Originally, I thought my toddler was just a really difficult toddler since toddlerhood and temper tantrums go hand in hand. It wasn’t until someone pointed out that it seemed like my child was sensitive to sensory that I started to take note.
Sure enough, I quickly saw a pattern in her temper tantrums. My child was sensory sensitive or had a sensory processing disorder.
At first, I felt very helpless on how to help her until my preschool teacher friend who specializes as a paraprofessional taught me ways to help desensitize my toddler. Another way to get help is through an OT or occupational therapist who specializes in sensory.
Here I share with you my journey through helping my toddler with being sensory sensitive. I honestly can’t believe how much she has changed over the course of a year all because I was given strategies to help her.
What sensory sensitivity looks like? What can a toddler be sensitive to?
Basically, you have five senses: sight, hearing, touch, smell and taste. Sensory sensitive means you are sensitive in either one, or more, of the five senses. For instance, if you are sensory sensitive in hearing, then loud noises might really bother you.
Your toddler might be sensory sensitive if they don’t like:
- The way things feel on their body like clothing or things on their hands (tactile defensive)
- The way food smells or tastes or the texture of food (picky eater)
- Loud noises
- Bright lights
- Being in very hot or cold weather (temperature sensitive)
- To do specific movements such as climbing, stairs, swings (vestibular)
- Very busy environments (over-stimulated)
- Uncomfortable when others are too close or crowds
What was my toddler sensitive to?
My child is sensitive in all five senses to different degrees. We would have meltdowns such as temper tantrums or just lots of screaming (especially before she had a lot of words). And even after she had words, it was like she couldn’t access them because she was in overload. These were her biggest sensory sensitivities:
- Hated hot days and refused to play outside in the heat resulting in big playground meltdowns
- Didn’t like overstimulating or busy environments
- Didn’t want other kids to sit next to her or be in her bubble
- Wasn’t a fan of anything (sand, grass, mess) touching her hands
- Didn’t like baths or water play
- Was a picky eater
- Hated loud noises
So when your child is having trouble, pause and try to see if it might be sensory related. For example, is it hot? Is it very stimulating? Keep this up and you will start to see patterns if your child is sensory sensitive. You can even try to keep a journal.
Other reasons your toddler might be sensitive?
Sometimes, what might look like a sensory sensitivity might actually come from a bad experience. For instance, my friend’s toddler is terrified of loud noises since they had their fire alarm go off in the middle of the night multiple nights from malfunctioning. While she doesn’t have a sensory processing disorder, she freaks out at loud noises. The way she gets over that fear is the same way you work on sensory sensitivity: desensitizing.
How do you desensitize a toddler?
Alright so what did I do (and you can do too) to help a toddler with really any sensory sensitivity?
1. Do not avoid it
If you avoid what your toddler is sensory sensitive to, then it will get worse. I initially did this because it appeared to me that she didn’t like it and I was sick of the meltdowns it caused. By avoiding it, I made the situation and her sensitivity to it 100 percent worse.
This is because the process of desensitizing is to continually expose them to it in small amounts until they can handle it. Additionally, by avoiding it, I was validating that it was bad.
2. Start EXTREMELY (and I mean extremely) small
The whole idea behind desensitizing is that you must come to their level first. Once there, you start to build their tolerance.
Let’s say someone is sensitive to overstimulating busy crowded environments. A terrible idea is to bring them to a concert. Instead, you would start (for a toddler) with a quiet museum, then a story time, then a dance class, followed by the busy wild playground. As you see each setting is a littler busier and more unstructured and louder than the previous one.
You increase exposure and every time the person successfully overcomes the fear in small amounts, they build confidence and a positive association.
Additionally, on a neuro level, the body becomes “desensitized” to it, the more they are exposed to the sensation.
3. Find fun ways increase exposure EVERY DAY
This can be really anything, you need get creative here.
You find ways to get them in contact with what they are sensitive to every day. Multiple times a day is better and try to make it fun. You are also building a positive association because every time child experiences it and realizes “it’s okay”, they are gaining confidence.
An important part of increasing exposure is that it is fun. Since children learn through play, adding sensory play every day is key. Thankfully, there are many ways to do this.
