Anxiety is a surprisingly common problem in children. If your child has sensory processing issues or sensory hypersensitivity, you may have already witnessed how these can bring about or intensify anxiety. These sensory issues aren’t always limited to one type of sensory input. Hypersensitivity can be found in any sensory system, and affect a person in one, two, or several systems at once. The intensity of experience common to sensory hypersensitivity, sensory processing issues, or other sensory issues can be a challenge for anyone, but for a child it can be overwhelming.
For instance, to children with tactile hypersensitivity, a sock seam might feel like the scratchy side of Velcro on tender skin. A voice that seems perfectly normal to most people might be painfully loud. Children who experience sensory input this intensely may naturally avoid or try to delay situations where they will be overstimulated by the offending sensations.
Anticipating future situations like these naturally leads anxiety-prone children to worry. A child may worry so much that anxiety becomes a day-to-day response. As parents, we are in a very good position to help our children avoid these pitfalls, and to develop good-feeling, healthy habits and attitudes.
There are many positive and healthy ways to manage anxiety that stems from sensory issues. Three examples of anxiety neutralizers are understanding, fun, and mindfulness.
Understanding is key—both understanding oneself, and feeling understood by others. Understanding the relationship between one’s own hypersensitivity and anxiety can be empowering for children. Feeling understood by others, especially by parents, makes a big difference. Both of these will ease fears, and as parent, you are in the perfect position to help.
Children need to know that their parents understand where they are coming from, and that they are not being judged. Parents can ask questions, acknowledge their children’s feelings, and help them develop an action plan.
For example, if your child has a fear of leaving the house before school, listen carefully to your child and seek out the underlying problem. Convey that you understand. Help your child express herself using words, so that instead of reacting to her anxieties with a tantrum, she can explain the discomfort. Feeling understood helps your child feel nurtured and supported, and helps promote positive coping skills.
Likewise, your child needs to understand himself. Educate your child about his brain function. Explain that a special part of his brain works to keep him safe. When this part of the brain gets a message from a sensory organ (such as the skin, eyes, nose, tongue, or ears), it responds accordingly.
For instance, when nerves on his hand send a message to his brain that the stove feels hot, his brain responds quickly by moving his hand away from the heat. Likewise, if his brain receives a message that something seems wrong or unknown (like intense smells, loud sounds, etc.), his brain does its best to understand (interpret) the sensory information and respond in ways that might keep his body safe.
In people with hypersensitivities, the signals from the sensory organs send some messages to the brain that are intensified, amplified, or confusing. This is why the brain might send a message saying “Be anxious!” to the body so that it will be ready to run, hide, or maybe even fight.
Just knowing the cause of anxiety won’t make it go away, but it’s a beginning. Your child may need the support of a licensed, qualified therapist to develop positive and healthy coping skills, but learning to pay attention to their own feelings when anxious can be very helpful right from the start.
The sensations linked to having fun can be powerful against worries and sensory intensities. Fun is not a direct antidote to be applied during an emotional crisis or time of heightened anxiety, but rather a component to build upon and reinforce.
Habitual anxiety can distract a child’s natural inclination toward play, humor, and wonder. Facilitate your sensitive and anxious child’s sense of adventure. Point out when you notice joy and positive feelings. Laugh together (but never laugh at your child). Identify and help your child find humor, and use a sense of humor as a positive coping skill.
Serenity, feeling calm and at peace, is the opposite of anxiety. One way serenity can be found is by breathing naturally and being fully present in the moment. This type of focus on the here-and-now is called mindfulness. Presence of mind comes with practice. For some, mindfulness is second nature. For the rest of us it’s a state we can learn to live in.
There are specific skills and habits that can be adopted to build a more mindful way of living. Mindfulness techniques have been proven to reduce anxiety, which in turn can reduce the intensity of sensory overstimulation. It is worthwhile to make time to teach your children how to focus on the present moment, and to be more mindful.
Learning about your child’s sensitivity or anxiety, communicating your understanding and support, and focusing on positive feelings can go a long way toward promoting excellent mental health. Your attitude as you travel this path is very powerful. Hold firmly the belief that your child can find peace and calmness. This can generate confidence and mastery. Your approach will be reflected in your attitudes and expectations, which can encourage your own efforts and help your child better cope, overcome difficulties, and ultimately thrive.
- Brown, A. P., Marquis, A., Guiffrida, D. A. (2013). Mindfulness-based Interventions in Counseling. Journal of Counseling and Development, 91(1), 96-104.
- Engel-Yeger, B, Dunn, W. (2011). The Relationship Between Sensory Processing Difficulties and Anxiety Level of Healthy Adults. British Journal of Occupational Therapy, 74(5), 210-216.
- Felver, J. C., Doerner, E., Jones, J., Kaye, N. C., Merrell, K. W. (2013). Mindfulness In School Psychology: Applications for intervention and professional practice. Psychology in the Schools, 50(6), 531-547.
- Gourley, L., Wind, C., Henninger, E., Chinitz, S. (2013). Sensory Processing Difficulties, Behavioral Problems, and Parental Stress in a Clinical Population of Young Children. Journal of Child & Family Studies, 22(7), 912-921.
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