If I had a dollar for every parent that asked me if head banging when frustrated means their child has a sensory processing disorder...well, I would be writing this post from a suite in Tahiti. Modulation of arousal is the most common sensory processing concern for the parents that I see as a pediatric occupational therapist. Their children struggle to transition, don’t handle change well, and can’t shift gears easily. But hold on. A lot of this behavior in children under 3 is developmental in nature. Not all, but a lot. Parsing it out and addressing it takes a paradigm shift. Not every annoying or difficult behavior is atypical for age and temperament.
Everyone knows that you can’t expect your infant to self-regulate. Nobody tells their baby “Just wait a little; why can’t you be like your brother and sit quietly for a minute?” But why do adults assume that once a child can speak and walk a bit that they can handle frustration, wait patiently, and calm down quickly?
I know parents WANT that to be the case. Toddlers are a handful on a good day. Adorable silliness can melt your heart, but getting smacked by an angry child that was just given a consequence for trying to put your cell phone in the toilet to see if it would float? Nah, that isn’t going to put a smile on your face. Parents tell me “If they could only understand that when I say “wait”, I mean that you will get what you want, just not immediately.” But no. The toddler brain grows very slowly, and even the super-bright children who read at 3 cannot make their emotional brain grow any faster. Sorry. Really. This brain thing means years of developing communication and regulation skills.
Here is the good news: Even young children with clear sensory-based behaviors do better when your responses to their behaviors help them self-calm. The recipe is simple to describe. You give limits based on age, use familiar routines, teach emotional language and responses by modeling, and communicate effectively. The Happiest Toddler strategies have transformed my work because children feel listened to but I don’t give in to toddler terrorists. Everybody wins.
Here is the bad news: You have to change your behavior in order to help them. And you have to do it consistently and with loving acceptance of their limitations. “Behavior” isn’t just their problem. It is both of yours. Take a look at my posts on Happiest Toddler techniques that really work for the little ones, and see if your suspicions of a sensory processing disorder wane or even evaporate as you and your child learn some valuable communication and self-calming skills. The posts that can alter things today might be Nip Toddler Biting in the Bud, Toddlers Too Young For Time Out Can Get Simple Consequences and Kind Ignoring, and How To Get Your Toddler To Wait For Anything (Hint: They hear “Wait” as “No”)
Good luck, and let me know what works for you!