Being a parent to a child with sensory processing sensitivity

By Shalhevet Halivni, Parenting Counselor

Children with Sensory Processing Disorder (SPD) have a hard time regulating the intensity of their behavioral responses to sensory stimuli they receive from their environment or even their own body. It’s not easy to diagnose children with SPD because each child experiences the sensory information at a different level and intensity, and their behavioral responses vary from one child to another.


There are three type of Sensory Processing Disorder:


Over-Reactive

The response to sensory stimulus is excessive, powerful, rapid or long-term. This includes sensitivity to loud noises, bright light, smell, or touch. For example, oversensitivity to touch: a toddler might scream in crowded places and later choose to avoid crowded events. Another child may try to avoid human contact, feeling uncomfortable with various fabrics on their body, or avoid food with certain textures.


Under-Reactive

The response to sensory stimulus is reduced, slow or lacking. These kids may appear apathetic and unmotivated, they may attend activities but would not be engaged, they do not always pay attention to changes around them. Under-sensitive kids do not always feel normal contact and therefore they may not pay attention to dirt, they constantly trip over things.


Sensory Seeking

The response to sensory stimulus is a constant search of powerful and prolonged sensory experiences. These kids are very active, they constantly jump on furniture, touch everything and get dirty very often, they are able to dismantle everything. They need to touch and be touched a lot, sometimes they need a deeper and stronger physical contact. They experience eating with all of their senses, constantly touching and squeezing food. If an object is in their way, they will not hesitate to move it away. Sometimes it is expressed as violence and aggression towards their environment.


We can explain the different sensory processing issues by using glasses and water as a metaphor:

  • Imagine a measuring cup filled up all the way with water. That’s a sensory BALANCED child.

  • Now take a smaller glass and try to pour the same amount of water into it. Water will spill over and make a mess. This is the OVER-REACTIVE kid to sensory information.

  • Now take bigger a cup and pour the same amount of water into it. The liquid will only fill some of it. This is the SENSORY SEEKING kid. His glass is never full, and he has a constant need to fill it, which leads to constant search of stimulation.

  • The UNDER-REACTIVE child is outside the cup and is not really aware of what’s happening in the cup.


You may ask yourself why would a Parent Coach need to be aware of SPD? Isn’t that what an occupational therapist is for? The answer is that a family with children who struggle to regulate their sensory information can go through enormous emotional upheavals, stress and other challenges. When family members fail to understand the source of a behavior they respond inappropriately and add a new problem of emotional regulation. Parents often seek professional help when the pain is already great and the dynamic at home and outside is unbearable. Once the family understands the problem, they can help the child through treatment with an occupational therapist.


We all have expectations of what our kids should be and when those expectations are not met, we start a loop of anger and frustration, which disturbs the balance of our family dynamic.

Think of a mother who is very neat and expects her house / car/ cloths to always be clean. She has a child with high need for sensory seeking who jumps on furniture, constantly gets dirty, moves objects around the house. This mother would be very agitated by her child’s behaviors and forbid certain activities. The child would not have an outlet to answer his needs and would start to build anger and search for other opportunities to fulfil his needs. They would have negative encounters which would quickly hurt their relationship.

Imagine a baby who struggles with emotional regulation. She does not stop crying. The parents check her diaper, try to feed her, try to get her to sleep, calm her down and nothing helps...

  • She could be oversensitive to light the lighting is not pleasant for her.

  • She could be oversensitive to noise and hears the rain, or dogs barking outside.

  • She could be oversensitive to touch and something in her outfit is bothering her.

Once we are aware of the issue, we can make life so much easier for our sensory kids.


Even when the child can talk, he may not know how to communicate his discomfort and would express himself through crying, tantrums, or other challenging behavior. It’s our job to figure out the source of the behaviors and find the best solution for our child.


Sensory Seeking kids may seem like ADHD or hyperactive. Under-reactivity can be misinterpreted as autism and overactivity can turn into an emotional problem. Sometimes a child could be oversensitive in one area (e.g. sound) and under-sensitive in another area (e.g. touch).

Not every challenging behavior demonstrated by a child indicates a problem with sensory regulation. All of us could experience discomfort as a result of vacuum or mixer noise, many of us feel nausea in a car ride or as a result of bad odor. This is normal and would be considered a problem only if we experience it as an intolerable distress. When kids are overwhelmed emotionally, they most likely feel real physical pain. A child whose needs are not met suffers and would do anything in their power to fulfil those needs and that’s where the behavioral issues begin.



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