Lots of children really enjoy sensory experiences from a young age and a lot of adults enjoy them too – think of the pleasure of putting your hot feet into the cool sea on a hot summer’s day or running sand through your fingers on the beach.
Sensory experiences are used a lot in therapy to support children and teens, including: using them as self-regulation; experiencing the pre-trauma self; integrating left and right brain hemisphere experiences and improving the neural connectivity between the two sides of the brain; integrating senso-somatic experiences; linking the conscious and the subconscious and also just for fun.
Some children and teens love the sensory aspects of play and creative arts therapy, others are very clear about their preferences. Both approaches are OK. If you are thinking of integrating more sensory experiences into play at home, please remember that every person has individual preferences and just because it’s on a list of ‘things to do’, it doesn’t mean your child or teen will want to do it.
Some people are highly sensitive to some sensations and this should always be respected.
Some children and teens are sensory sensitive, and some are sensory seekers. Some mix between the two depending on how they are feeling and what else is going on.
Sometimes a child or teen can go very quickly from being under-stimulated to being completely over-stimulated totally baffling those around them. (If you remember tickle fights as a kid, asking for more and then bursting into tears, you’ll know exactly the sort of thing I mean…)
For children and teens living with sensory challenges, whether or not they have been diagnosed with Sensory Processing Disorder (SPD) the world generally and sensory experiences in particular, can be challenging, scary or downright terrifying. (More on SPD in another post in the future.)
When attempting to provide your child or teen with appropriate sensory responses always respect their right not to participate, give them options where possible and let their preferences guide you as to what is and what is not pleasurable for them. Their discomfort or fear is their nervous system’s reaction to the experience (whether real or imagined in your opinion) is real for them and not something they can control.
Children and teens who are sensory seekers are often ‘on the go’ a lot of the time. They are often highly physical and are looking for opportunities to respond positively to intense forms of sensory feedback. They’re the ones that go through the house sounding like a herd of stampeding elephants and take every opportunity to run, jump, kick, push and generally crash about. Meeting their need for intense physical activity into safe experiences will allow them to find calm.
Children and teens who are sensitive to certain sensations such as textures, tastes, smells, lights and noises may want their sensory experiences to be calming to their nervous systems.
At home, try to incorporate their preferences into everyday experiences as well as into their play and recreation. Try and match their household chores to their preferences – for example, a sensory seeker who likes ‘heavy work’ might love digging in the garden or lugging the shopping in from the car whereas a child or teen who is easily overloaded from a sensory perspective might enjoy folding laundry or tidying a drawer whilst listening to soothing music.
If you are planning rewards (or sanctions) think about what best meets your child’s sensory needs. Forcing a sensory seeker to sit and reflect on the naughty step might not be the best solution and neither is taking a sensory sensitive child to the fairground if they hate loud music, crowds and bright lights.