My child who is tactile sensitive, really hated the way water felt or being wet. If your toddler is terrified of a bath or water in general, then you need to be starting with drops of water. So, here are the activities we did:
- Read books about baths, rain and other kid books about water
- Splash in a puddle with rainboots
- Go out in the rain with an umbrella
- Sink play (get a chair or learning tower for them to stand on. Give them a bunch of plastic cups and let them “wash” the dishes).
- Get a small plastic bin of water and wash a baby doll, wash toys or float a boat
- Do swim lessons (slowly getting through more of the class each time)
- Get some Scribble Scrubbie Pets for the older toddler
- Have a sprinkler on low so they can stick their feet in it
- Water the flowers with a watering can
- Buy or DIY a water table for outside
And honestly, water play is great sensory play, so I really recommend it for all toddlers no matter what they are sensitive to. Also, if you have a hard time with bath or water sensitivity, I wrote a guide to navigating bath time temper tantrums.
Depending on the sensory sensitivity you are trying to work on, kid story books on the topic and group play/story times are a great place to start. Also think of toys or other items that encourage using that sense.
For instance, maybe you want to grab an instrument set for a toddler who is sensitive to loud noise. Or play pots and pans daily where you throw in a loud bang here and there. Play more music at home or join a music toddler class. I would also make a point to vacuum on room a day.
If you have a picky eater, then check out this picky eater toddler game I used to make trying new foods fun.
4. Check your reactions
During all of these fun experiences, you must check your reaction. They are going to model their reaction off of how you react to them.
Be excited and happy even if your toddler is not
First, be as excited and happy as you can be. When they freak out and lose their mind, do not get frustrated. Your frustration will be perceived by them as validating their experience. They think wow this makes mommy really mad; it is a bad thing!
Give them tools
When they have reached meltdown, they have reached the tipping point. They have the level they can handle. You challenge that level by continually exposing them. The onset of the meltdown is when they have reached their breaking point.
At this point, I keep my reactions in check by being calm and happy. I put into words what they are feeling such as you are feeling hot, you are feeling itchy, etc. The more they hear these words, the sooner they will be able to use them and tell me when it happens.
I then give them some options and tools so that when they learn techniques that will help. It might be let’s take a drink of water, let’s find a quiet space and take some deep breaths, or let’s switch shirts, etc.
Try really hard to find a way to stick out the experience or the activity
While you try and find activities that help to desensitize your toddler, you might find that it is a struggle to expose them without a temper tantrum.
So this means if you are somewhere like a story time, then you do not leave completely if your child is losing it. You can walk out and give your child a chance to cool down and then once calm, try again. You can also find a quieter space in a group setting and work your way to joining the busier space in the room. Your goal is to find a middle ground or starting point.
For instance, we tried playing in the sprinkler and my toddler lost it. So we had to turn it down and she would stand near it and put a stick or wand in the water. And that was where we needed to start.
Eventually, she would jump over the sprinkler (barely getting wet). I would turn it up a little more each day. Now, she is fine getting drenched, but it took a conscious effort on our part to challenge her a little bit each day and continually work at it.
Try role reversals
If your reactions matter so much, then even better is for them to see you enjoying it.
For example, if my toddler is screaming about her shirt being wet, then I say cool! I want my shirt to be wet. I then either splash or pour water on my shirt or I give her a cup of water and ask her to pour it on me. (I know, the things we do for our kids…)
And it made a big difference for her. I will either get in the tub or if it is nice, I’ll let her dump water on me outside. The main point of this game is to let them be in control of the water (or sensory play). It is a role reversal. During such play, she would watch my reactions intensely. The sillier and happier your reactions, the better.
Pursue Sensory Sensitivity Today
Being a parent is hard. Children do not come with a manual. I had no idea what sensory sensitive was or how to help my child with it when I first heard about it.
Hopefully by sharing what I have learned about toddlers and sensory sensitivity, I can also help you. Start by trying to see if a specific pattern exists with temper tantrums.
If you see that specific experiences or situations bother your toddler, try to help them desensitize by continually exposing them. Remember small everyday exposures are best. Toddlers learn through play so make it fun. Lastly, be sure to check your reactions as they will take note of how you respond. Lastly, try a role reversal and let them watch you experience the sensory.
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