child’s environment is too sensory rich, or if it doesn’t provide enough sensory input, this can reduce their ability to regulate their emotions.

Think about your child and see if you can figure out whether their cups are large or small – in other words, whether they are sensory seekers or sensory avoiders. Let’s

start with smells.

I was told this story from an adopted 18 years old,  that certain cooking smells used to trigger early memories in his birth country. He said, “I’d be going along in my day, everything going just fine and then I’d smell something and all of a sudden I would be in a bad mood for the rest of the day.” If his parents or caregivers had known this ahead of time, they could have done things to eliminate that smell trigger for him, or prepare him for it, maybe de-sensitize him. But smell isn’t just a trigger like that, bringing back, in his case unpleasant memories. Some children are just more sensitive to certain smells and the smell – not an associated memory- can dysregulate them.  Cooking, cleaning supplies, other people, perfume, school supplies like markers and glue are possible culprits. Begin to notice if your child is affected by either seeking or avoiding certain smells.


School cafeterias are the worst for smells and SOUND. Sometimes home isn’t much better. We had one of those large, busy and active families, and can I be honest, I am super sensitive to sound. My poor children were taught to be quieter than what was their comfort level because *I* needed it in order to function. I homeschooled them and let me tell you, we did a lot of things outside, where they could use their ‘outside voices’ when they were younger.

Other noises at home might be voices, appliances like the vacuum, a hair dryer, a blender. But there is the other end of the spectrum. Some houses are too quiet for some children. There’s the story of the 6-year-old, who, for example, freaks out if her environment is too quiet. She’ll manufacture her own noise to reach her own comfort level. If her caregivers didn’t know this about her, and they weren’t ok making allowances for that need in her, they’d probably butt heads a lot if the family didn’t like loud noises.

Some children have sensitivities to certain tastes. Maybe don’t extend the invitation to join the ‘clean plate club’ if there is a chance that your child has taste sensitivities. Go ahead and pass that hot sauce even if they ask to put it on your grandma’s prized casserole dish.

Some children, from the time they are old enough to move around on their own, will find the toy basket and DUMP IT ALL ON THE GROUND. These kids have to have a messy environment. They crave that visual stimulation. For other children, this kind of visual chaos is dysregulating. Often our kids won’t tell us that these things are bothering them, so we have to be intentional about finding it out.

The one who runs at full speed to give you a hug and is always up in your face is a touch sensory seeker. It’s a delicate balance between teaching them good personal boundaries and not making them feel ashamed for their need for deeper touch stimulation.  On the opposite end would be the child who avoids certain textures, or recoils at hugs.

The last two senses are proprioception and vestibular, which are also two general types of body movements that your kiddos can do which actually increase their ability to regulate. We’ll talk about those in a future blog post.

For now, be aware that there may be things in your child’s environment that make it harder for them to regulate and make them more prone to meltdowns. When you can teach even young kids about sensory processing, you can let them know that they are not a bad kid for having times of the day or certain environments that are hard for them to keep it all together.

Knowing that you are on their side even when they are having a really hard day can make all the difference on the world to them. And to you!

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